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August 30 2010

16:00

Playing it by ear: The Atlantic joins the magazine-Tumbling fray in embracing experimentation

Until recently, Tumblr was a fairly isolated phenomenon: a platform that (to overgeneralize only slightly) helped a slew of web-savvy young city-dwellers to stay connected with more characters than Twitter but less commitment than blogs. Now, though, the service — which passed its billion-post mark last Monday — is in the air in a more diffuse way, via the tons-of-Tumblrs popping up under the banners of national news outlets. There’s Newsweek’s praiseworthy specimen — the most buzzed-about of the bunch — but there’s also The New Yorker’s, The Economist’s, The American Prospect’s, Life magazine’s, the Huffington Post’s, the Paris Review’s, Utne Reader’s, ProPublica’s, and, a bit farther afield, Public Radio International’s, ABC News Radio’s…and on and on.

One of the most recent additions to the world of media-outlet-Tumbling comes courtesy of The Atlantic, which marked its entry into that world earlier this month. With this:

Since then, the outlet’s fledgling Tumblog (which, ironically or fittingly enough, doesn’t employ Peter Vidani’s free — and quite popular — Atlantic theme) has been populated with ephemera both serious and less so: a mix of images and blurbs and links to content from around the web, from TheAtlantic.com to far, far beyond. Today, for example, finds images of Macchu Picchu and New Orleans; last week found, among other posts, a link to AtlanticTech’s story about competitive lock-picking; an image of real-world renderings of keyboard shortcuts; a post pointing us to the photo site 2 4 Flinching and its compendium of photographs “detailing life on and in the New York City subway in the 1980’s”; a link to an Atlantic photo essay documenting the decay that remains in New Orleans five years after Katrina; a link to Karim Sadjadpour’s list of five key points about the wisdom of an Iranian military strike that, had he the chance, he’d convey to Benjamin Netanyahu; and a YouTube video, via Newsweek’s Tumblr, of “Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee for gov, who somehow manages to spend 30 seconds of film time in the shower without being sensual or pathetic.”

In other words, The Atlantic’s Tumblr, like its media-led peers, reads a bit like the world itself: messy and arbitrary and yet, somehow, sensical. There’s an internal logic to it — but one based on the core illogic of, simply, “what’s interesting.” There’s a good amount of madness…with very little method in it.

And that’s the point.

“If our approach is anything, it’s just experimental,” says J.J. Gould, TheAtlantic.com’s deputy online editor, who’s helping to think through the outlet’s Tumblr presence. The goal is to interact with the quirky new platform — to get to know its rules and rhythm and tones — and go from there. “We’re interested in the language, the distinct nature of the medium — and how to play the instrument,” Gould says. Sure, “we should be smart in the way we approach Tumblr as we aspire to be smart in the way we approach anything. But it’s not something that needs to be over-thought.”

So will The Atlantic’s Tumblr end up looking like The Economist’s (a slick affair filled with crisp images and content curated mostly from the magazine’s own website)? Or will it be more like Newsweek’s (which, even after the departure of former-proprietor Mark Coatney, remains witty and snarky and, in feeling if not in branding, separate from its parent outlet)? Or something in between?

Again: TBD.

And, again: that’s okay. In fact, that’s how it should be. The newness — and, as of now, the relative unknown-ness — of Tumblr offers a certain freedom for media outlets concerned, now more than ever, with the demands of their brands. “One of the things we’re interested in is just the question of what a media institution with a 153-year-old history might be able to do with Tumblr that it can’t do with other things,” Gould says. Tumblr, he notes, is “to some extent a different medium — it plays differently. That’s what’s awesome about it.” Newsweek’s Coatney-led account, the (yeah, I’m going to say it) trailblazing Tumblr, established the freewheeling-because-separate (and separate-because-freewheeling) relationship between the Tumblog and its parent outlet — and that assumption of separateness is one that other outlets are now benefiting from. Coatney recalled for me the leniency he received from his higher-ups at the then-still-WaPo-owned magazine: “Experiment. Do whatever you want. Don’t embarrass us too much. And see how it goes.”

That’s the attitude that has come to characterize the Tumblr accounts of even The Most Serious News Organizations. “I don’t think the Tumblr is something that one needs to or even should bring too much strategy to,” Gould says. “You should just sort of learn what it is, and learn what works well.” And that process, undertaken with a platform whose very infrastructure encourages caprice, requires a level of lightheartedness. Sure, The Atlantic can use its Tumblr to push Atlantic.com content — people who are following the magazine on Tumblr, Gould points out, are presumably also interested in the work it produces — but, ultimately, “we’re entirely interested in approaching Tumblr as its own thing.”

The broader interest is one you don’t often hear discussed in the rarefied air of our national magazines-of-ideas, but one that could stand to get a little more traction in that world: in a word, whimsy. “We certainly think it looks like a lot of fun,” Gould says of his magazine’s new platform. Tumblr’s family status — both of the brand, but independent of it — makes it an ideal platform for, among other things, finding out where that fun fits into the new world we’re forging. Tumblr’s rapid growth, Gould notes, “says something to us. It’s speaking to people in some way.”

May 07 2010

20:00

Say what you will about Newsweek…but don’t forget about their Tumblr

The Awl put it best: “For sale: Perennial runner-up weekly publication in dying media segment. $0 or best offer. Includes funny Tumblr.”

The Tumblr in question? Newsweek’s. Yes, Newsweek’s. The “foul-mouthed” and “Gawkeresque (old Gawkeresque)” cousin of newsweek.com — the site that, in response to this week’s news of the magazine’s sale, announced: “Look, We Don’t Want to Seem Ungrateful, But if We Are to Be Acquired by Any Latin Superstar, We Kinda Hope It’s Shakira”…tagging the post “Culture,” “Journalism,” “Us,” and “Our Hips Are Exceptionally Truthful.”

Like the best Tumblrs, the site is random and trenchant and funny and unapologetically idiosyncratic. But what’s most striking about it, for our purposes, is that the Tumblr is all those things…while also being very much a vehicle of “the Newsweek brand.” It’s not just that the bright-red Newsweek logo is the first thing that catches your eye when you visit the site; it’s also that, more significantly, much of the Tumblr’s content is curated from Newsweek’s primary web offerings. Yesterday, it reposted this pearl of wisdom from a comment on the parent site (with the note that “sometimes the Newsweek commenters just crack us up”): “About ten years ago I heard someone from the homosexual lobby say that the only music genre they had not infiltrated was country music! Immediately after that Leann Rhimes did a duet with Elton John and now, here we are.”

Indeed. While “the Tumblr and its sense of humor and things like that are probably slightly different from the general Newsweek audience,” acknowledges Mark Coatney, Newsweek.com’s projects editor and the Tumblr’s creator and producer…it’s not that far afield. Today, for example, the Tumblr features long(-ish) excerpts from Newsweek pieces about the Palin/Fiorina endorsement and the outcome of the British election. “I feel like I have a pretty good idea, organizationally, of what the Newsweek sensibility is,” Coatney told me. “That might be slightly different from mine, but I try to hew closely to that.”

When traditional media latch on to new forms

The Tumblr’s fate is, at the moment, as precarious as that of its parent magazine. But it’s worth noting that, even as Newsweek, as a magazine and a website, got a reputation for mediocrity and stagnancy — and even as, yesterday, all the familiar they failed to innovate truisms came out in full, schadenfreudic force — over at the outlet’s Tumblr, innovation (and experimentation, and engagement and conversation) were actually taking place. Just on a small scale.

“The nice thing about management is that they’ve been very much like, ‘Experiment. Do whatever you want. Don’t embarrass us too much. And see how it goes,’” Coatney says. The institution gave agency to one of its members to experiment with something he cared about; it gave him leave not only to leverage his expertise, but also simply to have fun as he leveraged. The groking and the rocking, rolled into one.

Which is a small thing, but a rather profound one, as well. “The problem with the magazine industry,” Evan Gotlib wrote (in a post quoted on, yes, the Newsweek Tumblr), “is that they all too often latch on to new technology (Let’s make an iPhone app! Let’s build a Facebook fan page! Let’s create print ads with RFID scan technology! Let’s start a Tumblr blog!) without understanding the REASON behind that beautiful technology. It’s not a strategy; it’s a last gasp tactic.” The secret sauce of the Newsweek Tumblr, though, is the fact that it wasn’t part of a strategy at all. It was simply an experiment, given the freedom (from commercial pressure, from corporate overlordism) to develop organically. As Coatney puts it: “It was kind of nice not to have any expectations around it.”

Another way to put it: the Tumblr, as part of an overall approach to institutional media, suggests the power of the personal — the idiosyncratic, the unique — in journalism. The site is aware of the institution whose brand it bears, but isn’t overwhelmed by it. On the contrary: The Tumblr has “made us able to put our story out there and talk to people in a way that I think is hard for big media companies to do,” Coatney says. But it’s flattened the conversation, putting Newsweek — the Media Institution — and its readers on equal footing. And it’s made the Media Institution more responsive to its users. The Tumblr — and, in particular, the ability to see what posts people comment on, reblog, etc. — ”gives me a good sense of what people respond to,” Coatney points out. So “you get that immediate feedback.”

The problem of scale

Which isn’t to say there aren’t tensions between the personal and institutional in even something as unassuming as a Tumblr. Scalability can be a challenge, for one thing. In the same way that a Twitter feed with 1,000 followers will have, almost de facto, a different voice than a Twitter feed with 100,000 followers, a Tumblr that gets too big — Newsweek’s has about 8,000 followers right now — could lose its power, and its voice, and its quirk. “It’s a real concern of mine,” Coatney says. “Because part of the value of this is that you’re able to talk and respond to and reblog people. If I see something that I like from somebody else, I try to comment on it and point it out. And if suddenly there are a million people talking all at once, I’m not sure quite how to deal with that yet.” (Then again: “If we get a million followers, I’ll happily try to figure that out.”)

Another challenge is the perennial one: commercial appeal. The Tumblr, on its own, isn’t easily monetized through online ads or other traditional methods of money-making. Right now, the site gets about 1,000 visits a day, Coatney notes — “not really a volume in which many advertisers are going to be interested.”

Still, from the branding perspective, the Tumblr represents a mindset that is scalable. Whatever Newsweek’s fate — and whatever responsibility it must take for that fate — the outlet currently has an example of innovative thinking under its institutional umbrella, one that serves as a reminder of what the best journalism has always understood: that there’s nothing wrong with a little whimsy. “In the end, we use Tumblr not because it’s a great way to connect with our readers (though it is that), or because we believe this or something like it is a part of a new way forward for interaction between publishers and audience (though we think that too),” Coatney writes. “We use Tumblr because it’s fun and while, you know, you can’t eat fun, or trade it in for fistfuls of dollars to fund serious journalism, we believe there’s a value in doing things we like simply because we like to do them, and that hopefully our fellow Tumblrs will too.”

March 12 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Plagiarism and the link, location and context at SXSW, and advice for newspapers

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The Times, plagiarism and the link: A few weeks ago, the resignations of two journalists from The Daily Beast and The New York Times accused of plagiarism had us talking about how the culture of the web affects that age-old journalistic sin. That discussion was revived this week by the Times’ public editor, Clark Hoyt, whose postmortem on the Zachery Kouwe scandal appeared Sunday. Hoyt concluded that the Times “owes readers a full accounting” of how Kouwe’s plagiarism occurred, and he also called out DealBook, the Times’ business blog for which Kouwe wrote, questioning its hyper-competitive nature and saying it needs more oversight. (In an accompanying blog post, Hoyt also said the Times needs to look closer at implementing plagiarism prevention software.)

Reuters’ Felix Salmon challenged Hoyt’s assertion, saying that the Times’ problem was not that its ethics were too steeped in the ethos of the blogosphere, but that they aren’t bloggy enough. Channeling CUNY prof Jeff Jarvis’ catchphrase “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” Salmon chastised Kouwe and other Times bloggers for rewriting stories that other online news organizations beat them to, rather than simply linking to them. “The problem, here, is that the bloggers at places like the NYT and the WSJ are print reporters, and aren’t really bloggers at heart,” Salmon wrote.

Michael Roston made a similar argument at True/Slant the first time this came up, and ex-newspaperman Mathew Ingram strode to Salmon’s defense this time with an eloquent defense of the link. It’s not just a practice for geeky insiders, he argues; it’s “a fundamental aspect of writing for the web.” (Also at True/Slant, Paul Smalera made a similar Jarvis-esque argument.) In a lengthy Twitter exchange with Salmon, Times editor Patrick LaForge countered that the Times does link more than most newspapers, and Kouwe was an exception.

Jason Fry, a former blogger for the Wall Street Journal, agreed with Ingram and Smalera, but theorizes that the Times’ linking problem is not so much a refusal to play by the web’s rules as “an unthinking perpetuation of print values that are past their sell-by date.” Those values, he says, are scoops, which, as he argued further in a more sports-centric column, readers on the web just don’t care about as much as they used to.

Location prepares for liftoff: The massive music/tech gathering South By Southwest (or, in webspeak, SXSW) starts today in Austin, Texas, so I’m sure you’ll see a lot of ideas making their way from Austin to next week’s review. If early predictions are any indication, one of the ideas we’ll be talking about is geolocation — services like Foursquare and Gowalla that use your mobile device to give and broadcast location-specific information to and about you. In anticipation of this geolocation hype, CNET has given us a pre-SXSW primer on location-based services.

Facebook jump-started the location buzz by apparently leaking word to The New York Times that it’s going to unveil a new location-based feature next month. Silicon Alley Insider does a quick pro-and-con rundown of the major location platforms, and ReadWriteWeb wonders whether Facebook’s typically privacy-guarding users will go for this.

The major implication of this development for news organizations, I think, is the fact that Facebook’s jump onto the location train is going to send it hurtling forward far, far faster than it’s been going. Within as little as a year, location could go from the domain of early-adopting smartphone addicts to being a mainstream staple of social media, similar to the boom that Facebook itself saw once it was opened beyond college campuses. That means news organizations have to be there, too, developing location-based methods of delivering news and information. We’ve known for a while that this was coming; now we know it’s close.

The future of context: South By Southwest also includes bunches of fascinating tech/media/journalism panels, and one of them that’s given us a sneak preview is Monday’s panel called “The Future of Context.” Two of the panelists, former web reporter and editor Matt Thompson and NYU professor Jay Rosen, have published versions of their opening statements online, and both pieces are great food for thought. Thompson’s is a must-read: He describes the difference between day-to-day headline- and development-oriented information about news stories that he calls “episodic” and the “systemic knowledge” that forms our fundamental framework for understanding an issue. Thompson notes how broken the traditional news system’s way of intertwining those two forms of knowledge are, and he asks us how we can do it better online.

Rosen’s post is in less of a finished format, but it has a number of interesting thoughts, including a quick rundown of reasons that newsrooms don’t do explanatory journalism better. Cluetrain Manifesto co-author Doc Searls ties together both Rosen’s and Thompson’s thoughts and talks a bit more about the centrality of stories in pulling all that information together.

Tech execs’ advice for newspapers: Traditional news organizations got a couple of pieces of advice this week from two relatively big-time folks in the tech world. First, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen gave an interview with TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld in which he told newspaper execs to “burn the boats” and commit wholeheartedly to the web, rather than finding way to prop up modified print models. He used the iPad as a litmus test for this philosophy, noting that “All the new [web] companies are not spending a nanosecond on the iPad or thinking of ways to charge for content. The older companies, that is all they are thinking about.”

Not everyone agreed: Newspaper Death Watch’s Paul Gillin said publishers’ current strategy, which includes keeping the print model around, is an intelligent one: They’re milking the print-based profits they have while trying to manage their business down to a level where they can transfer it over to a web-based model. News business expert Alan Mutter offered a more pointed counterargument: “It doesn’t take a certifiable Silicon Valley genius to see that no business can walk away from some 90% of its revenue base without imploding.”

Second, Google chief economist Hal Varian spoke at a Federal Trade Commission hearing about the economics of newspapers, advising newspapers that rather than charging for online content, they should be experimenting like crazy. (Varian’s summary and audio are at Google’s Public Policy Blog, and the full text, slides and Martin Langeveld’s summary are here at the Lab. Sync ‘em up and you can pretty much recreate the presentation yourself.) After briefly outlining the status of newspaper circulation and its print and online advertising, Varian also suggests that newspapers make better use of the demographic information they have of their online readers. Over at GigaOM, Mathew Ingram seconds Varian’s comments on engagement, imploring newspapers to actually use the interactive tools that they already have at their sites.

Reading roundup: We’ll start with our now-weekly summary of iPad stuff: Apple announced last week that you can preorder iPads as of today, and they’ll be released April 3. That could be only the beginning — an exec with the semiconductor IP company ARM told ComputerWorld we could see 50 similar tablet devices out this year. Multimedia journalist Mark Luckie urged media outlets to develop iPad apps, and Mac and iPhone developer Matt Gemmell delved into the finer points of iPad app design. (It’s not “like an iPhone, only bigger,” he says.)

I have two long, thought-provoking pieces on journalism, both courtesy of the Columbia Journalism Review. First, Megan Garber (now with the Lab) has a sharp essay on the public’s growing fixation on authorship that’s led to so much mistrust in journalism — and how journalists helped bring that fixation on. It’s a long, deep-thinking piece, but it’s well worth reading all the way through Garber’s cogent argument. Her concluding suggestions for news orgs regarding authority and identity are particularly interesting, with nuggets like “Transparency may be the new objectivity; but we need to shift our definition of ‘transparency’: from ‘the revelation of potential biases,’ and toward ‘the revelation of the journalistic process.’”

Second, CJR has the text of Illinois professor Robert McChesney’s speech this week to the FTC, in which he makes the case for a government subsidy of news organizations. McChesney and The Nation’s John Nichols have made this case in several places with a new book, “The Death and Life of American Journalism,” on the shelves, but it’s helpful to have a comprehensive version of it in one spot online.

Finally, the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles has a simple tip for newspaper publishers looking to stave off their organizations’ decline: Learn to understand technology from the consumer’s perspective. That means, well, consuming technology. Niles provides a to-do list you can hand to your bosses to help get them started.

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