News enthusiasts turn to TikTok to chart new paths in media

Social media journalists have grown millions-strong audiences with focused content

Magali Druscovich,Sheila Dang
Saturday 05 August 2023 00:01 BST
Vitus ‘V’ Spehar, 40, live streams news on TikTok
Vitus ‘V’ Spehar, 40, live streams news on TikTok (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

To make sense of the unprecedented events of 6 January 2021, Vitus “V” Spehar did what no traditional journalist would do – crawl under a desk and begin recording a video for TikTok.

Like others who watched on TV as the storming of the US Capitol unfolded, Spehar (who uses the pronoun they) felt the need to talk about it. However, “I didn’t want to make people think that I was an expert,” said Spehar, who filmed the TikTok video from their home in Rochester, New York. “So I thought, where’s a safe place to have a conversation?”

Spehar walks to the GLAAD media awards ceremony for their podcast's nomination, in New York (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Spehar’s ‘Under the Desk News’ handle came from Jan 6 experience (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

Two years later, the “Under the Desk News” TikTok has around 3 million followers, who appreciate Spehar’s gentler take on the news of the day. The show focuses on subjects in which people can take action and Spehar tries to end each video on a lighter note.

Since the surge in popularity of the short-form video app at the start of the pandemic, people like Spehar have flocked to the platform to discuss, document and share what’s happening in the world. Many call themselves creators or influencers. They do not aspire to be traditional journalists.

What unites these news creators is a desire to talk about their world in an authentic way. That has resonated with millions of young followers, the elusive but highly sought-after next generation of media consumers who are unlikely to watch cable news or read a newspaper.

By shunning convention, these news creators are attempting to craft a new narrative for journalism at a time of blistering decline for a business in dire need of reinvention. Rather than regurgitate a rundown of daily headlines, some choose to connect with their audience directly in the comment section of videos, and others wear their viewpoints like a badge.

Josh Helfgott, a TikTok user with 5.5 million followers, posts a recurring series of videos called “Gay News” discussing current events relevant to LGBT+ viewers. His inspiration for his account is his 13-year-old self, who felt isolated growing up as gay teen.

Josh Helfgott, 33, prepares to shoot a TikTok video from home in LA (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Helfgott broadcasts to 5.5 million followers (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

“I want to inspire people or just make anyone feel less alone,” Helfgott said.

His news videos, which routinely receive upward of 1 million views, have covered everything from Joe Biden hosting a Pride celebration at the White House to the Human Rights Campaign declaring a state of emergency for LGBT+ Americans.

“There are very few stories centered around LGBT+ issues that are heard by general society,” Helfgott said.

Fighting feelings of helplessness and isolation has inspired other channels. Kristy Drutman launched climate change-focused “Brown Girl Green” and said she began posting on TikTok and Instagram because people of color are rarely represented in discussions about the environment.

Kristy Drutman, 27, records at home in Weehawken, New Jersey (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Drutman, 27, talks with a student at an event to discuss environmental news and social media at the Columbia Climate School, in New York City (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

“I try to keep up with climate news and news that can give people hope,” she said. “I think about solutions.”

One of Drutman’s TikTok videos explained how people can take advantage of tax credits to make energy-efficient updates to their homes, while another pointed to an international climate change report that showed it was not too late for nations to take steps to combat a heating planet.

Where’s the money?

Traditional news media is in deep crisis. For every exception, like the New York Times’ surging revenue for digital subscriptions, there are more horror stories of stagnating traffic and declining readers and viewers. So far this year, more than 1,900 jobs have been cut in the US news industry, already surpassing the 1,808 jobs cut in all of 2022, according to a report from job placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. The one-time darlings of news in the social media age, like BuzzFeed News and Vice, have died or are on life support.

Meanwhile, TikTok is the fastest-growing social media platform for news, according to a report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published on Tuesday. 20 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds use TikTok to learn about current events, up 5 percentage points from last year, the report said.

Lisa Remillard, a 20-year veteran of broadcast journalism who has been a TV anchor in Tallahassee, Florida, and San Diego, California, hopes to parlay this growth into a new business model that could help independent journalists earn a living on TikTok and other social media platforms.

Lisa Remillard, 43, a journalist of 20 years who has amassed 2.5 million TikTok followers, records a video recounting the news of the day at home in San Diego (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)
Remillard reviews her footage before posting (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

Remillard founded BeondTV, a lifestyle and entertainment digital media company.

Since 2020, she has also functioned as a one-person newsroom, filming videos to walk her 2.6 million TikTok followers through the biggest national news each day, such as the US debt ceiling deal and the possibility of a TikTok ban in the United States due to the platform’s Chinese ownership.

“In my deepest, darkest hopes and dreams, I wish that could be the result of all this hard work,” Remillard said, expressing her hope for a new business model for independent journalists.

Teamwork: Spehar and their dog during the edit (Magali Druscovich/Reuters)

As Spehar’s “Under the Desk News” began to take off, the Los Angeles Times hired them for six months last year to be the face of the news organisation’s TikTok account. The benefit was mutual: Spehar learned how journalism is produced, while the publisher benefited from Spehar’s TikTok skills.

Spehar’s advice to journalists: build a following on TikTok that will pay for their reporting on subscription platforms like Substack, where some writers have carved out lucrative careers.

“Pick the world that you want to show people and tell them exactly what stories you cover,” Spehar said.


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