How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?

The Washington Post just wants you to like its TikToks.

Dave Jorgenson, the Washington Post logo, and the TikTok logo
Jason Wong / The Washington Post / The Atlantic

Senator Cory Booker is running in slow motion through Reagan National Airport as Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” blasts. In the middle of a presidential bid, Booker is in his campaign casual: blue jeans, black dress shoes, a white button-down, and a black sport coat. As far as we know, he has one minute to catch a 6 p.m. flight to Iowa. It’s 5:59.

He exits his slo-mo daze and steamrolls an unsuspecting Dave Jorgenson to the ground.

“Booker 2020!” he yells at Jorgenson, who looks like the wind has been knocked out of him.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” a voice on the airport loudspeaker chimes in, as if from the heavens.

This 15-second morsel of staged sketch comedy lives on TikTok, a short-form social video app that has accumulated more than 500 million active users—some 40 percent of whom are ages 16 to 24—worldwide in the past few years.

Jorgenson is the face of The Washington Post’s account, which launched in late May and has since garnered more than 280,000 followers. Like much else on the platform, the Post’s account is self-aware, slapstick, and slightly cringey—a parade of pets, stunts, and workplace humor, often set to blaring pop music and shot through with a winking sense of humor about the very fact that a 142-year-old newspaper is even on here in the first place (“newspapers are like ipads but on paper,” the account’s bio reads.) It’s also, potentially, a chance for The Post to cultivate new audiences and new revenue streams in an industry constantly searching for both.

For now, the Post’s TikTok audience is far less than ESPN’s 1.8 million followers or E! News’ 1.4 million — but then again, news and politics are a tougher sell than sports and celebrities. It is also less than the Post’s audience on Twitter (14.5 million), Facebook (6.3 million), and Instagram (2.3 million), but the TikTok following is distinctly young. At 28, Jorgenson sees himself as something of an elder statesman on the social network, a “wannabe cool uncle.”

“We just want you to like us,” he told me.

TikTok certainly wasn’t in Jorgenson’s job description when he was hired by the Post in 2017.

Michelle Jaconi, an alum of NBC and CNN, had been Jorgenson’s boss at the Independent Journal Review, a right-of-center digital news outlet, where she once sent Jorgenson, an Eagle Scout, to an event with the journalist Mike Allen and then–Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, both of whom are also Eagle Scouts. The 6-foot-4-inch Jorgenson dressed head to toe in his old uniform, Jaconi recalls. “It was a huge hit in the room, as you can imagine, and a huge hit with Gates himself,” she told me. (Gates later invited Jorgenson to his home; the visit was, of course, immortalized on video.)

When Jaconi left IJR to lead the Post’s new creative-video team, she quickly hired Jorgenson to head their “Department of Satire.” Before TikTok, Jorgenson dealt in more traditional web videos—which he still produces in addition to his TikTok responsibilities. But when he heard about TikTok last year, Jorgenson instantly thought that the Post should join in, and he decided to pitch his higher-ups. “He truly came with a full stash of research, and he’d spent a lot of time, and it impressed me instantly how much he passionately believed in it,” Jaconi said.

These days, Jorgenson can spend up to four hours on a single TikTok. He’s always involved in the writing, editing, producing, and acting—but he’s not alone: He has a rotating cast of video producers who assist him behind the scenes.

It might be tempting to think of TikTok as the flavor of the month for a financially troubled news industry, which has long seen media companies scurry to the latest and greatest new tech, hungry to nab new audiences wherever they are. The Post in particular—especially under the ownership of Jeff Bezos, whose motto at Amazon was reportedly “Get Big Fast”—has a history of running headlong onto new platforms, both established (Snapchat, Reddit) and faddish (remember Kik?).

When I asked why The Washington Post is on TikTok, Jorgenson compared the videos to editorial cartoons. “There’s been cartoons in [newspapers] for 300 years, technically,” he said. Those cartoons have netted the Post a handful of Pulitzers over the years; this April, frequent contributor Darrin Bell won for “beautiful and daring editorial cartoons that took on issues affecting disenfranchised communities, calling out lies, hypocrisy and fraud in the political turmoil surrounding the Trump administration.”

Jaconi mentioned the crossword. “When crossword puzzles were introduced,” she said, “a lot of people said, ‘I don’t understand. This is silly. Why does this belong in the news?’ They were buried—in some newspapers—in the ‘ladies section,’ and a lot of people couldn't understand it. Now you look at it and it’s a thriving business, a source of not only subscription revenues, but also syndication. And it is looked at as this elite daily habit.”

Jaconi and Jorgensen see TikTok that way too: a seemingly lighthearted side project that serves, sneakily, to reinforce the paper’s journalistic mission and draw in new readers. The average subscriber to the Post is, according to Jorgensen, “well over 40. So this is a really good way to, at the very least, get [younger people] to trust the brand or to know the brand.”

One way to do that is to show the newsroom in action.

“I saw it very early on that people were really excited to see a reporter just at their desk,” Jorgenson said. “They’ve just never seen that. They’ve seen, like, the 24-hour [cable-TV] version, where you see someone's head on the screen. But they haven’t seen [a journalist] working at their desk.” The process of doing journalism is often opaque; TikTok can demystify it, humanizing the people behind the bylines—particularly important in an era when personal brands dominate and politicians regularly shout about “fake news.”

There’s a less high-minded reason for all that behind-the-scenes content, too: Office politics are funny. “All of [Gen Z] is growing up rewatching The Office constantly,” Jorgenson said. “And I do think that there is a little bit of a tone of The Office that they love, and I try to re-create that in TikTok. That sort of mockumentary style, zoom, and all these different things.”

Here we are: A major newspaper is channeling the comedic style of a 15-year-old network sitcom to lure teenage readers on an emerging new app. And indeed, Jorgenson’s TikTok presence seems to be piquing the curiosities of a distinctly new audience for the Post, as well as onlookers in the news industry—who have mostly abstained from the TikTok fray—and even a handful of presidential wannabes.

Booker is not the only presidential aspirant to feature in a Washington Post TikTok. The tech executive Andrew Yang, former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, and former Representative Beto O’Rourke (who has since dropped out of the race) have also made appearances. Even before the Booker clip was released, Vox called the Post’s TikTok an “unofficial campaign stop.”

Jorgenson approached Yang and O’Rourke, but Castro’s campaign actually came to him. The result: Jorgenson, Julián Castro, and Joaquin Castro—the candidate’s identical twin brother and a congressman from Texas—all lip-synching in the middle of Reagan National Airport. The video, set to a song popular on TikTok, parodies the media’s confusion of the two look-alike politicians. Jorgenson said he has a TikTok with South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in reserve—he’s debating the best time and way to release it.

The journalistic functions of TikTok are somewhat limited: It’s not naturally a platform for delivering the news. While many news outlets are still absent from the app, NBC News and its show Stay Tuned, which is also on Snapchat, have built a following. And USA Today launched its account last month. Meanwhile, sports publishers such as ESPN and CBS Sports are perhaps more natural fits, relying on game highlights to complement their own content.

Nicole Dahmen, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who studies journalism ethics and visual communications, is skeptical about the Post’s current use of TikTok.

“To some degree, you could say that The Washington Post is smart by thinking about how to engage younger audiences and reaching new audiences to get them news and information,” she says. “But I think the bigger ethical concern here is the potential of trivializing the news.”

Dahmen points to Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. “Postman argued that television as a medium is really about entertainment. And any attempt to put news or information on television trivializes the information,” she says. “And there's certainly—you could say that, you know, with any social-media channel is the potential for the message or the information to get lost in the platform or the medium itself.”

After all, what do we actually learn from the Castro brothers’ video, which is the Post’s second-most-popular TikTok? We learn that Julián Castro is a presidential candidate and that he has a twin brother.

But Bob Sacha, an associate professor of visual storytelling at the City University of New York’s journalism school, thinks that engaging with young viewers is inherently valuable, even if the content doesn’t dive deep into specific policy nuances.

“For an age range that may not be watching the debates or reading about politics, they were introduced to the Castros and Beto O’Rourke,” he says. “It's better to take away a tiny bite of the news than no news at all.”

Jorgenson conceded that the platform is better suited for quick spotlights on what’s going on in the news or going behind the scenes of journalism. Recently, he was on site making TikToks at the Democratic primary debate, co-hosted by the Post and MSNBC.

“You kind of got a quick tour of the debate stage and the anchor desk in one of the posts,” says Jeremiah Patterson, a multimedia-journalism professor at American University. “And so from there, I could see audiences starting to think, Oh, that debate is going on. Maybe I should tune in. Maybe I should research a little bit more about these candidates. So I think all of that helps. It's not as immediate as publishing a traditional article, but I think that you start to draw people in that way.”

It seems to be working. Rachel Armany, a 22-year-old journalism student at George Washington University, told me that she originally learned about the Post’s account through “journalism Twitter”—where Jorgenson also operates, often resharing his TikToks—but imagines that she would have encountered it anyway just by scrolling through TikTok’s main feed. And she’s a fan, particularly of the way the Post’s TikToks are “kind of breaking down those barriers of what the news looks like and what a newsroom looks like.”

Lauren Bancalari, an 18-year-old freshman studying neuroscience at Rutgers University, found the first Post TikTok she saw to be “a little cheesy,” she told me. But as she kept watching, she thought that some of the videos were pretty funny. “I assumed it would be more cheesy because it's a newspaper account.”

She found Jorgenson likable, but didn’t know exactly what the paper’s motive was. She suspects that having “likable TikToks” might be an effective way of getting students to read the Post more. “They know a lot of people—especially high-school kids—are on the app,” Bancalari said. “It might make kids who are more intellectually curious go to The Washington Post as their source of news.”

Gianna Sorrentino, a 22-year-old senior studying criminal justice at Pace University, also finds the videos “pretty funny actually,” but says “there's just something about them that feels a little too staged.” However, she understands that the Post is a company and needs to try harder than the average student posting from their dorm room.

Abby Corbett, a 17-year-old senior at Enloe Magnet High School, in Raleigh, North Carolina, says she thinks the Post’s TikToks are cheesy, “but in a good way.”

“The videos were very much on trend and I heard a lot of popular sounds and songs in the videos, which made me want to watch more of them,” Abby told me over email. She plans to follow the account from here on out.

Being “on trend,” as Abby put it, is key to operating on TikTok and many other social networks: Simply put, users need to understand standards, trends, inside jokes, and other nuances of the app before they post. Otherwise they run the risk of appearing inauthentic—one of the biggest online faux pas and a quick way to lose audience trust.

“These new platforms aren’t always very forgiving,” says Patterson, the American University professor. “You can get trolled pretty heavily and quickly if you do come in with this sort of institutional, stuffy old voice. And I don’t think the Post ever came in with that kind of voice.”

It’s no wonder presidential candidates are interested in what Jorgenson and his colleagues are doing. In some small way, the Post is providing a space for those running—none of whom, other than Castro, actively has their own TikTok account—to test out a new medium that is, like troves of emerging social networks before it, rife with opportunity, uncertainty, and severe regulatory concerns.

Since entering the U.S. market, the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, has come under fire for a series of purported offenses. Multiple reports have indicated that TikTok “instructs its moderators to censor videos” that mention issues deemed sensitive to the Chinese government, such as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. (The company denies censoring content, and claims that all U.S. data are stored in the United States.)

ByteDance is now under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which is reviewing the company’s $1 billion purchase of the app, an acquisition that paved the way for TikTok’s U.S. surge. And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer recently wrote a letter to the U.S. Army, which has been using TikTok for recruiting, urging it to reconsider its tactics.

Jorgenson knows all about the issues surrounding TikTok, but noted that all social networks have had serious ethical issues. “It was the same thing three or four years ago at my old job,” he said. “Most of what we were doing was for Facebook traffic—and even then, Facebook had different things going on … especially after 2016.”

Jorgenson’s colleagues have been covering TikTok and the censorship question aggressively. “Those guys are really good at what they do,” he said. “I have to let them do that, and I just have to focus on the videos.”