January 27, 2021

This story is a part of our playbook for VidSpark, a Poynter initiative to bring local news to younger audiences. We worked with three local newsrooms over the course of 2020 to create social media video series aimed at GenZ viewers. Find our entire playbook here.

TikTok is a new frontier in social video, and its refined For You Page suggestions can make even the most niche content discoverable. The platform’s rapid growth among Gen Z viewers makes it a desirable platform for news publishers looking to reach younger audiences.

“What excites me most about TikTok is I’m realizing that there’s a hunger and a thirst for information with a really smart audience,” said Stephen Adams, digital executive producer at 10 Tampa Bay.

We’re looking at how 10 Tampa Bay started to produce for TikTok. The newsroom’s production team has leaned into the platform’s mechanisms for discovery, worked within the app’s constraints and taken an experimental approach to figuring out what works.

Watch: 10 Tampa Bay Staff discuss their approach to TikTok (Starting at 5:22)

The starting point

10 Tampa Bay started with VidSpark in January 2020 and initially focused on producing an investigative series for YouTube. For lessons from that series, see this case study. By August, we were ready to develop a new set of videos for TikTok as a second platform.

10 Tampa Bay started its TikTok account in May but did not begin posting consistently until July. VidSpark gave the newsroom an opportunity to build a team to make content specifically for the platform. In August, the team came together and we got to work.

The team

Jabari Thomas, a morning anchor, was the central talent for TikTok. His charisma and conversational style was a natural fit for the platform, and he had been dabbling with creating TikToks on his own. Two producers worked with Jabari to generate ideas and plan content: Audra Goforth and Avery Anderson. Goforth, a social media coordinator, was keenly attuned to the culture on social and kept tabs on trends. Anderson, an associate producer, was on top of timelines, workflows and organization.

Stephen Adams, digital executive producer, and Shawn Hoder, senior executive producer, guided the editorial direction and reviewed videos. Poynter provided strategic guidance. Jillian Banner, assistant editor of video strategy, and I consulted on effective storytelling for the platform and guided the process.

The content development

We knew going into this project that there was no clear-cut path to follow. Unlike more established platforms like YouTube, TikTok’s algorithm is not well-documented, and a video’s potential virality is less tethered to the activity of the page as a whole. The team’s flexibility was crucial; it allowed them to try new things, see what stuck and improve as they went.

The team had the initial idea to produce according to themes for various days of the week as a creative constraint (for example, Monday motivation), but we quickly realized that the limitation wasn’t necessary. Instead, we let timely topics, news events and platform trends inform our content decisions. We began by trying seasonal and lifestyle topics. Thomas’ first TikTok on the 10 Tampa Bay page was a toast to pumpkin spice latte and published on Sept. 8.

Maintaining a balance between conveying information and providing entertainment in videos was a persistent challenge. The team produced videos on a range of topics including fun facts about candy corn for Halloween, a step-by-step guide to registering to vote online, and a behind-the-scenes look at working from the newsroom during the pandemic. In each video, we considered how to include the personality and humor that feels authentic to the platform while also providing tangible takeaways for viewers.

A variety of Jabari’s TikToks on 10 Tampa Bay’s account

While personality-driven content is the most popular on the platform, the team found that timely news clips gained significant traction as well. 10 Tampa Bay’s most viewed TikTok during the program was a broadcast clip from “Jeopardy!” that paid tribute to Alex Trebek after his death. The team published personality-driven content during the day, and relevant news clips during the evening.

Sounds became a central part of the brainstorming process. Early on, we attempted to make videos that others could spin off, creating our own sounds that would prompt viewers to participate (for example, dance to the right of the screen if you know this song). This format is common on the platform. However, we realized that it was more fruitful to participate in existing trends, and that using sounds already popular on the platform is a major driver of discovery.

The team began incorporating existing TikTok sounds into most pieces of content and thought about how certain sounds could illustrate news stories. Watching TikTok content and being attentive to trending hashtags, songs and memes became part of the production process. Goforth spent more time watching and commenting on TikToks, looking for videos to respond to with a stitch (which allows users to edit clips from another users’ videos into their own) or a duet (a reaction alongside an original video).

One takeaway from hours of TikTok scrolling is that the For You Page can be hyperlocal. The D.C.-based Poynter team saw TikToks rating the best photo ops in the city, and the 10 Tampa Bay team saw TikToks of hang-out spots in St. Petersburg. We used this as content inspiration, and the team researched local hashtags and incorporated local “things to do” content into their rotation.

The workflow

The team worked in weekly cycles to produce content, publishing four videos per week (daily on Tuesdays through Fridays). Working remotely required a lot of back and forth between producers and Jabari, so the revision process took some figuring out.

The team benefited from doing a pilot run of episodes before launching publicly, saving videos as drafts rather than publishing them. We ran the workflow for two weeks to work out initial kinks and to build a library of relatively evergreen videos as a buffer that allowed us to work in advance. The team would produce a mix of timely videos for the week of, and evergreen content for the following week. Evergreen videos would still be deployed within a few weeks in order to keep the content fresh.

As Poynter wrapped up VidSpark work with 10 Tampa Bay, just over two months after beginning to post regularly on TikTok, the workflow was still evolving. Producers were beginning to write and present their own TikToks. This streamlined the planning and production process, and allowed producers to fully pursue stories that aligned with their interests. When the producers’ personalities shone through the content and the presentation, the videos were often more engaging.

10 Tampa Bay’s TikToks now feature a variety of talent

The time needed to produce each TikTok varied, but the main production and editing for each TikTok generally took one to two hours.

Here’s the team’s typical workflow for a weekly cycle of TikTok production.

Topic selection: Monday

  • Monday morning meeting with full team to pitch ideas and develop topics for the coming week’s videos
  • Discuss information to be conveyed and filming scenario
  • Discuss trends and sounds to incorporate
  • Producers are assigned 2 videos each for the week

Video planning: Monday-Tuesday

  • Producers create a beat sheet or storyboard for each video
  • Storyboard contains:
    • Key information to state in the video
    • Key actions to take in the video
    • Filming guidance
    • Photos or webpages to use for any green screen effect
    • Links to additional resources for talent to investigate and add their own flair
  • Talent and producer work together to make any revisions
  • If necessary, producers and/or talent acquire props, scout locations

Video production: Tuesday-Friday

  • Talent films videos. Shooting time varies depending on complexity of the content
  • Most TikToks filmed at home or while working at the station
  • Talent edits the video in TikTok and saves a draft
  • Talent screen records the TikTok and sends to Slack channel for review

Video revisions: Tuesday-Friday

  • Team members give notes on video
  • Talent reshoots video clips if necessary
  • Team members give notes on text-on-screen and video caption
  • Talent re-submits video with revisions for feedback

Video publishing: Tuesday-Friday

  • Talent makes video live on each publishing day

Review: Thursday

  • Thursday morning meeting with full team to review performance of the week’s videos
  • Review workflow changes
  • Discuss potential trends and topics for coming week
  • Make rough plan for the coming week

Platform awareness: Daily

  • Producer takes 30 minutes every morning
  • Scroll through TikTok For You Page and Discover Page, observe trends
  • Leave comments on relevant videos from other accounts

It’s worth noting a few aspects of the TikTok app that, as of this writing, make the workflow for teams challenging.

First, video drafts are only viewable on the phone that created them, and videos must be published from mobile. This means that the person who is editing videos within the app also has to be the one to complete metadata and publish. Team members can’t review videos by logging into a shared account, which resulted in the team sharing screen recordings.

Second, editing within the app has to be done in layers: first, recording or uploading clips and adjusting timing including music and, second, adding any text-on-screen, stickers and effects. There is no non-destructive way to edit a previous layer. This means that If you’ve added graphics but then realize you need to change a clip’s timing or substitute a clip, all of the graphics will be discarded and will need to be rebuilt.

For this reason, approval should happen in layers as well. By the end of our work with the project, we established that talent should submit a first version containing just the edited footage, receive sign off, and then add all graphic elements.

The audience response

The team published 54 TikToks through the VidSpark program and has published more since. Viewership varies widely, but videos typically garner between 200-2,000 views. Noteworthy recent TikToks include a history of gingerbread houses (50,000 views) and an explanation of who Joe Biden’s grandchildren are (59,000 views).

Moving forward

10 Tampa Bay plans to continue on TikTok, with a rotating cast of talent and a variety of topics. It is still early days in 10 Tampa Bay’s TikTok journey, and there’s more experimentation ahead.

“We have not figured it out yet, by any stretch of the imagination,” Adams said, “but we’re so excited.”

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Ahsante is Editor & Program Manager, Video Strategy at Poynter, where she’s focusing on developing innovative digital content with local newsrooms to reach younger audiences.…
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