How a local nonprofit news organization found its readers on TikTok
You don’t often run across local news on TikTok, and it’s not because the idea hasn’t hit newsrooms yet.
TikTok only recently became a vessel for news outlets to directly disseminate content. The trend started when The Washington Post launched a TikTok account in 2019, eventually becoming a trailblazer in the industry for how to successfully take advantage of the app.
Local newsrooms face a unique issue — the TikTok algorithm distributes videos to anyone it predicts will watch the videos, so a local story about abortion rights in Michigan, for example, may end up on the phone screen of a pro-choice activist living in Texas.
But one local nonprofit newsroom found success on TikTok. The Nevada Independent — also referred to as The Indy — which covers the state of Nevada, started posting TikToks earlier this year. The account has since seen consistent viewership and, exceptionally, viewership consists of more local readers than anyone else.
Storybench sat down with The Indy’s politics and data reporter — and recurring TikTok creator — Sean Golonka, to discuss their strategy to reach readers on TikTok.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why did The Indy decide to make a TikTok account?
Golonka: We just saw the emergence of TikTok as a platform and as another venue to reach our audience. Clearly, as a social media platform, TikTok is growing and has been growing in size, and we saw it as another way to provide people with news. We really believe in meeting our audience where they’re at. If a lot of people are on TikTok, then I think that’s another place that we want to deliver news to Nevadans. We weren’t really thinking about how uncommon it is to find local news on the app — we just went for it.
What is The Indy’s strategy to reach its base?
I think a lot of the work we do trying to reach our base relies on the other channels of communication we have with our audience, such as our website, newsletters and other social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. We promote our TikToks on other platforms to make sure the people who follow us elsewhere are aware of the account. I also think there may be an element of natural growth — I have to expect a name like “The Nevada Independent,” as well as the local nature of the content we produce, attracts people who have an interest in Nevada, especially through social media algorithms.
What did you personally predict was going to be The Indy’s biggest challenge in reaching its readers through the platform?
Finding consistent traction. An issue we have run into with posting short-form videos across platforms — Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and TikTok — is sometimes a video might get hundreds or thousands of views on one platform, and then just tens of views on another. And even when we have good viewership, we may look at the [statistics] and find a video was being watched all over the country. That is great every now and again, but it is not our goal — we want traction with our readers and Nevadans. I think finding consistency is really important for being able to reach our readers, and that includes posting often and making our content consistent. We also aren’t just social media content creators, but we are a trusted news organization, and that has to come across in our videos.
Has The Indy reached its readers on TikTok?
In the feedback that we’ve gotten from our audience, it’s been very clear. I see direct feedback from our audience through comments and direct messages a lot on TikTok and other social media platforms. And our viewership data [as of Sept. 2023] shows that 79% of The Indy’s TikTok viewers were based in Nevada’s four largest cities — Las Vegas, Henderson, Reno and North Las Vegas.
We actually launched our TikTok account earlier this year to cover the state’s Legislature, and while I was living in Nevada’ capital, Carson City, there would be people just on the street recognizing me because of TikTok. They’d say, “Oh, I saw your video the other day. I know who you are!” It was really nice to have that real life in-person gratification and to know that our content really is reaching our readers.
What parts of The Indy’s TikTok strategy do you feel have led to success?
I think matching the brand of our platform as a news organization to our content and social media accounts has been really helpful. We are really dedicated to in-depth, contextualized and well-reported news at The Independent, and I think we have done a great job translating that even through social media.
We take a lot of time to consider how to break a huge and complex story down into short-form video, but once we figure it out, it feels great to provide our base pressing local issues in easily consumable packages. Using these strategies, I have also noticed that the only people who seem to crave local news on TikTok are local people. Other types of viewers quickly fall off, but our base is there to stay.
What is the process for creating a TikTok?
As a reporter, I’m responsible for writing a script and recording myself, and maybe I’ll throw in a graphic in the background behind me. We are really lucky to have an amazing social media and audience engagement manager who does the bulk of the work for all our social media accounts, including editing and posting content and engaging with our base. I think it’s rare for journalists at local papers to have a team member dedicated to helping produce this multi-platform content and innovate it, so we are truly set up for success.
Is there a TikTok you feel especially proud of?
I’m very proud of a series we have called “Follow the Money” about money in politics. We investigated and broke down campaign contributions to state lawmakers and analyzed that data by industry. On TikTok, we basically took that series and condensed each piece into a single video, focusing on one industry at a time. For example, one TikTok focused on how much money the state’s gaming industry contributed to lawmakers.
What are The Indy’s plans for the future with TikTok?
Coming out of the legislative session, we recalibrated a bit to cast a wider net for our content, and it’s been going well so far. We are still hitting that consistent viewership made up of our base. I think we are going to continue on that track, and hopefully create more TikToks focused on culture, education, healthcare and other areas of government. I think the team overall feels really great about the TikTok account so far, and we are looking forward to seeing what more we can do with it.
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