Digital Publishing: Tumbling for Pageviews
Posted: 7/16/2013  |  By: Rob Tornoe
Tumblr, the popular social blogging platform that is home to more than 114 million blogs, has been in the news recently thanks to its $1.1 billion acquisition by media giant Yahoo. Despite all the coverage, and its growing importance among a loyal and highly sought-after group of readers, there’s one place Tumblr doesn’t seem to be showing up — newsrooms.  

Time-starved editors and overworked reporters are already exhausted feeding the unending appetite of Facebook and Twitter, so most have treated Tumblr’s platform as an also-ran not capable of producing worthwhile traffic. Unfortunately, that decision is also potentially causing newsrooms to miss out on a loyal niche audience in a choice demographic, and a platform that couldn’t make it any easier to put content in front of their eyeballs.  

Tumblr essentially works the same way as Twitter, in that you create an account, start posting content, and hopefully grow followers. Following other local Tumblr blogs and sharing their content, just like Twitter, is a great way to develop a relationship with other Tumblr users in your local community. When other users like your content, they are listed as “notes” on the post. Any user can reblog your post to their own Tumblr and share it with their followers. Unlike Facebook, once someone follows you, they see all of your content, not just what an algorithm determines they will see.  

For editors, Tumblr could be utilized as an efficient way of managing staff blogs. As an example, Tumblr allows users to post a photo, video, or a story to a blog with a simple email, sent to a specific address. How many journalists would love that feature while reporting outside the newsroom? There’s also a cool feature for users to phone in an audio post. Simply configure your Tumblr, call a specified number, leave a message, and the audio file will post within seconds.  

Tumblr is all about helping journalists. In fact, Tumblr hired Mark Coatney, who previously worked at Newsweek and set up the news magazine’s Tumblr, to help guide publishers into using the blogging platform to better connect journalists with their readers.  

While at Newsweek, Coatney embraced Tumblr from the start. According to his estimates, he spent 10 to 20 percent of his day sharing images and posting links to the magazine’s articles, which enabled him to discover how easily the platform enabled Newsweek to reach an entirely new audience of potential readers.  

“The average age of a Newsweek reader was 57, while Tumbler users average 24 years old,” Coatney said. “It was an audience that Newsweek wasn’t speaking to at all, and it was established they weren’t going to come to Newsweek on Newsweek’s terms. We had to go to them.”  

Coatney recommends Tumblr for content that is visually interesting, speaks to younger readers, and has a certain niche appeal. For instance, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have Tumblr pages devoted specifically to their style section, enabling them to tap into a young audience that may not be interested in international news. 

NPR has taken a novel approach to Tumblr, with a page called “Cook your Cupboard” where readers share photos of oddball condiments or ingredients in their kitchen that stump them. NPR editors then share the ingredients with professional chefs, who come up with recipes or other ways to use that ignored condiment.

Daniel Schneider, online news producer at The Denver Post, curates the Post’s Tumblr page. Drawing on the community’s interest in local, esoteric offerings, Schneider shares links and photos to content that won’t necessarily find its way on to the front page. Recent posts include photos from Denver Comic Con, a debate over backyard chickens, and an interview with Star Trek actor George Takei.  

“I’ve always looked at Tumblr as a goodwill tool and a new way to maintain our presence online,” Schneider said. “We might not get as many clicks back to our site as we do from Facebook or Twitter, but I feel like we’re serving an audience that isn’t getting news from us any other way.”

One media company that has been able to utilize Tubmlr to drive traffic is The New Yorker. According to Alexa Cassanos, the magazine’s director of communication and social media, Tumblr has emerged as one of the top 20 sites referring traffic to newyorker.com, largely due to its strategy of posting story snippets, photography, and the enormously popular cartoons. 

“Tumblr is generating a lot of traffic and real engagement for us,” Cassanos said. “It has a distinct audience with a quirkier sensibility, and that’s what we find so appealing.”  

While The New Yorker may be unique in its ability to drive significant traffic from Tumblr, Coatney said he thinks the platform best serves news organizations in an audience-building capacity.

“Tumblr is all about growing a community,” he said. “These days, you can’t count on an audience to come to you. It’s your responsibility to bring your content and a forum to your audience.”

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and reporter for Editor & Publisher and can be reached at robtornoe@gmail.com.