Social media has expanded news audiences far beyond the reach of traditional TV broadcasts. So it makes sense that news organizations are now turning to young social media users to provide news coverage on TikTok and other platforms.
Gab Varano, who interned for NBC News’ social media team during her senior year at Hofstra University, was offered a full-time job as an associate social video producer after graduating in 2021. The then-22-year-old felt jitters as she became one of the sole producers of the news team’s TikTok account, which at the time had over 1 million followers.
But Stephanie Scrafano, NBC News’ director of social and Varano’s manager, knew that her new hire brought an innovative approach to journalism — because she was a part of the target audience.
“The most exciting part about social media is that it changes so quickly,” Scrafano said. “You don’t really decide the strategy, the world does for you.”
Scrafano’s team serves as the central hub for all of NBC News’ social media accounts, which have about 50 million followers. She oversees video and written content for Instagram, Facebook and X, as well as the TikTok video team headed by Varano.
TikTok is “a very new adventure for us and a very exciting one, too,” Scrafano said. “We have milliseconds to capture people’s attention.” Their videos need to be objective, clear and digestible, whether they are reports under a minute in length or longer explainers.
The NBC News social media video team starts every morning with an editorial call to ensure they have necessary elements to cover the day’s news and live events. NBC News usually films horizontally, so Scrafano’s team makes sure to reformat clips as vertical video to match the layout on most social platforms.
“It’s a large effort across our team, but it is very fulfilling work,” Scrafano said.
Keep videos concise, casual and with context
Varano said she has seen exponential growth on the NBC News TikTok account, from 1.1 million followers their first year to 4.7 million followers. Scrafano says this is a mostly younger audience that may not be consuming traditional news sources.
“People watching our videos on social aren’t the people tuning in to ‘[NBC] Nightly News’ at night or going to NBCNews.com to get their news,” Scrafano said. “They’re already on TikTok, they’re already on Instagram. So, as they’re scrolling, we’re informing them.”
Varano credits their videos’ effectiveness on “three C’s”: conciseness, casual tone and context.
- Be concise: Varano says her typical text-on-screen video has a roughly five-line script for a 25-second-clip.
- Be casual: Digital video scripts should sound like telling the news to a friend, to keep users engaged.
- Offer context: Keep the visuals, interviews and scripting aligned to make sure content is delivered in an accurate and easy-to-understand manner.
Video editing styles: Looping video, supercuts, text on screen
The social media video team produces an average of five videos per day, but during special coverage, it can double.
“Making a video look native to the platform is really key,” Varano said. She likes to use three main editing styles:
- Looping a video: If an interesting quote or moment happens at the end of the video, place it at the front so the video “backtracks” to that point.
- Supercuts: Create a montage of different moments of a situation.
- Text on screen: Add text and subtitles through the app to make the video accessible for a wide range of users.
Verifying video to stop the spread of misinformation
When the war in Ukraine began, NBC News’ TikTok account gained over 1 million followers in just one week, Scrafano said. One TikTok they made in February 2022 showing a Russian military vehicle running over a car in Kyiv got over 47 million views.
With misinformation on the war spreading rapidly online, Scrafano saw it was a crucial moment to be “very transparent with the audience” and show how the NBC News social newsgathering team verified videos. A TikTok from March 2022 shows Ukrainians laying in the road in front of Russian forces’ vehicles. The social newsgathering team had compared the vehicles, store signs and other landmarks seen in the video with other verified videos of the same incident and confirmed the video was accurate.
Social media provides opportunities for young journalists
Just a few years ago, most roles on Scrafano’s team did not exist. Scrafano says just as the social landscape is rapidly changing, students looking to enter journalism should adapt their skills as much as possible.
“We were very keen on hiring people who understand the audiences that we were trying to target, because they are part of that audience,” Scrafano said.
Varano feels encouraged to experiment. “You have a lot of impostor syndrome as an intern, hoping that you don’t post on the wrong account or spell something wrong,” Varano said. “You push that impostor syndrome to the side, and you realize ‘No, I’m meant to be here.’”