May 21, 2013

What do you do with a blog service full of cat GIFs and memes? If you’re Yahoo, you buy it for $1.1 billion. If you’re a media outlet, you use Tumblr as an extension of your brand.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Tumblr Chief Executive David Karp. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The platform, founded by David Karp in 2007, is home to more than 108 million blogs and more than 50 billion individual posts. Tumblr pages take seconds to set up, and users range from individuals like John Green to companies like IBM. Even the White House has a Tumblr.

Tumblr makes it easy for users to post quickly, and those posts can be just about anything, like a long text post, a photo with a link or a video. Because of Tumblr’s versatility — and because it lets users interact with one another — many news organizations have joined and made Tumblr blogs to share their coverage or communicate with their audiences. There’s room for blogs with just about any purpose, so here’s a look at how several outlets use the site. (And here’s a more hands-on guide.)

Answering readers’ practical questions

The San Francisco Chronicle uses its Tumblr not as a platform to share content but as a means to address subscriber service concerns. Now that the site has a paywall for SFChron, it helps both paying subscribers, as well as those who follow the Chronicle on its main website, SFGate.

Matt Dickon, who runs the Chronicle’s service Tumblr and Twitter accounts, said he prefers to respond to subscriber and reader concerns on Tumblr rather than through an email service, because of the immediacy of sending and receiving messages on Tumblr.

“Sometimes within a minute of a question coming in, I’m writing an answer,” he said by phone. Anyone with a Tumblr account can send a message or question, under their handle, to the account; those without an account can submit a question anonymously.

Dickow said using Tumblr for troubleshooting is more direct than an email submission and reporting process because the questions come straight to him rather than being sent to a general email address and then sorted by a software program.

He can also answer questions and post them publicly on the Tumblr; as long as the questions are general concerns, the information is be applicable to others with similar problems.

“So long as [subscribers] bookmark the page, they have access to the information,” he said.

Engaging audiences and creating new content

Audience engagement is key to the success of an outlet’s Tumblr. Two Tumblrs in particular exemplify good audience engagement: NPR’s family of Tumblrs, and I Love Charts.

NPR has built a group of Tumblr blogs, from a general NPR Tumblr to Tumblrs for programs like Fresh Air and Wait Wait.. Don’t Tell Me. Each blog is run by different teams, but they follow a similar layout and design style so the group looks unified.

“If you look at each one of the Tumblrs, they’re each run differently,” Wright Bryan, an editor on NPR’s social media desk, said by phone. Bryan was part of the team that made the first, general NPR Tumblr.

I spoke with Bryan and Kate Myers, NPR’s product manager for social media, about NPR’s all-purpose Tumblr and several user submission projects the station has run.

“We are using Tumblr as an editorial engine,” Myers said by phone. She explained that several NPR campaigns run through Tumblr – like the “Dear Mr. President” campaign – were made possible because NPR is used to this sort of user engagement, and because its existing audience is invested in the station.

For example, I explained to Bryan and Myers that I had grown up listening to NPR with my family, but once I went to college, I no longer had a car and didn’t listen to the radio in my spare time. However, I still feel a connection to NPR and follow it on Tumblr and my other social media accounts.

“I’ve heard that story so many times,” said Bryan. “Now the only way that this group of people [younger people] is getting our content is on the Web, on a podcast, through social platforms…It’s critical that we be there, I think, to meet those people where they are.”

Myers agreed, and said that engagement on social media platforms fits with NPR’s overall strategy to engage listeners. Developing a relationship with listeners on the radio is a one-way conversation; interaction between the station and listeners on Tumblr is a “natural outgrowth” of that relationship, she said.

“You feel like it’s a one-on-one conversation,” she said of NPR’s programming.“[It] sends the message that we’re invested in what they bring to the table.”

Evidence of the listener-station relationship is evident in several NPR projects run through Tumblr. Morning Edition’s “Cook Your Cupboard” Tumblr helps listeners figure out what they can rustle up with leftover or odd foodstuffs. She-Works, another NPR Tumblr, is a congruent effort with the “Changing Lives of Women” series that airs on several NPR programs. They also use the general Tumblr to hype NPR apps and special projects.

Another Tumblr, I Love Charts, leverages the same kind of content submission, and also allows for guest curation. The blog is full of niche content: if it’s data, emotion or some other quantifiable information expressed in a chart or graph, it’s relevant to the blog.

“We’re just lucky to have a very identifiable angle,” Jason Oberholtzer, who runs the Tumblr, said by phone.

Oberholtzer finds and reblogs content on his own, but he also uses submissions for a significant portion of the blog’s content. “We have a fairly large community of submitters,” he said.

Oberholtzer also explained that he lets some bloggers curate the blog for a day as a “chartist-in-residence,” which means they’re in charge of all the content published on the blog. They can reblog content or upload original work. Chartists have included Dante Shepherd of Surviving the World, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and The Weekly Weinersmith and artist Wendy MacNaughton.

“I give them the day,” Oberholtzer said. “The general guidelines are, we try to get out 10-12 posts a day… [and] they have access to our entire inbox of submitted charts.”

The success of I Love Charts has helped Oberholtzer in other ventures; he was offered a column by Forbes after running I Love Charts for about a year and a half, and there’s now an “I Love Charts” book, based on the blog.

Sharing content, regardless of source

The nature of Tumblr comes down to sharing content with followers. Most, if not all, news Tumblrs share others’ content in addition to their own coverage.

“We can’t cover everything, and we don’t report on everything… [that] doesn’t mean that another story isn’t worth attention,” Colleen Shalby, social media editor for PBS NewsHour, said in a phone interview. Shalby said the NewsHour Tumblr doesn’t just share its own content; it reblogs (shares a post from another Tumblr) or posts links to other outlets’ coverage.

One of the most popular posts from their Tumblr, a Roger Ebert quote posted after he died, “wasn’t even our piece of content.” Sharing others’ content isn’t just about getting notes, however.

“Using Tumblr is a bit about showing your organization’s personality, and that’s not just feeding the beast to get people back to the website,” she said.

Another outlet, native to Tumblr, uses the website to share media news. The Future Journalism Project, run by Michael Cervieri, shares news from other outlets by virtue of its positioning and angle.

“I had played with Tumblr beforehand, just kind of personal stuff, so I kind of knew what the community was like on there,” said Cervieri in a phone interview. “The decision was, let’s go to where the community is and see if we can build an audience.”

Cervieri writes posts about media news to share on the Tumblr, and will frequently reblog posts and add news to them. The Tumblr also aggregates news from other outlets, much like Poynter’s MediaWire blog on our homepage. News organizations have to be sure to share source information about what they’re posting; as Oberholtzer explained to me about I Love Charts, it’s important to be diligent about giving sources proper credit.

In fact, I’ve also tried to strike a balance between sharing our own content, and sharing others’ content, while running the Poynter Institute Tumblr. While I want to share the content we produce, it’s important that our Tumblr isn’t just a feed of the content we’ve published on our website. If it were, it wouldn’t interest people who already read our website, and if we published all of Poynter’s content on Tumblr, those who follow us on Tumblr would have no reason to visit our homepage. That’s why it’s important to have unique content on both.

Sharing one’s own content

While sharing third party content helps to develop voice, publications would have less of an incentive to create Tumblrs if it didn’t present an opportunity to share their own content. For some publications, Tumblr’s quirky and eclectic tone is a reflection of the publication.

“We do view [Tumblr] as a place where we talk about what we love and are interested in, a little bit separate from what we’re covering on a day to day and month to month basis,” Mark McClusky, editor of, said about the magazine’s Tumblr in an email interview. “That tone probably is closer to the magazine and website’s tone than some other brands Tumblrs are. We’re a brand that marries the intellectual and the obscure, and that reflects on the Tumblr.”

However, Tumblr also resonates with the voices of other publications that focus on straight news.

“We generally reflect the tone of the Guardian on Tumblr – so sometimes we can be very tongue-in-cheek,” Hannah Waldram, community coordinator for news at the Guardian, said in an email interview. For the Guardian, Tumblr is also a place to publish content that might not make it onto the front page.

“We sometimes do ‘behind the scenes’ posts or extra bits of reporting or insider knowledge on a news story,” Waldram said. Waldram also said the Guardian has covered specific news in greater depth on Tumblr based on the community’s interests. For example, when opposition to SOPA and PIPA was popular on Tumblr, the Guardian’s Tumblr highlighted the publication’s existing coverage.

The Guardian has also launched a special Tumblr project, called English to English, that points out incongruities in English as it’s spoken in the U.K. versus American English. The project takes advantage of Tumblr’s lighter tone as well as user interactivity; it publishes Guardian-produced posts, as well as reader submissions.

Tumblr-specific content is important to other publications’ social media strategy, too.

“One part of our strategy … is creating custom content specifically for social platforms, instead of just re-purposing content,” Anjali Mullany, digital news director for Fast Company, said of the publication’s social media strategy, in an email interview. “We may cover one story different ways for different platforms, or we may cover news on one of our social platforms that we did not cover on our website,” she said in a follow-up email.

Tumblr-specific content isn’t just about providing additional coverage; it also lets users get a behind-the-scenes look at their favorite publications.

“In some ways, Tumblr feels a bit like ‘MinnPost after dark.’ We approach things with more humor or snark — within reason — and try to show the personality of the organization,” Kaeti Hinck, director of news technology at MinnPost, an online-only Minnesota publication, said by email.

For example, during MinnRoast (a roast of the state), the team published photos of speakers to  MinnPost’s Tumblr that weren’t published on the website. And the Tumblr doesn’t just reflect MinnPost’s Minnesota-centric coverage; it also commiserates with its audience.  Hinck said the tone on the Tumblr reflected how MinnPost can relate to users on the platform.

“Minnesota has a strong local Tumblr contingent, so when I took over the MinnPost account a few years back I tried to connect with that community as much as possible. You can’t jump into an ecosystem completely blind to what’s going on around you and expect to be effective,” she said.

Overall, MinnPost’s attitude toward Tumblr reflects what the other publications know, too. Using the platform to promote the exact same content that’s published in print or on their own websites won’t work; instead, the platform is most successful as a tool for audience engagement. In fact, when I asked several of the people in this article what kind of traffic they get from their Tumblrs, they all said that that wasn’t the point of their publication’s Tumblr. Instead, it’s about developing a relationship with the Tumblr audience and sharing new content with their existing audiences.

“It’s so important to pay attention to what your peers and readers are doing on Tumblr, and to support that work,” Hinck said. “It’s a pay-it-forward sort of mentality: The more generous you are with sharing the work and content that other people create, the more your own presence will grow.”

Related: A journalist’s guide to using Tumblr | Journalists learn what works (& doesn’t work) on Tumblr | Tumblr for Journalists: Best Practices and Strategies (Poynter NewsU)

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