TikTok Really Is Becoming Gen Z’s Google, and More on How Gen Z Gets Its News

Media & entertainment analyst Kevin Tran breaks down how publishers can monetize young consumers who are increasingly turning to social platforms for free news
Graphic conveying news consumption via smartphone.
Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Khanh Pham
February 21, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Google Search is the go-to news discovery platform for U.S. adults, but that’s less the case for Gen Z, which prefers TikTok and Instagram more than older generations.

  • In February, 14% of Gen Z adults reported using TikTok to start researching a major news event, significantly higher than the share of all adults (2%) saying the same.

  • To boost their chances of counting Gen Zers as paying subscribers, news publishers must distribute more compelling content that lives outside of their own websites.

Publishers’ paths to reaching Gen Zers are becoming notably less straightforward. Well before search giants announced plans to integrate generative artificial intelligence into their platforms, which could ding publisher referrals, Google acknowledged it was becoming a less-favored search platform for Gen Zers.

This was no flash in the pan: The latest Morning Consult data shows that the share of Gen Z adults who start researching major news events on Google Search is lower than that of the general population. A significant slice of Gen Z adults is instead heading to the platform that is de rigueur among its cohort — TikTok — for news.

This means that it’s far past the wait-and-see phase for publishers and their participation on TikTok. As Gen Zers come into their own financially, establishing a strong presence on the Bytedance-owned platform will greatly increase publishers’ chances of counting younger consumers as paying subscribers.

Google Search is less popular among younger consumers

Much has been made about the decline of Google Search since a company executive first mentioned the now-ubiquitous TikTok and Instagram over Google stat last year. But it’s worth noting that a plurality of Gen Z adults (39%) still indicate that Google Search is where they begin gathering information about a major news event — it’s just that this young cohort also shows a distinct preference for learning about news on TikTok. In February, 14% said TikTok is where they start researching major news events, compared with just 1% of all other generations who said the same.

Shares of respondents who said they use the following platforms to start researching a major news event:
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Survey conducted Feb. 3-5, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,199 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

A similarly high percentage of Gen Z adults (13%) said they start researching major news events on YouTube. But news on YouTube doesn’t skew toward Gen Zers as heavily as news on TikTok does: 9% of adults start researching news events on the former, compared with just 2% for the latter. This speaks to how TikTok can help news brands make inroads with Gen Zers faster than other social platforms can.

It also shows why publishers including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have launched TikTok accounts within the past six months. Most major publishers now have at least some presence on TikTok, though many still aren’t very active. Prominent brands such as the Financial Times and Axios are still largely (and notably) absent from the platform.

Holdouts are likely balking at the idea of more heavily embracing a platform that is constantly being cloned and seems perennially on the brink of extinction due to government scrutiny.

But the reality is that products like YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels have not overtaken TikTok in the minds of Gen Zers. And TikTok’s ability to withstand an outright ban by President Donald Trump in 2020 makes it seem unlikely that current efforts to restrict the app domestically will result in it vanishing from the country outright.

Established publishers seem well positioned to negotiate incentives from TikTok for posting on the platform. TikTok is interested in attracting older audiences to its app amid a recent drop in monthly users, according to The Information. Legacy publishers could emphasize their potential to bring some of their loyal, older readers to the platform by advocating for a fund that subsidizes their short-form video content production — something TikTok has already done for individual creators.

Younger audiences will still pay for news, though certain topics are better subscription bait

More exposure to Gen Zers on TikTok can lead to a more robust subscriber base of younger consumers. The image of the typical news subscriber is somebody older, thanks to very few Gen Z adults regularly reading newspapers and the higher average age of cable news viewers. But Morning Consult data shows that younger consumers are more likely to pay for online news than their older counterparts.

While over one-third (36%) of Gen Z adults and millennials in February said they pay for at least one online news subscription, that figure was just 16% for Gen Xers and baby boomers.

Shares of respondents who said they paid for the following number of online news subscriptions:
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Survey conducted Feb. 3-5, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,199 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

While it’s assumed that Gen Z shuns legacy media in favor of news that’s available for free, many older members of this cohort are just starting their careers, and are likely to be keeping themselves updated on current events more than ever — hence why there’s still some demand for news subscriptions among Gen Zers.

But news publishers need to act quickly to prove their worth to younger readers, whose news budgets are a double-edged sword: While younger readers are more likely to pay for news than their older counterparts, the shares of Gen Z adults (34%) and millennials (35%) who said they will “probably” or “definitely” cancel an online news subscription within three months eclipsed the shares of baby boomers (24%) and gen Xers (21%) who said the same.

To accelerate revenue growth coming from Gen Z in particular, publishers could bolster their pop culture verticals. In particular, the news topics that the highest shares of Gen Z adults in February said they are “very interested” in paying to follow are music, TV and film, and food.

Gen Z’s preferences for these news topics should be encouraging to publishers. Pop culture content tends to perform well on platforms like TikTok, where users are generally looking for lighthearted and zeitgeisty fare, in addition to news on major events.

Generative AI is the wild card for the future of Gen Z news consumption

The rise of tools like ChatGPT and Bard offers a look at how search engines could reclaim time spent from social platforms like TikTok, but it also seems poised to make search engines like Google less reliable sources of Gen Z traffic.

As Bing and Google integrate generative AI into their interfaces, younger users may increasingly favor traditional search engines for information discovery. But they might also click into publishers’ websites less often after reading chatbot summaries on search results pages. Similar shares of Gen Z adults and millennials (42% and 40%, respectively) said they’ve heard “some” or “a lot” about ChatGPT, significantly higher than the comparable shares of Gen Xers (22%) and baby boomers (23%).

Shares of respondents who said how much they have seen, read or heard about ChatGPT
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Survey conducted Feb. 3-5, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,199 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

As search engine referrals may eventually become scarcer, publishers can’t be too conservative in restricting their most compelling coverage to their websites. This means investing more resources into repurposing portions of paywalled content into posts for social platforms, whether that be vertical videos on TikTok or even video podcasts on YouTube.

All that being said, it’s unlikely that even compelling integrations of AI tools into traditional search engines will completely derail the rise of visual-based social platforms like TikTok as Google alternatives for Gen Z. This young generation likely prefers being able to multitask within one platform — not only researching hard news, but also interacting with their friends. Google and Bing cannot easily replicate this experience, meaning there will always be some who see TikTok or Instagram as their Google replacement.

In the meantime, publishers can experiment with generative AI to help develop their coverage, but they should clearly disclose any substantial applications of this technology — such as using ChatGPT to write an entire article and then publishing an edited version. Google doesn’t require such disclosures, but news brands have already faced backlash for not clearly labeling usage of AI to produce content that ultimately resulted in plagiarism and inaccuracies.

But the most compelling publisher use cases for generative AI may not even be part of the current discussion surrounding the technology. For example, it doesn’t seem so crazy for a U.S. Gen Z-focused news brand to eventually experiment with an entirely digital news reporter — think Lil Miquela, but as a journalist. But that probably won’t happen for a while. So for the time being, it’s probably not a bad thing if publishers are more cautious than eager to implement AI tools into their everyday processes.

A headshot photograph of Kevin Tran
Kevin Tran
Senior Media & Entertainment Analyst

Kevin Tran previously worked at Morning Consult as the senior media & entertainment analyst.

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