Is it marketing or is it journalism? The case of Tumblr’s ‘Storyboard’

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Chris Mohney and Jess Bennett, of Tumblr's Storyboard. (Photo by Joey Pfeifer.)
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At a panel discussion in San Francisco this past September—"Is Tumblr the new Time Inc.?" was the typically provocative title—Jessica Bennett and Allie Townsend, editors at Tumblr and Facebook, respectively, were explaining how they'd been using the tools of traditional journalism at the social-networking behemoths where they'd been recruited.

In Tumblr's case, the company had created a site called Storyboard to report on the interesting people, trends and narratives emanating from Tumblr's tens of millions of blogs: A video piece, say, about a long-lost Muhammad Ali interview, or a colorful long-form entry dragging readers down into the stacks of The New York Times' subterranean photo archives, known as "The Morgue."

After about 15 minutes, a tech writer in the audience named Alex Howard interrupted the two "former journalists"—as he referred to them matter-of-factly when later reached for comment—with a skeptical inquiry.

"Is everything you do journalism?" he recalled asking. "Or is this just next-generation marketing?"

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To a typical reader, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell the difference. And Storyboard, a significant editorial investment for an $800 million tech startup that has become one of digital media's most formidable brands, is just one example.

It certainly is next-generation marketing. Tumblr's large user population—some 82.3 million blogs have been registered to date, according to the company—is the reason so many celebrities, media organizations, manufacturers and entertainment brands use the platform to bring content to readers and connect to them in a way more organic than advertising. So Storyboad makes sense as a strategy for heightening the perception of Tumblr as more than just an online blogging and sharing platform. It helps make Tumblr a real place with its own distinct identity, not just for the early-adopters and the digital cognoscenti, but the myriad teens, housewives, aunts, uncles and other ordinary folks who use the site.

In that respect, Tumblr is doing something with Storyboard that isn't much different from what businesses from Facebook to Coca Cola to Cisco to the Philadelphia Flyers are experimenting with: creating content that speaks to the value of their brands. Why pay a publisher to carry your message to the public when you can bring it to them yourself?

But journalists familiar with the "advertorial" content that has long speckled the pages of their own magazines and newspapers have always held the category in contempt, especially when the content, created usually by a creative team in the media company's sales department with the approval of participating brands, is specifically organized to fool readers into believing it's "real" journlaism.

And as brand-developed content gets more sophisticated and competes with traditional journalism on the open web for eyeballs, readers are becoming less and less interested in the distinction between the two. In other words, what happens when advertorial stops being crappy and starts being good?

Readers, the thinking goes, are increasingly being exposed to material created directly by brands instead of material produced independently by reporters and editors. And those brands have motives. 

Perhaps that's why not everyone in the room at that recent Tumblr panel wanted to let Bennett have an easy time of it.

"It's fuzzy," Howard, the skeptical audience member, told Capital, "and the fuzziness is what's problematic."

SITTING FOR AN INTERVIEW IN A SMALL MEETING ROOM on the ninth floor of Tumblr's Flatiron District headquarters several weeks ago, Storyboard's editor-in-chief, Chris Mohney, tried out a succinct answer to the question of where exactly Storyboard fits on the spectrum.

"What we're doing is marketing as journalism," said Mohney, who described Storyboard's content as "absolutely old-school, almost retrograde feature journalism."

"We've been able to do real journalism that could run in any outlet," said Bennett, Storyboard's executive editor, who was next to her boss on a small grey sofa. "It just so happens these stories are centered around Tumblr."

Storyboard, with its bite-sized editorial department of four and a roster of freelancers, has churned out roughly 160 such stories across multiple platforms (text, video and photo) since launching on May 6.

With no posting quotas (the idea is to publish one feature every weekday), no traffic goals (Mohney declined to provide Storyboard numbers, but the Tumblr network averages more than 622 million visits per month, according to Quantcast) and no expectations of generating revenue (at least not for now) or signing up hordes of new users (at more than 100,000 new blog registrations per day, Tumblr appears to be doing a good enough job of that on its own), Mohney and his team have one mandate and one mandate only.

"To smooth the path for people we judge to be creative and who are inclined to join the community and put their creative work here," said Mohney. "Curators are valuable, but it all starts with people posting creative work. We're trying to get at those people and make them feel like we respect what they're doing."

To further that goal, the Storyboard crew is focusing much of its energy on striking deals with other media outlets that are interested in sharing content.

So far, Storyboard has cemented about a dozen such partnerships, including collaborations with MTV, The Awl, The Daily Beast, WNYC and New York. A new partnership with Time Inc. debuts today, and Mohney said there's also talk of doing something with Bullett magazine and smaller online outfits like The Rumpus and The Millions.

"It's actually better for us if someone sees one of our stories elsewhere," said Mohney. "It's all about getting people familiar with something they may never have encountered before."

For instance, the New York Times photo-morgue profile, which was sparked by the the "Lively Morgue" Tumblr produced by Times staff, included a written piece and a video component that were published in full both on storyboard.tumblr.com and wync.org; WNYC produced an accompanying radio segment. The station also worked with Storyboard on election day coverage and on chronicling the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy—WNYC sent a reporter out to the Rockaways and Storyboard sent a videographer, resulting both in a radio piece and a five-minute companion documentary.

The notion that Storyboard is essentially a Tumblr marketing strategy didn't deter WNYC from working with them.

Xana O'Neill, the executive editor for news at WNYC and the person who launched the station's Tumblr blog in 2011, said it "helped" that Mohney and Bennett had previously worked at traditional media organizations—Blackbook and Newsweek, respectively.

"They had street cred, and because of that it was easy for me to say that this makes sense for us," said O'Neill. "The nature of our partnership hasn't been to promote Tumblr. I know there are a lot of features on Storyboard itself that are inward looking, but we haven't had an issue where I feel like we're reporting on something that's happening within Tumblr."

The people writing for Storyboard might even feel the same way at times. Some of their features don't mention Tumblr explicitly, and it's not always clear what the stories have to do with the platform at all. But almost every Storyboard story relates back to it in some way.

"Part of our planning for next year is to make those connections more overt without being overbearing," said Mohney.

Aesthetically, Storyboard blends the provocative ethos of a styles section with the provincial eye of a community newspaper—only in this case, the community being covered has a population approximately 10 times the size of New York City's.

Storyboard's best sources in covering this diffuse digital citizenry are its own editors, their co-workers and their dashboards, the back-end feeds by which Tumblr users follow and re-blog one another.

That's how Storyboard ended up reporting on superfans of the British boy-band One Direction, a feature spawned by the popularity of the #onedirection hash-tag. A Daily Beast collaboration on "Cumberbitches," otherwise known as women who love the actor Benedict Cumberbatch from "Sherlock," grew out of the "countless Tumblrs" that have cropped up in homage of the BBC star. (For some context on Storyboard's pageview potential, the Cumberbitches piece racked up more than 20,000 "notes"—the Tumblr dashboard's version of comments and "likes"—in eight hours.)

Mohney recently spent a week in Taipei reporting out a forthcoming profile on the Taiwanese video spoofsters (and Tumblr users) Next Media Animation. (If nothing else, it illustrates the type of money Tumblr is willing to sink into its nascent editorial venture.) And a human interest piece about the people responsible for mending the cracks and crevices in New York's pavement was inspired by The Daily Pothole, one of the city's 22 official Tumblr blogs.

"Normally, nobody would be interested in pot-hole fillers," said Bennett.

"But put it on a blog and anything is interesting," Mohney added. Well, almost anything: "The kinds of things we've decided not to cover are things that are purely promotional or people's personal blogs," he said.

Once in awhile, Storyboard will commission a piece that has nothing to do with Tumblr at all, so that "readers who came to that story from outside Tumblr would be drawn to check out what happens inside our community," said Mohney, citing Storyboard's co-production with The Awl on a long-form piece about paper prison weaponry.

"Storyboard is a totally worthy neighbor for us to have," said Choire Sicha, The Awl's co-founder. "It's great fun for us to do stuff with them."

Some of the Tumblr community's more famous members would seem to agree, if the seamless access Storyboard has been getting to certain bold-faced figures is any indication.

In September, Bennett did breakfast at a West Hollywood IHOP with the Internet hip hop phenomenon Kreayshawn. Talib Kwali let Storyboard shoot a video in his Brooklyn home last month to document the recording of his new album. And when Bennett emailed Michael Stipe asking for a video interview back in March, the R.E.M. frontman and Tumblr devotee wrote her back promptly—no interference from a flack or teeth-pulling negotiations, as is often the case with celebrity press.

"2012/2013 is a rare moment of great progressive thought and movement," Stipe told Capital via email when asked for his take on Storyboard. "We need clear voices to push that forward."

What's not entirely clear is what Storyboard is doing for Tumblr beyond its marketing potential. Mohney said advertising may eventually be sold against the site, but that "the specifics of how it fits into the business model are still to be determined."

Tumblr executives were not available for interviews. But a spokesperson provided the following statement from Rick Webb, the company's revenue and marketing consultant.

"As always, marketing involves storytelling," he said. "Storyboard is us putting our money where our mouth is. It's marketing for Tumblr via great stories and content that highlight the amazing creativity on our platform."

But Webb ended his email with a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder that seemed to signal a certain ambivalence on the pressing future-of-journalism question: "The whole ‘reinventing journalism' angle the press plays is a nice bonus," he wrote.