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Could Tumblr Save Web Publishing?

Post Sandy, a growing number of editors see the platform serving as the ultimate CMS

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Last month, as storm surges from Hurricane Sandy inundated lower Manhattan, Datagram, a New York-based media ISP, watched as its basement full of severs took on over five feet of water, causing major outages for prominent online publishers like Gawker Media, BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

Digital publishing is, by nature, a nimble industry and—storm be damned—both Gawker and BuzzFeed found a more than adequate emergency workaround in the popular microblogging social media platform Tumblr. There are some who believe that Tumblr could and should be a more permanent solution for the publishing industry—for its reliability, terrific tools and monetization potential.

While BuzzFeed was able to salvage and reconstruct its site in a matter of hours, Tumblr played host to Gawker Media's arsenal of popular sites like Gawker, Deadspin and Gizmodo for nearly a week. Though clearly a stop-gap emergency measure, Gawker did more than simply get by; it sold ads on the platform for State Farm. The site also cranked out a slew of well-received posts, causing some fans to lobby for a full-time Gawker presence on Tumblr.

Indeed, for many, Sandy was an eye-opening moment for Tumblr, prompting some to wonder, might the social media platform become a full-scale content management system (CMS) tool for publishers, particularly when so many in the digital media world are crying out for a total Web rethink? That is, of course, if Tumblr is interested in that sort of thing.

Among those impressed by Gawker's emergency Tumblr presence is ShortFormBlog founder Ernie Smith, who has amassed a following of over 50,000 on his Tumblr-based news blog. Smith even penned a post on Oct. 30 titled, "Dear Gawker, Please Stay," in which he argued, "This is such a good fit for your style of writing that it actually feels like you’ve been running a Tumblr on here for five years as opposed to 12 hours."

Smith, a longtime Tumblr user, sees the Gawker/BuzzFeed moment as revealing. "Gawker proved that this model works for larger publishers," he said. "I think what Tumblr needs to do is figure out how to harness what people are already doing on the platform and figure out how it dovetails into something where they can nurture these prominent voices already on Tumblr to do more than just amplify their voice."

Smith, of course, is talking about helping publishers generate revenue. While Smith runs one of Tumblr's highly praised, oft-cited news blogs, his labor of love is not seeing much in the way of profit. "ShortFormBlog does make some money, but ultimately, Tumblr is great for getting your voice out there, not so great for getting people to look at ads. You have to think creatively about monetization on the platform," he said. "I did some sponsored posts (with the help of Federated Media) a little while back. The reaction was better than I expected, though that's a blue-moon kind of thing. Right now, there's no context for it. There's room for someone to build it."

Tumblr is only just getting started with advertising. But media buyers are enamored with the platform's potential.

Other than monetization, Tumblr has other hurdles to jump. Still a young company, Tumblr—fair or not—has an enduring perception problem. That is, Tumblr is often associated with frivolous time-wasting images as well as its robust pornography community. In fact, multiple sources referred to Tumblr as "a world of cat gifs and porn."

Robert Buckley, founder of Tumby.me, whose tools visualize, sort and discover content on Tumblr, said that Tumblr has a ways to go before it establishes itself as a real business, but noted, "There is a trove of meaningful content on the platform if one can find a way to digest it." Buckley also believes that Tumblr's newly announced agency program will help attract more brands to Tumblr. "It's a great step," Buckley said of the program. "The deal will draw a great deal of mature, substantive content to the platform."

The agency program is indicative of Tumblr's current focus, which is heavy on brands and native ad monetization, and less on finding solutions to attract big publishers to the platform. Rick Webb, Tumblr's marketing and revenue lead, said that while he was pleased with the role Tumblr played in BuzzFeed and Gawker's emergency sites, it hardly made a dent in the platform's traffic. "We saw a measure of traffic increase but not a huge spike. Fact of the matter is, Tumblr has an incredibly long tail with our users. The top 100 blogs on Tumblr only account for 1 or maybe 2 percent of our total traffic," Webb said.

Webb notes that the company is starting to think about additional functions it can provide publishers, along with new ways of encouraging more sites to use the platform as a primary destination rather than as a social media content marketing extension. Tumblr currently employs outreach evangelist teams that comb through Tumblr's 80 million blogs to find and highlight excellent content, but, according to Webb, "it's not the sort of situation right now where you could do big publishing deals with the top 100 blogs. We could do thousands of publishing deals with our blogs, and it would only reflect a small amount of our overall traffic."

The other issue for Tumblr has to do with the platform's dashboard where users view an endless scroll of content from the blogs they follow. Tumblr currently serves 10 billion pageviews (half its monthly total) through the dashboard, meaning that half of its users never go through its front door.

And currently, while Tumblr does allows publishers to run ads, these ads are not viewable in Tumblr's dashboard area, making it impractical for major publishers to fully embrace the platform since much of their traffic would go unmonetized. Webb, however, notes that the lessons from Sandy as well as the big breaking news events of late 2012, like the election, have been eye-opening for Tumblr and publishers alike. "We love our publishers, and we're cooking up experiments, but they don't operate the same way as a brand," he said. "We're still trying to find out what the best type of relationship is."

Time, however, is not always on Tumblr's side. Michael Cervieri, founder of the Future Journalism Project, has accumulated 40,000-plus followers in roughly 18 months and loves Tumblr, but is planning to move his site in the coming months to a new platform. Initially, Cervieri was drawn to Tumblr's community ecosystem, which he and FJP's writers leveraged into a sizeable audience. "Tumblr allowed us not to be a little speck of an island in a giant ocean of Internet. It's been great for us, but Tumblr can only take us so far," he said, noting that as his site's content evolves, he'll need a platform that matches that level of sophistication.

Cervieri won't stop using the platform though and plans to continue to leverage his audience with shorter, curatorial posts. Going forward, however, especially as publishers move more toward native ads, Cervieri sees Tumblr filling a more social role in the publishing world. "I think Tumblr will be an extension of the publishers' social media arm, but I think a very valuable extension," he said. "Our posts live longer on Tumblr, and I'll sometimes see something written six months ago pop back up and see new life again."