The trouble with Tumblr's journalism experiment
To understand why Tumblr suddenly brought an end to its original-journalism project, Storyboard, after just a year, it helps to consider what outgoing Facebook managing editor Dan Fletcher told an audience at Washington State University last month.
Speaking to the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication, Fletcher said Facebook “doesn’t need reporters” because it already has a billion content providers, as MediaShift reported.
“You guys are the reporters,” said Fletcher. “There is no more engaging content Facebook could produce than you talking to your family and friends.”
That statement is the perfect encapsulation of Tumblr’s challenge with Storyboard, an enterprising idea to produce original stories for partner publications based on what’s happening inside the Tumblr community. Tumblr is now host to more than 100 million blogs. It is an incredible platform for creation, curation, and social sharing. More content is not exactly what it needed.
Tumblr itself had trouble defining its Storyboard project from the start. At the time of launch, Storyboard executive editor Jess Bennett, formerly of Newsweek and the Daily Beast, described it like this:
"Tumblr has 90 million users. Those users are creating and observing and partaking in all sorts of fascinating culture. If you think of Tumblr like a city — a really big city, with a really high proportion of teenagers — then Tumblr Storyboard is like the local newspaper (though we’re more like a magazine) for that city. Get it? Kinda?"
The content that the Storyboard team produced was published by a range of partners, including Time magazine, the Daily Beast, MTV, and New York magazine. Much of it was excellent and entertaining reporting, including a piece that delved inside the New York Times’ “photo morgue,” which appeared on and was supplemented by WNYC, a combined effort with the Daily Beast about the rabid female fans of Benedict Cumberbatch, and a consideration of “Sesame Street”’s treatment of divorce, published on Time.com.
While those pieces all qualify as “journalism,” they are also, effectively, something else: branded content. What benefit would Tumblr otherwise get from investing in an editorial department and then handing out its stories to other publications?
Indeed, as Storyboard’s editor-in-chief Chris Mohney told Capital New York, while the Tumblr stories were very much traditionally reported, “What we’re doing is marketing as journalism.” The idea was to show off the work being done by Tumblr’s community members and incentivize creative people to publish their best work on the platform.
But there is a problem with a platform that also tries to “do editorial,” which is likely something Facebook is also finding out with its similar project, Facebook Stories, envisioned as a place to “celebrate great stories” that take place on the social network. In his address at Washington State University, Fletcher, who is leaving Facebook to join a media startup, said it can seem “weird” for the company to communicate with readers through branded content.
“Facebook is meant to sort of fade into the background,” Fletcher said. “When Facebook starts producing content, it takes you away from that mindset.”
At their core, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter are sharing networks, not publishing companies. They act as platforms for other people’s content, which can be spread rapidly and massively among their communities. A consequence of being walled gardens that restricts this sharing activity within their own properties, however, is that they give up the right to decide when and how that content breaks free into the wider public discourse. Even though it had success with its partnerships program at placing stories into other forums, Storyboard’s stories always had the whiff of marketing, or what is these days being described as “native advertising.” As we now know, that ultimately did not work out for Tumblr. Going by Fletcher’s comments, perhaps Facebook Stories will meet a similar fate.
LinkedIn, on the other hand, understands its role as a platform, even as it pushes to make content a core part of its business. Its iPad app is effectively a personalized news reader, with a social network lying underneath it. LinkedIn, however, isn’t in the business of commissioning its own content. Instead, it hosts and distributes content produced by third-party publishers, serving up a daily dose of business-related news that makes sense for its network of professionally-minded members. Yeah, it has a new blog section for “influencers,” but that’s about gathering an audience around independent voices hosted on the platform, not about telling stories about LinkedIn.
That is a savvier sort of “branded content” than the approach taken by Facebook and Tumblr, because the value is implicit in the network. It’s a classic case of “show don’t tell.” Plus, it opens up the possibility for letting other parties pay for LinkedIn to publish their own branded content , turning the company into a potentially powerful media business.
It’s sad for Tumblr’s hard-working editorial team that Storyboard has met an abrupt demise, but it might well be the consequence of a realization that platforms should stay away from doing their own editorial. That’s not their core competency, it’s not what their users turn to them for, and it ultimately can’t be seen as anything other than marketing in disguise.
Faced with a mission muddle, Tumblr CEO David Karp may just have come to conclusion that 100 million blogs is more than enough. The company will do just fine by leaving the storytelling up to its community.