Talking TV: Tegna’s Verify Finds Hyper-Engagement On TikTok
TikTok has largely been a place where local news fears to tread, but Tegna is raising an army there.
Verify, the company’s national reporting brand that also iterates at its local stations, has amassed more than 105,000 followers on the Gen Z-oriented platform. Those users are extremely engaged, the group says, responding ardently to its journalistic mission of nailing down the veracity of news “facts” circulating around in a simple, clear manner that always makes clear the sources of its verification.
In this Talking TV conversation, Ariane Datil, Verify’s host, and Casey Decker, a Verify reporter, share insights into how they’ve struck a major chord on TikTok by sticking to an authentic, efficient presentation, the missteps they’ve made along the way and why every local newsroom needs to get on TikTok now.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: Even if you don’t use it, never saw it, don’t care about it and don’t give a damn about those who do, TikTok is already intersecting your world.
It has seen a meteoric rise to become one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, projected to reach 755 million global users this year. You don’t get that big without having a huge influence on the culture and the media. Notice that pop songs are getting shorter? Are your kids filming themselves doing some kind of challenge? Finding a lot more stunt videos suddenly bubbling up across your Instagram feed? Yep. That’s TikTok behind it.
Inevitably, TikTok is also getting into the bloodstream of the news. Some news organizations like The Washington Post and NBC have been making forays onto TikTok, and we’ve covered their stories in the past. Now Tegna, and specifically its Verify reporting brand, has planted the flag there, gaining over 105,000 followers and becoming one of the platform’s top 20 news accounts.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck. And this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you hopefully smart conversations about the business of broadcasting. Today, a conversation with Ariane Datil and Casey Decker of Verify to talk about what they’re doing on Tik Tok and how it’s shaping the future of TV news.
Welcome to you both.
Ariane Datil: Hey. Hey.
Casey Decker: Thanks for having us.
And quickly, before we begin, let me remind those of you who don’t know, Verify is a national reporting project and brand insight segment that basically solicits news questions from its audiences and then takes them through the reporting process to determine the veracity of an original story, idea or question for those who don’t know.
So, Ariane, why is Verify on TikTok?
Ariane Datil: That is where a lot of misinformation starts, and it spreads so quickly. You said in your opening how big TikTok got so quickly and that is how quickly information spreads on that app. You see one video and it’s incorrect. Your algorithm is like, want some more? I’ll feed you it.
Well, that makes sense. So where does TikTok sit inside of the hierarchy of social media that Verify also uses, like YouTube or Facebook?
Ariane Datil: Casey can confirm this, too. It is at the tippity, tippity top. We make sure that we get our content on to Verify as quickly as possible so that one, we are debunking that misinformation as quickly as we can so that we can get it off or at least push it down in that algorithm. We can get the truth higher up. But when it comes to social media in general, we kind of spread it all the way across. So, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Twitter, we’re on Facebook. When it’s for me and Casey, TikTok is king or queen.
Casey, what do you know about who is following you there and what they want to see?
Casey Decker: I know that they’re intelligent. I think that the people on our TikTok are more engaged with news and more thoughtful about news than pretty much any audience that we have across any of our other platforms. The questions that we get on there, the comments that we get on there are I’m stunned by how often they’re things that came up deep in our own research into the reporting in general, where we’re like, OK, that’s a pretty nuanced detail that maybe we don’t need to get into. Maybe somebody will ask it, but we don’t know. It gets asked almost every time.
And so, I’m always really impressed and appreciative of how engaged and thoughtful our viewership on TikTok is. You know, there’s very comparatively few cheap shots or like people just arguing that, you know, every platform’s going to have some of that. But a lot of the time, people are coming into our videos with genuine follow up questions and other things they want us to look into. And to me, that’s like the holy grail of what you can ask for on a social media platform.
So that’s sort of their intellectual profile. What about look, demographically. Are they kids? Do you have any sense of an age range of the people who are tending to find you there?
Casey Decker: I know they’re not old. They’re definitely not as old as our other platforms. I don’t think they’re quite as young as people generally associate with TikTok. Because the thing is, you know, even though Tik-Tok is considered to be a kind of a kids’ app, it’s like you said, it’s basically the No. 1 website in the world, they think. Recently there was information that Tik Tok gets more views than Google even does now in terms of just web views. And so, more and more people are using it.
People across demographics are using it, but it definitely skews younger compared to Facebook. Everything skews in regard to Facebook, and I think it skews younger compared to pretty much any of our other platforms. But I don’t think it’s all teenagers. We definitely get, you know, adults with jobs commenting and engaging with our platform very frequently.
Are you able to get a sense that these are people who consume news on any other in any other form or on any other platform?
Casey Decker: I think they absolutely are. For most of our viewers, we are not the only news account that they follow. Their “for you” pages are probably fairly dominated by news and that’s why they’re able to ask such engaging topical questions just because they are engaged with the news. That’s definitely an aspect of our TikTok viewership that we see across other platforms, too. Generally, people who are engaged with Verify on the internet are also engaged with other accounts.
Ariane Datil: That has to do with the nature of our content, too. We are fact-checking something that has already made a splash somewhere. So, chances are you’ve heard this piece of misinformation and you’re coming to us to make sure that you got the right information about it.
And so, to Casey’s point, we know people are looking at other sources, because when they come to us, they’re saying, oh, you know what? I thought that that was wrong when I heard it the first time or oh, thanks for clarifying that really small point. They already know it and they wanted to make sure that it was true or false.
Ariane, I’m given to understand that you’ve been able to mobilize the “Verify army” on TikTok. Who are these people and what are they doing for you?
Ariane Datil: They are incredible. They will be in our comments, and they will debunk misinformation that somehow infiltrates our comments section because, like Casey said, there are very few, but when people come into our comments and say, hey, but this or but did you hear this? And those things are not accurate.
The people that are loyalists will be in the comments and say that’s not true or they already fact checked that you should look at the video, click on this and they do part of our job for us. Casey and I are always in those comments, always interacting with people, answering their questions. But when you have your viewers that are empowered to do that as well, and they come with facts, that means that we are doing our job. And that is so exciting to see.
Casey Decker: And it’s even more exciting when they do that on other people’s videos where they say, ‘Hey guys, this isn’t true, Verify already looked into this,’ or they’ll ask us to look into something and then we do, and then they come back to it. That’s to me the most exciting thing is when people are scrolling on their page and still thinking about Verify.
And so, your TikToks, and we’re showing these in the background here, but you’ve got at least one screen that shows in each one of these, the sources from which you get your information. You’re showing your work all the time there.
Casey, is Tik Tok more conducive to some news topics more than others?
Casey Decker: I don’t think so. I mean, I honestly, I think people would tend to say something like, oh, TikTok is more for light news or it’s, you know, you want to be more emotional so you can grab your attention. But I don’t think that’s what we’ve seen at all with our audience.
We’ve seen people are willing to watch a three-minute video about the legal nuances of a Supreme Court opinion. If you’re delivering it in a way that’s engaging and interesting and detailed, I don’t know if that’s just our viewership. It might be different for other accounts on TikTok, but I’ve found that TikTok, like any other social media, is a platform. Again, people associate it with kids dancing, but it’s a platform. It has everything, every kind of niche of content is on Tik Tok. You know, you can spend your entire TikTok career just watching videos about maritime law or something like that, depending on whatever your “for you” page decides that you like.
And so, if like a lot of our viewers, the “for you” page decides that you are interested in news and politics content, you’re going to see our videos and you’re going to watch them. You’re going to watch, you know, most of it. And so, I think it doesn’t really matter what the subgenre of news is. I think it’s more is about how you deliver it. And I think that’s a strength of ours.
A moment ago, you said three minutes and nuance. Is three minutes an eternity in TikTok time?
Casey Decker: I don’t think so. You know, obviously there are people who are going to scroll through anything. But I don’t know. I feel like I personally watch longer videos, too. If they’re interesting and if they’re not clickbait. There are people who do these three-minute videos with dramatic music behind them and they’re like, we found the secret to whatever. And I scroll through those instantly.
But I think if people are just explaining things, I follow a number of accounts that are just like, here’s some weird facts about geographic borders, because I’m a nerd like that. I love geography. And so, you know, I’ll watch a three-minute video about why the Delaware border is shaped like that. And I think our viewers will watch a three-minute video about, you know, the implications of the Supreme Court decision as long as we’re respecting their intelligence and keeping it interesting.
Either or both of you can speak to this. But what are the key elements of making a news story on TikTok work? What do you have to think about going in?
Ariane Datil: Language is No. 1. We have to make sure that we’re speaking to TikTok the way TikTok hears information and wants to hear that information. So, it’s not going to start like a newscast: “This is happening right now, and you need to pay attention to this.” Casey and I are going to approach it like we would any conversation with any one of our friends. Hey, did you see this thing that happened, or did you hear this? That’s not true. And just meeting people where they are. We know you saw this information and we want to quickly tell you it’s true or false.
We’re not going to make you sit through 30 minutes, tell you all this information, and then finally get to the answer. Now upfront, we’re going to tell you it’s true or false and then we’re going to show you how we did that. And I think that’s what’s unique and what works about our content. You’re going to get TikTok loves a short video. We all know this, and you want to get that answer quick. But people come to us to figure out how we got that answer. And so, us walking it through, we use video forensics, or we listen to the audio and compared it to this, that sort of granular information, the behind-the-scenes. That’s what people want. And it’s kind of, I don’t know, maybe it’s the new sexy version of news where we show you how the cookie is made. Who knows?
So, it’s also your kind of, like, conversational voice. Get right to it. What’s your point? Just look at it right from the start.
Ariane Datil: Yes.
What are the biggest faux pas that you can make on the platform? Where do people get it wrong trying to do news or something like news?
Ariane Datil: Casey, can I start and then you can go?
Casey Decker: Absolutely.
Ariane Datil: We did so many of the wrong things to start off. We tried to lean into every single trend. They had me out there dancing and doing all sorts of random stuff. You have to find your voice. So, the faux pas is leaning into other people’s brands when you really need to spend the time figuring out who you are, what your voice is, and what your brand is and leaning hard into that. TikTok is all about niching down, and it took us a while, but we got there, and I think it’s working.
- Casey, you want to add to that?
Casey Decker: [Yeah, that’s 100% is not trying to copy other people’s dishes because they already have it. They already have their viewers and they’re not going to leave. They do it better. They’ve done it longer. So, if you try to copy them, you’re best going to get a mirror image, a smaller version of what they’ve already done.
You have to come in with your own thing and it has to be a clear thing. I think that’s one of the benefits that Verify has. Not even just on TikTok, everywhere is that our brand is right there. It’s verified. It’s pretty obvious what we do right from the jump. And so, it doesn’t take long. You don’t even have to watch the three-minute video the first time to know what we are. You can watch a few seconds of that for me and scroll and then the next time you come up you think, Oh, OK, I remember these guys and but you know who we are.
And so, I think anyone who wants to have success on TikTok, you have to have a really identifiable brand that is unique and that isn’t just jumping on every trend, because that’s obvious, too. We still have a very strong editorial standard, right? And so, we still are going through multiple rounds of edits and approval process. It’s not just like blowing it up on our phone.
And so, if we if we tried to follow trends, it’s not necessarily that we would be able to get it up before the trend’s over. I see that happening on a lot of different brand accounts, too, where social media managers will be posting videos to trends that happened three weeks ago and now they look stupid and it’s because they had to get it approved by legal or whatever, you know, to get to get it published. And so, it’s just it’s not a good approach.
Don’t be a slave to fashion, just transcend.
Ariane Datil: Look cute while you’re doing it.
Ariane, you mentioned dancing. Did you really dance in a news story?
Ariane Datil: I did this one. I don’t remember what the trend or I just know that I was doing this and pointing and stuff.
Casey Decker: Was that the one where Burger King did an ad with that song? I think I know what you’re talking about.
Ariane Datil: I just know that we were a little offbeat and it wasn’t cute.
Casey Decker: I had the good fortune of coming in to the TikTok after Ariane had already done a lot of the building up of the brand. And so, I didn’t have to do as much of that kind of stuff early on. I did a couple of posts where basically we took the television version of our news story and edited it in Premiere into a vertical format and then posted that onto TikTok. That doesn’t work because it looks like an app. When you do that, it looks overproduced, and it just doesn’t fit in anybody’s “for you” page.
So, if you film natively in the app, and that’s what we do now, and we can still have our nice graphics behind us, but we use the greenscreen effect and it’s a person talking to you through your phone rather than a news presenter in a suit on a giant green screen with graphics flying all over the place. And so, I did a couple of those, and that was a waste of time. And so now we have a better process to make sure that we’re actually being authentic in the sense.
You’re following your groove. You hit your stride. Ariane, is your TikTok audience following you on to broadcast, and is it important that they do?
Ariane Datil: I wish we had that sort of information. If you can figure out how to get that information, that would be fantastic. What we do know is that we have a strong audience on TikTok that keeps coming back and that feeds us with questions that we then use for broadcast. I don’t know how that relationship works in reverse. Do they actually get to broadcast? I’m not sure.
You know what I can say, we actually don’t care. We want to be able to give the information on the platform where people are. And if we service them there, we’re good with that. We would love if everyone would watch TikTok and broadcast because the other day we almost pulled 600,000 on the Nancy Pelosi video. Can you imagine getting 600,000 people to watch the evening news in all these little local markets where we have Tegna stations? That would be a game changer for some of these stations. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen.
How do both of you see TikTok having a kind of future shaping influence on TV news or just video news more broadly? How might it kind of reshape the way that stories are done?
Ariane Datil: I’ve become so impatient to [where] Casey and I will edit out the tiniest thing between takes so that you get to the next sentence quicker. And I think in some ways, broadcast stories tend to linger a little bit more. And maybe there’s a reality in which, who knows, we speak like normal people on broadcast television, and we have conversations, and the editing isn’t so old school. I just hope that things get faster and smarter.
Casey Decker: I was going to say something similar where it’s just I and I don’t know, I don’t think I could make a prediction about what will influence an actual broadcast television news industry, but I can be hopeful and my hope would be similar that if anything, TikTok encourages people to be more authentic and conversational in their language style, which I think we’ve seen some of, you know, not just through TikTok, but in the industry in general the last few years.
I think more and more people are getting, you know, a little more conversational, a little more authentic. But I don’t know to what extent TikTok is going to continue to drive that in the future, especially as a lot of the outlets that are doing TikTok, you know, kind of view it as a separate channel. They have separate teams, I think where one of the rare instances where Ariane and I are doing TV and TikTok at the same time, I think a lot of other organizations have like a TikTok team, and that’s all they do. So, I don’t know how much overlap there would be there.
For the station GMs, news directors, reporters who might be skeptically listening to this whole conversation, what would be your message to them about why they need to care about TikTok and to start making content for it now?
Ariane Datil: Because your content is already on the app. I have seen plenty. I came from WUSA 9, the CBS station in D.C., before I came to Verify, and there are plenty of people on TikTok posting green screen stories with a WUSA 9 article in the background, talking you through the news that your station created and you don’t have any ownership of that. Stations need to take ownership of the work that they’re doing and make sure that they’re on those apps, to kind of safeguard it and to know that the story that they worked so hard to get is being delivered with the same authenticity and journalistic integrity that they intended it to be.
Well thank you Ariane Datil and Casey Decker of Tegna’s Verify for being here today. You can watch past episodes of Talking TV on TVNewsCheck.com and on our YouTube page. Where you can’t find them is TikTok, not yet anyway. But thanks to everyone for watching and listening. And see you next time. Thanks, guys.