TikTok Takes Off

CityNews journalist Vanessa Doban outside of the Rogers Media offices in Vancouver. Photo by Fay Lam

New outlets are expanding their content while navigating the new chart-topping platform — TikTok

By Alaina Saint Amour

Up to its neck in water, a cow is tugged by a rope. In the background, a man on a jet ski leads another cow through some murky flood water. 

In the next scene, a herd of cattle is guided around floating cars and debris by men on row boats, leading them to the shore. By the end of the minute and-a-half vignette, the cattle are seen walking on dry land.

This CityNews Vancouver TikTok video, from November 2021, showed in a devastating snapshot the floods that ravaged B.C.’s Fraser Valley. Approximately 500 cows perished in the floods; this video showed the quick effort of area farmers and volunteers to save the animals.

As of February 2022, the video had generated more than 200,000 views, becoming one of CityNews’ most watched videos.

TikTok is a short-form mobile video app that first launched worldwide in 2018; CityNews Vancouver launched its TikTok account, @citynewsvan, in August 2021. Initially known as an app for influencers who dance to choreographed music, today its breadth of content has expanded and the app has seen a rapidly growing user base.

According to the tech information organization Business of Apps, TikTok generated an estimated 1.9 billion dollars in 2020, resulting in a “457 per cent increase year-on-year,” and Cloudflare ranked it the most popular website in 2021.

Pew Research Centre reported that 70 per cent of 18-to-29-year-olds receive news on their mobile device often. With almost half of TikTok’s users being 10-to-29-year-olds, the platform is a new way for national and local news stations to tell stories to a fresh audience by connecting with their younger users.

Ria Renouf, a Vancouver video journalist, was responsible for collecting footage for TikTok videos and reporting on the platform for CityNews Vancouver until she left the position in February 2022 to pursue independent writing and multimedia opportunities. 

Renouf says that the flooding in Abbotsford that she reported on was one of the most memorable stories she’d shot for CityNews Vancouver’s TikTok account. “During the floods, [it’s] just some of the stuff that people need to see,” she says. “Because it’s been so heartbreaking.”

The inspiration to create a CityNews Vancouver TikTok account came from Renouf’s then-colleague, Vanessa Doban, in early 2021. Doban proposed the idea to her team at CityNews Vancouver, and seeing how active she was on her personal TikTok account, management encouraged her to expand onto the platform for the station.

“I spent a couple months really pre-planning a lot of things and really doing analysis on other accounts that were news-related… so that we started on the right foot,” says Doban.

CityNews Vancouver’s TikTok videos feature shorter versions of full news videos, broadcast in smaller snippets, or reporters on site for live events. Much like the video of livestock being rescued from the flood, Doban says footage that is visually rich is important for TikTok. 

After Doban creates the TikTok videos, she staggers their release, using research she conducted prior to opening the TikTok account to determine the content posting times that will result in the most viewer engagement.

“I’ve noticed a lot of brands start to do TikTok and they’ll just put out really random stuff, and some of it is really kind of ‘cringy.’ I wanted to be super professional from the get-go,” says Doban.

Despite the vast opportunity TikTok’s platform holds for news agencies to reach a younger demographic that look for their news on their phone, it wasn’t until 2019 that media outlets hopped on this opportunity.

Dave Jorgenson was one of the pioneers that brought major news sites to TikTok. Jorgenson, a video producer, launched the Washington Post’s TikTok account,
@washingtonpost, in May 2019—and it quickly gained a lot of traction. The account saw its success with Jorgenson’s unique take on content: Videos of himself and his colleagues presenting comedic takes of current events. As of February 2022, the account had over 1.2 million followers.

The success propelled Jorgenson to write the book “Make a TikTok Every Day,” where he details ways to succeed on the app as a content creator.

“When people take joy in what you’re creating, and that creation is the result of your own creative process, it’s hard to stop,” wrote Jorgenson.

Other news agencies began to see the potential of this new video platform and started creating their own TikTok accounts. National news outlets have amassed large fan bases on the app, with CTV News at over 300,000 followers, CNN at more than 340,000 followers, and E! News with 2.6 million followers.

As of April 2022, CityNews Vancouver’s TikTok account is sitting at just under 30,000 followers. Considering they only launched in late 2021, Renouf says she thinks the growth has come from following the successful methods of other users on the app.

“We kind of had a bit of a breakthrough a couple of months ago when we started putting B-roll, consistent captions, and some of the things that you would find on the more popular TikTok videos,” says
Renouf. “I noticed there was a massive spike in receipts, and also a massive spike in followers.”

Freelancers and independent reporters have also benefited from the popular video platform. Vancouver video journalist Shibani Gokhale creates TikTok videos of herself reporting local news under
the handle @bani_sg. Her niche is journalism law, which she says is separate from what she works on at her full-time job at Yahoo Canada.

“I didn’t want to do what I’m doing at Yahoo. Otherwise, I would get bored just reporting the same thing at both places,” says Gokhale.

Her TikTok videos cover everything from Canadians’ right to film in public restrooms, to why texting the emergency number 911 rather than calling it isn’t a widely available service. Gokhale says she’s reaching viewers under 35 years of age on TikTok, while the baseline audience of Yahoo Canada is around 55 years old.

Although not all news outlets have tested the TikTok waters, it is expected that most will expand to the platform sooner or later. For CityNews Vancouver, its TikTok account is something Doban is excited to continue developing. And after a year of positive viewer feedback, she’s hoping to incorporate new features in the future— like livestreams and behind-the-scenes footage of journalists on the job.

“Everybody seems to be pleased with it so far,” says Doban. “But again, it’s only the beginning.”

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