Kelsey Russell asked for only one 23rd birthday gift from her dad: a New York Times Sunday print subscription, which she live-reacted to receiving on TikTok. Two days later, Russell kicked off a now-viral content series documenting what she learned “in order to bring back the newspaper.” The first TikTok in the series amassed 1.7 million views and 311,000 likes, and her call to invest in print media has resonated on the platform with a generation everyone else in the media industry is desperately trying to reach.
As TikTok emerges as serious competition to the existing social media space with its 1 billion monthly active users, news consumption on the platform is rapidly increasing. While many legacy media organizations have pivoted to creating content to cater to the younger audience that tends to populate the platform, the widest consumption is coming from content creators like Russell.
“All of us in journalism are trying to figure out how to get people to care about news and she just saved journalism in like a 30-second video,” a comment on one of her videos reads. But for Russell, she’s merely going where the audience is.
“I believe with education we need to meet the people where they are,” Russell told TheWrap. “So it’s the accessibility component of let’s meet young people where they are, which is currently on TikTok.”
Russell now regularly uploads content in which she essentially translates an article a day, exposing Gen Z viewers to current events. Russell has covered topics ranging from lobbying to environmental politics to gun control, all with a conversational, Gen Z style.
In one video, Russell discusses an article about the ongoing civil war in Syria: “I didn’t know these kids in Syria was just stepping on bombs!” She continues, “We gotta do something, but I don’t know if we can do something, you know, cause Russia is Syria. But then how about the United States finna send the same bombs that we were condemning Syria for using, to the Ukraine? It’s so hypocritical,” Russell says with an eye-roll.
“I kind of fell into this avenue of media literacy influencing to help Gen Z get invested back into print media,” Russell said, acknowledging that the platform is popular precisely because attention spans are so short, which makes translating the news into a concise video all the more important. “TikTok is accessible because of where our attention spans are right now. We need to consume things in a short amount of time and TikTok allows you to do that.”
It’s not just Gen Z that’s listening — since starting her media literacy series, Russell has received newspapers and magazines from outlets that have seen her TikToks and would like to be featured in upcoming videos. She was also invited to visit the New York Times headquarters. Legacy media organizations have demonstrated that the content Russell produces is valuable to them, especially as print media continues to struggle.
Her videos include terms popular with Gen Z TikTok users like “media literahottie” and “it’s giving business,” and she often refers to her viewers as “bad Gen Z biddies” or “smarticle particles.” Just like “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart or “Last Week Tonight” star John Oliver embraced comedic shorthand to drill down their most viral news segments, Russell has found a vernacular all her own.
Russell said she thinks Gen Z’s need for their own social media language can sometimes stem from the lack of “vocabulary to expand on what we are trying to say. We live in a world where we type in 250 characters… That’s how our generation communicates.”
“So it is important for that language to be legitimized and to be put into academic places,” Russell added.
In one video, Russell is summarizing an article from the New York Times’ Sunday Styles, which she refers to as “hot girl bible.”
“I’ve always said education needs to be entertaining and entertainment needs to be educational,” Russell said. “I think humor is the most accessible form of communication.” Again, Stewart and Oliver would agree.
But above all else, Russell is encouraging Gen Z to improve their media literacy skills and connect with one another through news media.
“I’m gonna help you understand why investing in physical print media can help our generation,” Russell says in one of her videos. “The newspaper is drama. That’s why I want Gen Z to read it. It’s literally gossip and you know we love to gossip.”
All jokes aside, Russell said she touts print media because “our generation is extremely overstimulated and has no concept of emotional regulation,” adding that reading print media can help slow the brain down while simultaneously educating the reader.
While Russell has a magnetic personality herself that makes her content uniquely entertaining, the high engagement on the series is likely due in part to the fact that more members of Gen Z are getting their news content from TikTok.
From 2020 to 2022, the share of U.S. adults who say they consistently consume their news via TikTok went from 3% to 10%, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. And 26% of adults under 30 said they regularly get their news from TikTok.
Not only are adults in general gravitating toward the platform for news more often, but a third of regular TikTok users say they consistently get their news directly from the site. According to research published in February by the Morning Consult, 14% of Gen Z adults said they turned to TikTok when researching a major news event.
Kevin Tran, the Morning Consult’s senior media and entertainment analyst, told TheWrap that a feature of TikTok that makes it so attractive to Gen Z is the fact that it’s a newly established platform. “Gen Z was able to say, this is our platform,” he said.
Tran noted that Elon Musk’s recently minted ownership of X, formerly known as Twitter, and the regulatory changes made to the platform since, may have driven users straight into the hands of TikTok for news content. “Twitter/X is in a different position now,” Tran said of Twitter’s prior reputation as a source of reliable breaking news. “Those who were on the fence about using that platform before I think have potentially migrated to other platforms.”
Not only that, but TikTok’s visual search elements lend themselves to keeping an overstimulated Gen Z engaged with news content on the platform.
“These novel approaches are helping TikTok stand out and just the fact that influencers are able to build themselves up on TikTok in a way that other platforms aren’t,” Tran said. “The whole model is built on amplifying voices that you don’t necessarily follow. I think that is something affecting the way that Gen Z consumes the news in general.”
The Morning Consult also ran a survey in February asking what factors influence consumer decisions to trust a news story’s credibility. They found that 25% of Gen Z adults said hearing about the news story from an influencer or celebrity that they follow played a role in their willingness to trust the source.
Having a news influencer discuss a current event, “being able to infuse personality and give an opinion on if it matters definitely can be helpful in terms of making that news more appealing to who it’s being spoken to,” the Morning Consult senior analyst told TheWrap.
However, he stressed that it may not be a sustainable source of income for those looking to monetize their content.
“There’s more of a willingness to turn to someone who’s not necessarily a professional journalist,” for Gen Z, said Tran. “The older the consumer, the more likely that they would want to see news stories from trusted brands, like a major cable channel or legacy news publisher.“
“At a higher level, the whole notion of news influencers or people who are breaking down big news stories on TikTok who aren’t part of major news organizations, it’s definitely an interesting model,” Tran told TheWrap. “It can be effective at winning over Gen Zers who don’t necessarily turn to news websites daily.”
Most major media organizations have recognized the influence of TikTok and have invested resources into content creation to complement the reporting done by the outlet. The Washington Post has seen success on the platform with the use of innovative content styles to explain current events, boasting a solid 1.6 million followers, but few other outlets have been able to capitalize on the TikTok audience in the same way, especially on the level of Russell’s reach.
Russell has been making TikTok content for three years as a full-time student, and her current career ambition is driven by her love for educating. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in sociology and education, with a policy concentration from Teachers College at Columbia.
“I’ve always been a lifelong learner and lover of education,” Russell said. “One of my career goals is to be a college president.”
Maybe the future of Gen Z’s media literacy isn’t so bleak after all.
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