Within five minutes, DiPaola’s first video received 200,000 likes. Flash forward six months, and his TikTok journalism still follows the same formula: In a 30- to 60- second clip, he delivers a to-the-point news update. He has amassed 2.5 million followers.
DiPaola’s popularity is part of a larger trend unfolding across TikTok right now: Personalities unaffiliated with any traditional media outlet are aggregating national headlines and the latest news — and delivering it to millions, many of them young viewers, on the video platform.
“I want to be the translator from mainstream media to teenagers,” says DiPaola, who describes himself as a freelance producer and manages his TikTok account in his spare time.
He may be on to something. As of June 2020, the 10-to-19 age range made up the largest portion of TikTok’s audience in the United States at 32.5 percent, according to Statista, a consumer data company. And in a 2020 survey from YPulse, a youth brand research firm, 51 percent of Gen Z respondents reported getting their news on TikTok, as opposed to 26 percent of millennials. (Pew Research Center considers anyone born from 1997 onward part of Gen Z, meaning the oldest in the cohort are turning 24 this year.)
“While Gen Z consumers make their buying choices based on advice from influencers on TikTok, the leap to having them consume their news and information from news influencers is not very far,” says Marcus Messner, director of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. “This widens the gap of how different generations choose their news sources, as the older generation probably has never heard of these TikTok personalities while they have millions of followers among Gen Z users.”
DiPaola started making TikTok videos when, because of the pandemic, he was unable to cover political campaigns in person as a freelancer this past fall. With work drying up, DiPaola relocated from D.C. to his parents’ place in New Jersey soon after Election Day.
But despite setbacks in his career, TikTok has opened opportunities for him as a journalist. While shooting video as a freelance journalist from the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, he decided, uncharacteristically, to broadcast footage straight to his TikTok. Each of his posts on the riot reached well over a million views — one even received upward of 6.2 million — and they were featured in news outlets such as the New York Times.
For 19-year-old Sage Steffen, a Massachusetts resident who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, DiPaola’s videos are a quick and easy way to stay informed. I found Steffen on Twitter, where, in February, they wrote that they get all their news from DiPaola. “For me, it’s really hard to have the attention span to sit down and watch the news for an hour,” Steffen says. “His videos are very easy for me to understand, and I don’t have to worry about zoning out, as they are so short.”
DiPaola’s videos being easy to comprehend is no accident. In a blog post on Medium, he says his delivery is designed for middle school students with learning disabilities. His golden rule? “Be blunt, clear, and brief.”
In many ways, being able to script, record and edit a video all in one platform is like having a broadcast studio at your fingertips, which is what drew Remillard, known as “The News Girl,” to the app. She had previously worked for a variety of ABC News affiliates and now runs her own video production company, Beond TV, in Los Angeles.
TikTok is “the perfect medium for my wheelhouse, which is short news,” Remillard says. She first emerged on TikTok in early 2020, where she noticed a lack of users sharing the news in a traditional, anchor-style format. When she posted about covid travel restrictions in March 2020 and immediately got 60,000 views, she realized: “Oh my God. This is it. People needed this.”
Recently, she has been creating explainers for breaking legislative updates, most notably for the $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Remillard thinks being a seasoned journalist has especially come in handy. Her time both on and behind the camera has made it easy for her to write, shoot and edit her material.
But you don’t necessarily need to be a seasoned journalist to attract a following. Helfgott, who is based in New York, focuses on LGBTQ news and says he started his account because he wanted to help kids who weren’t represented in the media. Helfgott’s professional experience is limited to a few internships at TV news stations. He prefers to think of himself as a storyteller.
“When I make videos, I have an intention: to give marginalized communities a voice, because when I grew up I didn’t have one. I was invisible. I was a gay boy in a conservative town,” says Helfgott, who was recently the first person to be named “TikTok’s Queer Advocate of the Year” in the GLAAD Media Awards. “Today, on TikTok, I’m not invisible, and that’s because of the LGBTQ+ community, and all of our allies, who watch my videos to see themselves and to be heard.”
Most of Helfgott’s videos start with the text “Gay News” and a rainbow flag, and then he updates viewers on LGBTQ policy, culture and celebrity developments. On March 8, he shared a White House news conference in which press secretary Jen Psaki discussed the Biden administration’s view on transgender issues. Helfgott smiles warmly at the camera while a recording of Psaki plays behind him as she says, “No one should be discriminated on the basis of sex.” The video has 1.2 million views.
“TikTok, you might think of it as a place for dancing, but it’s not,” Helfgott says. “TikTok is a place ... that gives anyone, whether they’re a formal journalist or someone with a story to be told, a voice and a platform.”
Kalina Newman is a writer in Arlington.