‘Media Evangelist’ Explains How Tumblr Fits into News Organizations’ Publishing Options

Mark Coatney, also known as “Newsweek Tumblr guy,” announced Monday that he had accepted a job as Tumblr’s “media evangelist.” The position, he said, will allow him to teach other journalists the lessons he’s learned in creating and running Newsweek’s Tumblr.

“Basically my job is to introduce Tumblr to big media places,” Coatney said in an interview, “and help them best use the service as a way to create and connect to their own communities.”

Several media outlets, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post and The Atlantic, created Tumblr accounts during the same week in June, prompting some to wonder what was going on. In a phone interview, Tumblr President John Maloney said this was a coincidence that reinforced the company’s decision to hire someone who could help news organizations learn how to use the blogging platform to their advantage.

“There are publishing companies from all over the world on Tumblr,” Maloney said. “We are actively talking to or working with dozens of them, and while we’ve done a good job helping with our current team, we needed someone who brings unique experience and understanding of traditional media and how it intersects with Tumblr and our community.”

Time-strapped journalists might ask why they should bother signing up for yet another blogging platform. The better question, though, is this: How does Tumblr fit into the range of publishing options for news organizations?

Stripped-down, social-minded platform

I see Tumblr as fitting somewhere between Twitter and a full-featured blogging platform like WordPress. Tumblr gives new users the option of searching their e-mail contacts to see if their friends also have Tumblrs, so they have a ready-made community.

Similar to Twitter, you can “follow” other Tumblr blogs and others can follow yours. Tumblr lends itself to deeper conversations, though, because you aren’t limited to 140 characters. Like most blogging platforms, you can tag and post text, images, audio and videos.

You can see the social aspect of Tumblr when you log in and view the dashboard, which looks like a Twitter stream with headlines. All of the Tumblr blogs you’re following show up there, as if you’re looking at a stripped-down RSS reader.

If you “reblog” posts from other Tumblr blogs, they’ll appear on your own Tumblr along with your own posts. (One drawback of Tumblr is that, depending on the design that someone uses, it’s sometimes hard to tell when a post has been reblogged.)

“Other platforms don’t have the immediate community that appears on your dashboard. That’s the simple win in my mind,” said Tiff Fehr, a msnbc.com designer/developer who created a “geek-themed” Tumblr where she posts links for coworkers who are interested in technology.

The more Tumblr followers you have, the more likely your content is to be seen and shared. And the more Tumblr blogs you follow, the more posts you’ll see on your dashboard. Followers of your blog can “like” a post and (if you enable these features) they can reply to your posts and submit their own posts. Another feature enables people to ask and answer questions through their Tumblrs.

Read, respond, repeat

The interactive dashboard, essentially a marriage of publishing and RSS, creates a more social blogging experience.

“It makes the barrier between reading something and responding to it very small, and I think that encourages people to be more conversational,” said Coatney, who worked as Newsweek.com’s special projects editor before taking the job at Tumblr.

“I understand that journalists can’t spend all their time responding to readers,” he continued, “but at the same time, they can’t ignore them either, especially when the tools to interact are getting better all the time, whether it’s on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, or, hell, Dogster.”

When he was at Newsweek, Coatney used the dashboard to see what others were talking about — and to respond to their criticism and questions. When he posted a story on Newsweek’s Tumblr about unpaid interns, for instance, he noticed that people asked, “Well, Newsweek, do you pay YOUR interns?”

“Tumblr’s also a great place for readers to convey questions to journalists, or to organizations,” said Coatney, who answered the internship question on Tumblr. “Having the ability to quickly find out what your readers are interested in, and to quickly respond, is huge.”

The major news organizations that joined Tumblr recently are still trying to figure out how it will fit into their publishing and social media strategies. The New York Times and The Huffington Post told me they’re not ready to say how they’ll use it.

If Tumblr continues to grow in popularity, it could drive more traffic to news orgs’ websites. So far, Tumblr hasn’t been a big traffic driver for Newsweek.com. About 700 people come to the site from Tumblr each day, compared to the estimated 7,000 people who come to the site daily from Twitter, Coatney said.

Persona-driven publishing

Coatney said Newsweek’s Tumblr (which now has more than 11,000 followers) grew in popularity when he stopped simply pulling in RSS feeds and started to hand-select content for it. When he posted some content from Newsweek.com and some from a variety of other sites, the Tumblr seemed less promotional and more personal. And in doing so, he let people know that there’s a person behind the account.

“I think the common mistake is to treat Tumblr solely as a promotional vehicle to get people back to your site,” said Coatney, who used the Newsweek Tumblr to respond to criticism about the magazine.

The conversational nature of Tumblr has helped the “TODAY” show add more personality to its brand. TODAYshow.com Features Editor Rina Raphael said that ultimately, she’d like to see Ann Curry and Al Roker, who have strong presences on Twitter, start discussions on Tumblr as well.

“In general, what does best for the show does the best for us online — exclusive interviews, breaking news, celebrities. But we don’t want to simply regurgitate the content; we want a discussion,” Raphael said. “The challenge, however, is how to serve a show that features such a wide range of topics — everything from an interview with the president to Kathie Lee without makeup. That means we somehow try to convey the day’s highlights while still maintaining a consistent style and voice.”

Raphael said “TODAY” is trying to use humor in some of its Tumblr posts. A few weeks ago, the Newsweek Tumblr poked fun at a “TODAY” headline. “We threw it right back at them and they, in jest, conceded,” Raphael said. “Our followers loved that ‘TODAY’ was having a conversation with Newsweek.”

Reaching people beyond traditional platforms

Tumblr, which gets about 25,000 new users each day, has helped attract new audiences that may not otherwise come across stories on “TODAY.” One of the blog’s followers, for instance, recently told Raphael, “I don’t watch ‘TODAY’ in the morning, but I love getting the highlights on my Tumblr.”

“We still haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly who comprises our audience, but it seems like a younger demographic,” Raphael said. “We’re reaching an audience that otherwise might not be exposed to ‘TODAY’ content and personalities — the best argument for extending our reach via social media platforms.”

Similarly, Tumblr has helped draw younger people to Newsweek. The average reader for Newsweek is over 50, Coatney said, while the average Newsweek.com reader is 42 or 43. Based on comments and user feedback, he thinks those who follow Newsweek’s Tumblr are probably in their mid-20s.

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“I thought it’d be really good for Newsweek to see how you could take what we do and translate it to an audience that wouldn’t typically pick up Newsweek,” Coatney said in thinking back to why he created Newsweek’s Tumblr. “A lot of the responses we got early on about Tumblr were from people who had thought of Newsweek as this thing that their grandparents read. They said this made them rethink the publication and be more inclined to check it out.”
 
Newsweek’s Tumblr is expected to continue even after Coatney is gone. “I hope it will be better,” he said. “There are some really good people here who have Tumblrs, and I hope to turn Newsweek’s over to them.”

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