More than any other social network, Tumblr has blurred the line between what a media company does and what a technology company does. Or, to piggyback on a metaphor of Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti, Tumblr both drives the trains and owns the railroad tracks. Sure, Twitter and Facebook have journalism managers that work closely with content creators, but only Tumblr has a full-fledged editorial team tasked with producing original feature reporting.
Today, Tumblr took yet another step into the realm of original reporting by sending out a call for paid freelancers to pitch stories to its Storyboard blog, the crown jewel of the Tumblr editorial department highlighting talented creators and their work.
This won’t be the first time Tumblr has employed outside help in creating original content, but editor-in-chief Chris Mohney says he’s looking to expand the role of contributors with this open call for freelancers. Right now, Tumblr’s staff produces about two-thirds of the content on Storyboard, but Mohney would like to see that ratio move closer to 50/50.
At first glance, paying for stories may seem a bit counter-intuitive. After all, Tumblr isn’t exactly at a loss for content. People already post stories, images, GIFs, charts, and videos across 76 million blogs and counting, without expecting anything in return, unless you count the faint glimmer of hope that your Tumblr will land you a book deal.
But Tumblr’s executive editor Jessica Bennett says that the kind of content they’re looking for is more along the lines of a New Yorker-style profile than a “Fuck Yeah” blog (or perhaps a New Yorker-style profile of a “Fuck Yeah” blog):
“We look for quality storytelling — the kind of stuff you might find at a national mag (and indeed, our work has been syndicated on WNYC, New York Magazine, The Awl and elsewhere), but with a new media twist. We’re interested in long form narratives, smart think pieces, documentary video, infographics, original photography — we really don’t discriminate based on medium. It’s the stories that are important.”
In other words, the same type of content Storyboard has featured since it launched last May: profiles of people doing creative things, often on Tumblr itself.
When the Storyboard vertical first debuted, I was initially skeptical. Tumblr writers writing about people on Tumblr? It sounded a bit more like PR than journalism. But many of the stories don’t even mention “Tumblr” or only do so incidentally like this recent video on the art of beardgrooming (it’s a Brooklyn thing) or this inside look at a lost Mohammed Ali interview.
“We’ve done several stories now that have no overt Tumblr connection,” Mohney says. “Or the Tumblr connection is downplayed.”
In terms of where this all fits in to Tumblr’s business strategy, it’s hard to say. When asked if Tumblr’s editorial department would ever consider expanding its journalistic ambitions to include breaking news coverage or trend-pieces, Mohney said, “It’s conceivable, but I don’t think that will be Storyboard. A lot of those are taken care of by Tumblr (users).” He’s right — tumblogs like ShortFormBlog can compete with the best news organizations and Twitter feeds when it comes to curating breaking news.
If nothing else, the journalistically-rigorous content on Storyboard may help to legitimize Tumblr as a publishing platform in the eyes of people who don’t care for the GIF-happy chaos that has defined it for much of its existence. Buzzfeed has taken a similar strategy by hiring serious political reporters and now by doubling-down on long form journalism. But Mohney emphasizes that Tumblr’s not looking to become the next New York Magazine or even the next Buzzfeed, at least not right now. Instead, Tumblr’s editorial concerns seem to stem more from a community-building standpoint, rather than a “let’s-become-the-only-news-GIF-general-interest-site-you’ll-ever-need” standpoint.
“Our purpose is not to drive traffic to Storyboard, our goal is to bring interest to these stories,” Mohney says. “Ultimately the content is not for us. It’s for other people.”