The Tempest Exclusive series Media Watch investigates and introspects on the intricacies of free speech around the world, right from The Tempest newsroom.
“This is the only way I want to receive my news,” one user commented on a TikTok by the Washington Post. In the video, Washington Post’s Dave Jorgensen dances to short bits of information about how the coronavirus vaccine will be rolled out. I’ll admit, it’s catchy.
@washingtonpostIf the vaccines are approved, this would be an unprecedented scientific accomplishment. #coronavirus #vaccinations♬ original sound – Logan Isbell
Jorgensen was recognized in the Forbes list of “30 Under 30 in Media 2021” for racking up over 30 million likes on TikTok and over 780,000 followers. But he isn’t the only news personality who has taken off on social media. Stay Tuned by NBC already has a large following on Instagram and Snapchat, but finding over 700,000 followers on TikTok as well.
Let’s take it back for a moment. In 2016, a segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on journalism showed a then-nine-year-old clip of an Orlando Sentinel journalist asking the newspapers’ owner, billionaire Sam Zell, how they intend to balance readers’ wants for “puppy dogs” with the importance of informing the community. Zell responded by calling it “journalistic arrogance” and swearing at the reporter. That was over 13 years ago.
The Orlando Sentinel journalist’s concerns were real. In the early 2010s, Buzzfeed—known for its cat videos, listicles, personality quizzes, and memes—was the envy of other news outlets for the traffic they were getting. From 2015 to 2016, their website was gaining between 78 to 83 million unique visitors to Buzzfeed, beating out the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News. The popular conclusion: People were quitting the news.
The belief was that people were tired of serious, stressful articles and tuning their attention to “mind-numbing” content that went viral in days. Websites like Buzzfeed were easy ways to “unplug” from the worrisome news of the world and still engage in the fun parts of the internet. After all, it’s much easier to ask yourself what type of cheese are you than where you stand on the infrastructure changes that need to be made for climate change.
And yet, the tide seems to have turned again. According to Vox, more traditional news sites such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and Fox News have once again eclipsed Buzzfeed. Rather than drop off and unplugging, readership has continued to grow around political tensions and the presidential election, moving back to informative news rather than retreating to “soft” news.
But ultimately, this has nothing to do with the type of content people want. It’s not about “puppy dogs” versus coronavirus vaccines. Simply put, people want to know things outside of their immediate world—we all have that hunger for knowledge. Instead, this is about how we get our information. It’s about storytelling.
In the past few years, we have also seen these traditional news outlets spread out further in terms of social media and online platforms. At the end of 2014, the New York Times hired an audience team, dedicated to building their readership, not only through SEO and online searches but also through community development and their journalists. Today, most of the articles that I read from the New York Times are directly from the reporters’ Twitter accounts. The Washington Post not only embraced social media through Facebook but also began producing more video content—such as the type found on their TikTok account.
But news outlets aren’t the only ones finding out that people want their information in different ways. I squinted a bit when I saw California governor Gavin Newsom join TikTok at the start of December. Newsom’s account provides mostly the same information that could be found in a typical press release. And yet, his first video already has almost a million views—more than I imagine anyone reading the governor’s press releases. But as it turns out he’s simply following the trend. The platform, formerly skirted by politicians in 2019, has become a promising platform, and more politicians, such as Senator Matt Little and Jon Ossoff, are joining in on the fun.
TikTok is not the only platform. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez regularly shares infographics and posts stories to her 8.2 million Instagram followers. Her Instagram stories range from day-in-the-life to step-by-step explanations of Congressional procedures, such as how leadership and offices are formally chosen. In this manner, all of these politicians are building their own circles of dedicated followers.
During 2020 protests and demonstrations surrounding Black Lives Matter and police brutality, Instagram has also become a platform for sharing information, especially for those who were not able to physically participate. It didn’t take long for accounts dedicated solely to political protest and social justice to pop up. This included accounts like DiversifyOurNarrative, WhyDontWeDiscuss, TheSlacktivists, and NowSimplified.
Whether that is through politicians or news outlets, for better or for worse, it’s coming to us through shorter, easier to consume social media platforms. Yes, it’s true that these types of content aren’t going to give the full story, and are going to lack the type of depth we typically hope from informative news articles. But in the end, it’s a challenge for journalists and politicians for better storytelling and compelling narratives—and isn’t that what politics and news are all about?
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