A Conversation With Mark Coatney, the Man Behind Newsweek‘s Tumblr

One of the first major publications to make its presence felt on Tumblr, Newsweek has been one of the pioneers of the social-media/blogging site. Thanks in part to its highly personalized voice, Newsweek.tumblr.com has collected 6,000 followers. That’s a lot for a Tumblr site, and even more considering hardly any other magazines are playing in the space.

Unlike the PR-choked Internet voices of many rival publications, the Newsweek Tumblr eagerly engages other bloggers and provides odd details that hint at an actual human behind the red-and-white avatar. Some of the quirks are quite unexpected; posts include a picture of a man spanking a woman and the results of running “Newsweek” through a slogan generator. Because of the forward-looking attitude toward a magazine’s editorial voice (and partly just because we thought it would be fun), FishbowlNY decided to track down the man behind Newsweek‘s Tumblr.

We found Mark Coatney, projects editor for Newsweek.com. Last week, we sat down with Coatney to talk about his Tumblr experiment, how to give a personal voice to a media institution, and what it’s like being the “talking dog” of the blogosphere.

His answers, edited for length and clarity, after the jump.

How did you wind up running the Newsweek Tumblr?

It was just kind of just a side — I mean it still is, really — a side project of mine. I’m an editor mostly. I’d had a personal Tumblr for a while and just kind of played around with it, and I set one up for Newsweek, gosh, almost a year and a half ago. For most of that time it was just an RSS feed because I didn’t know what to do with it. It was basically exporting our feeds, our top stories. And then at some point last year, and I think basically it was because we had hired a couple more editors, I had a little more free time basically. So i said “I’ll start posting and start playing with it a little bit.”

I honestly think within two days of me me starting to post things that weren’t just a feed, the Tumblr people contacted me and said, “We’re so glad you’re doing this. We’d like to help you.” They very nicely designed the theme we have on the home page for us just for free, which was great. I think in part because the one I had built was awful it was just mostly red, because I’m not really a designer. Partially I think they didn’t want people thinking that Tumblr looked as ugly as it did with my layout. So then I started doing it and it’s still just kind of when I have spare time from my actual job.

But you know it’s gotten a really good response I think we’ve got 6,000 followers now, which you know isn’t a lot compared to our twitter following or something like that but it’s a very engaged following. It’s a lot of people, unlike Twitter which I think a lot anymore is a lot of spam bots, these are all pretty much real people really engaging with the stuff, so I think that’s been really interesting and useful for us.

Was this just on a personal whim, or did you have to clear the Tumblr with anybody or you just kind of did it on your own?

I just kind of did it, you know, luckily we’re kind of nicely flexible that way. It’s funny because I was down at the Washington Post a while back, and they’re kind of our parent company, and they asked me about that question too. From their perspective they would’ve had to go through a lot of approvals to kind of start something like that, and one of the nice things about Newsweek is they kind of allowed us to experiment and choose our own path which we think is right. The Twitter page is another example. When we started doing a Twitter feed, and we pretty consciously said “We don’t want it to just be a feed. We want it to have somewhat of a voice, and so we’re going to in both cases kind of experiment with it and do what we want.”

Luckily for me I just said, “I’m going to try it and see what happens, and if it’s horrible then it’s a pretty minimal effort on Newsweek‘s part.” Luckily I think it has been pretty well received. Honestly, if it hadn’t been, if everyone had hated it, then we wouldn’t be doing it now. I’ve gotten nothing but encouragement from the “upper people.”

It’s pretty clear that it’s just one person writing the Newsweek Tumblr. It seems as though Newsweek is just like another user, because you’re just kind of off the cuff with it.

That was a problem. One reason why, aside from just time, and not being able to do it, one reason why it took a long time before I started doing it at all, is I had the same thought, you know, what’s the voice of Newsweek?” It’s a problem I think that brands, to be businessy, have on the Web in general. The web and social media is really designed for people, not institutions.

How do you give a voice to an institution? Honestly, my voice that I do on this is probably a little more corporate than what I do on my own personal thing, but it’s probably less corporate than, you know, a Newsweek, PR, formal kind of thing. So what I’m trying to do is walk the line between something that’s interesting and offensive, I guess. Something that you know has a voice and a readership but doesn’t get just too far out there or too far away from what my conception of what the Newsweek reader is.

You talk about Newsweek being a little more flexible. Do you think that’s something that’s unique to Newsweek? You’re really one of the only major outlets that has a Tumblr.

I think in part it’s just that Newsweek, compared to a lot of other outlets, is fairly small. I think it’d be very difficult for instance to do it at the Times because the Times is such a [huge place]. I could see the Times maybe doing it for their various sections but as an overall thing, that’s a big voice for anyone to kind of speak for. Newsweek is a weekly magazine, it’s a smaller staff, it’s kind of a much more manageable thing. I think as one person it’s easier for me to get a handle on what the Newsweek sensibility is, and so far anyway, management has seemed to be okay with my take on that.

It’s hard for brands to do this too, because I’ve noticed some other places have kind of started it. The “Today Show” has done some, the Utne Reader has one that looks interesting. There’s someone from MSNBC who I think is just a producer there, not just but is a producer, but it’s not really a corporate thing.

They’re all good in their own way. I think the hard part is, you know, the limiting factor that I run up against is that this isn’t really my job. It’s my idea because I think it’s a fun thing to do, and I think it helps Newsweek and part of my job is to help create social engagement with Newsweek readers online.

I’d love for me or somebody to devote a full-time effort to doing this because I think that’s when it really takes off. I have yet to see any media outlet, as far as I know, say that, you know, this is someone’s job, as if you were a blogger for just some other thing, and now you just happen to do it here.

My worry is, you know, right now, we’re the talking dog. It’s amazing that we talk at all, not what we say. At a certain point, lots of other places are going to be doing this, and so my worry is that we’re going to have to step up as other people kind of get involved in this and get better.

Currently how much time or effort out of all the things that you do — you edit and other things — how much do you spend on Tumblr?

The nice thing about Tumblr too is the Web is a very ADD kind of thing where you can just kind of keep it open and within a minute or two do something and then go back out. It’s probably 20 percent of my day.

That’s not a bad way to make a living, 20 percent of the time.

It’s kind of the fun part, right? So you can go in and like everything else on the Web, you do it on weekends or off hours whenever you have a moment when something occurs to you.

But again ideally, probably not me, but it’d be nice if we had someone who had more time if we had someone who could devote more time to it to make it more of an ongoing thing.

What do you think the advantages of Tumblr are as opposed to other platforms?

Every platform has different advantages and different audiences. I think Twitter is really interesting, but in some ways Twitter is almost more familiar to big media companies because at its basic level it’s a broadcast model, I mean you tweet something out and a million people receive it and they may do something with it but you’ve kind of done your thing.

So I think Twitter is very good for the short blast, but it’s also very perishable, as you know. Within 15 minutes really or a half hour, what you’ve said has kind of disappeared into the mist.

Something like Facebook for instance, I have a hard time with us communicating with people. Facebook’s better value is really facilitating a conversation between people about us. [The comments on Newsweek‘s] Facebook page tend to be a pretty good class of discussion and that kind of thing, but I don’t think it’s a great way of fostering two-way communication between us and readers, necessarily. It’s more a way for them to talk with each other about us.

My thinking with Tumblr is this is a good way to do something that’s a lot more conversational. I guess my analogy that I say to be clear when I’m trying to explain it is: I think of the Web as this big cocktail party, and increasingly the way people get their information on the Web isn’t just searching out on Google, but also having someone that they know and trust refer information to them.

In this kind of ecosystem of people referring information, we would like to be one of the big talkers. Which is great and we want to promote our own stuff, but you don’t want to be the boring guy who only talks about himself. So the thing I like about Tumblr a lot is it makes it very easy for you to carry on a conversation and to talk about yourself, of course, but to also talk about what other people are saying and to react to what other people are saying a much more free-flowing way, and have a conversation with the readers. And I think that’s a really interesting, good model for us going forward.

Another thing that we’ve done a lot with that that is that because of the success of Tumblr — they’re all younger people here, but we’ve had several of our writers start their own Tumblrs. Some of that is just personal stuff, and some of it is Newsweek-based. It’ll be interesting to me to see if that is a good model because that to me is an interesting way of taking Newsweek‘s sensibility and kind of seeding it out in the Tumblr ecosystem in the same way.

What I like about it is it’s not a Newsweek-directed initiative but it’s all Newsweek people who are just participating in this thing, so I think in that sense they’re more of a trusted group because they’re just people doing it on their own and they’re not not some sort of corporate outreach.

That might actually be an important reason why it works.

Part of it obviously is a lot of social media stuff I see now is done by PR departments. And they’re good, but they look it in a PR way, and I kind of find that boring. What I would want, I’d love if the Times did a Tumblr. I’m sure I’d read it. I like that you can have fun with it. I think that too much of the time everything has to be this serious “future of journalism” kind of thing and I think this is just an easy to say, “Here’s what I have to say, I’m interested in what you guys have to say,” and have a much easier conversational kind of thing.

Do you think there’s anything else besides size that’s preventing publications from getting on Tumblr?

I’ve found that Tumblr’s hard to explain to people who don’t do it. I think Twitter is — people kind of know what Twitter is at this point. If you look at Tumblr from the front end, if you show it to someone when you’re not logged in, it looks kind of like a blog platform that doesn’t really look all that great, and it’s very hard to follow from the outside because a lot of it is a conversation that’s taking place in the dashboard. And so it makes sense if you’re in the dashboard, but if you’re seeing it on the front end you’re like, “I don’t get this reference at all,” and it can be very kind of off-putting and I find that people don’t really understand.

I think the dashboard is a great innovation. I think it’s really important. I find now that it’s replaced a lot of things I used to use Google Reader for. And I almost find now that if I see someone’s blog and it’s not in that format, and I can’t just re-blog it and bring it in, I both find it slightly annoying, and I’m much less likely to include it in the conversation just because of the pain-in-the-ass factor.

I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve kind of noticed that Tumblr is kind of following the arc I used to see with Twitter, which is when Twitter first kind of started becoming big, I noticed a lot of PR people getting on it. And now I’ve noticed a lot of PR folks getting on Tumblr as well. That may be a sign that it’s becoming more mainstream in its acceptance.

I think in a way I’m probably a little surprised that Newsweek is comfortable with me doing this, just because I think of other organizations — again you think of big media organizations — they’re traditionally not very comfortable allowing someone to speak for them, which this in essence is. I’m very happy that they do, and I think it’s a good reflection on management here but I understand that it’s a scary thing to say we’re going to trust this person to, you know, not embarrass us, basically.

I think it’s startling to anyone who reads the Newsweek Tumblr that that’s allowed.

That goes back to my point that I think people are like “Oh wow I’m so amazed.” I think people will start to do this and we’ll have to keep up. I do kind of fundamentally believe that this is a good way of engaging with the audience and one thing that has always left me cold about the Web is that you look at most media Web sites. There’s not much that you couldn’t just do if you printed it. it’s text and pictures and video obviously and there are graphics and all this stuff but you could print out Newsweek.com and just release it as a thing, and it’d be basically the same experience.

What I think is great about Tumblr certainly and Twitter and to a lesser extent commenting and things like that. That’s what makes it different that’s what makes it better is it becomes a two-way communication between readers and institution and not kind of the traditional, “We broadcast it out and you absorb it,” kind of thing. I think that is to my mind the future of how people are going to want to get their news is more in a kind of conversational mode and not just, a “Take this digest it, think about it, don’t talk back to us,” kind of thing.

So what I hope with this is — the future of this is, whether it’s Tumblr or some other kind of thing like this — that in some way all news Web sites are going to be some kind of two-way communication and not some kind of “We put it out and you read it,” kind of thing.

Do you have an ongoing discussion with the people at Tumblr?

That woman Meaghan O’Connell, that’s basically her job. It does kind of also speak to Tumblr’s still small enough. I don’t know what they’re going to do when they get bigger, but they’re still small, and I think it’s fairly easy for them to kind of monitor and nurture certain places. But they’ve been great and we’ve talked with them several times we just kind of chatted about things that we like about the service, things that we wonder which way they’re going in terms of building out new features and stuff like that they nicely built that theme for us.

I had coffee with them about a month ago just to kind of say just to chat, really. They’re just kind of nice friendly people. I think they’re obviously very interested in promoting their site to media outlets right now.

Do you think they’re going to start charging you?

I don’t know! On the one hand, honestly, if they charged us by how many people read it outside of the dashboard, I have Google Analytics on the front end and it’s like 1,000 views a day or something. And so the non-Tumblr audience reading it is pretty small, in part because we don’t promote it. We never mention the word in the magazine and we don’t link to it off our Web site, in part because I was still thinking of it as an experiment more than anything else. So if they charge us based on bandwidth costs I think we’re in good shape.

If they charged us I think we could make a case that it’s useful to us, again, it’s useful for us in terms of engaging a new kind of reader. I’ve been working on the Web for like 15 years, and I’ve read comments for 15 years. They’re usually pretty nasty.

This is a very nice for me personally — they’re usually very nice [on Tumblr]. I really do attribute that to the fact that we are kind of an equal player. A lot of times in conventional commenting people say nasty things about you there’s a sense that you’re —

Up top.

If you’re more approaching it as friends and equals people are much nicer about it, which I find really refreshing. I mean I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the Tumblr people about how they make money. They’ve just kind of started doing these premium themes. I don’t know if they’re going to charge us for our theme now, but I’d pay $50 for that.

Is there anything else about the Tumblr audience that you think makes it a more worthwhile platform — or not? Anything else specific about the audience?

I worry a little bit about, from my own perspective, provincialism on Tumblr. I kind of follow mostly people’s Tumblelogs that I’ve come across that are are my particular sensibility and I worry that I’m not really getting the full Tumblr universe — like I should explore it more as Newsweek.

The easy thing again right now in writing for that audience is that it’s a very small audience and they give you really good immediate feedback when you get the re-blogs and the likes, which is another thing I really like. You get a pretty immediate kind of indication whether what you did hit a nerve or not. And so because it’s so small I have a pretty good sense of what that audience likes and would respond to. If we were at the point where our standard Twitter audience — if we had a million followers on Tumblr, although I think that’d be great i think it would be hard to talk to them in the same way. That’s a thing I worry about, and I’m not sure how to manage it.

We’d love to have that problem, but that’s the problem that any mass publication has — when you get that many people, how do you speak to them in a way that they actually find interesting. And you know some are going to find it boring, some are going to not agree with you. That’s a problem that I’m sure is on the horizon. One way that you might be able to counteract that I hope is by having all these other Newsweek reporters and writers in the conversation too, because then you speak to all those little niches of the audience.

Who do you follow and how many people do you follow? Do you “like” things?

The thing at the top of the page, the forward facing page, the little scrolling thing, those are the things that I “like.” That was one of the new things that the Tumblr people put in. They’re experimenting with ways to show off “likes,” basically, so anything I like basically will show up in that space. Liking is such an interesting thing. It’s kind of the non-committal kind of thing, and typically one thing I tend to do — just because the back of my head I have our lawyers warning me about copyright infringement — I’m much more likely to like it instead of re-blog it because it’s just something I approved of and I didn’t actually take part in the theft of this song. Lord knows, that’s a whole other issue.

I think we follow on there maybe around 170 Tumblr blogs. Part of this is honestly a little bit my own — there are probably 20 or 30 of them, and I hope they don’t read this interview — there are probably 20 or 30 that I just kind of follow either by mistake and I’m too embarrassed to unfollow them because that just seems mean.

If you see that Newsweek has unfollowed you, your career has really taken a hit.

You don’t get a notification or anything but Nick Summers, who’s another reporter here who has a Tumblr that’s good, has a very opposite take. He’s very Darwinian. He basically sits down every couple weeks and says, “Did this person amuse me in the last two weeks?” and if not they’re gone. He follows like 20 people.

I tend to follow if I see another media outlet, I follow them. I follow all the Newsweek staffers who have Tumblrs, which is like 7 or 8 people. I follow the Tumblr staff. Some of are probably the same things that everyone follows. I like The Daily Wh.at. I follow Young Manhattanite because they puzzle me. That’s the one that I think is just so funny, because with all the other Tumblrs you have an idea of who’s behind it. But this is all these different voices speaking through this one thing and you’re like, “Wait who’s talking now?” I almost follow it just cause it’s so confusing. I think they’re good.

Inothernews and Soup Soup are better news people than I am. They’re really on top of a lot of stuff. I’m sure I steal from them all the time, but the nice thing about it is because I’m re-blogging them, you know, you’re giving them credit. There are some photo blogs that I follow just because they’re pretty and things like that. Are you guys going to get a Tumblr?

I don’t know, that’s a good question. I’m not sure how that would work for something like Fishbowl.

Mediaite has one and for a while but now it’s pretty much just an RSS feed.

That’s what you’d have to sort of avoid when you do a blog and maybe particularly a media blog you’re doing a lot of very quick-hit things you’re sourcing a lot of other people. So even though you’re relating information it’s not always extremely proprietary. And I think Fishbowl does have a voice, but … the other thing is we just have to post all the time to our own blog.

The staffing question is always the biggest one. I’ve been too lazy lazy to do this and at this point it wouldn’t get us any money at all, but Tumblr is perfectly happy with us running ads on our page if we want to so in theory we could do that and monetize it and just use it as another blog on our site. But the thing is it takes time and effort to do it.

That’s the other thing is it only works — and this is one reason you know that i was reluctant to start it — once you start it, you have to keep doing it, and you had do do it often. A lot of places will start and they won’t do anything for two weeks and they’ll come back for a while. At least with the following thing if you follow them and they don’t show up for a week or so, and then they come back [they show up in the dashboard]. Before, if I just had a blogger that I liked and they stopped posting regularly I would stop kinda going there.

It’s sort of difficult to measure the success of a Tumblr blog.

I look at our referrers, if you want to look at it just as a measure of generating traffic to us and you know, on a good day, Tumblr will be 0.2 percent of our referrers. And by the way we actually do fairly well in social media — if you count Tumblr, Twitter, digg, Stumbleupon — we do probably 15 to 20 percent of our referrers are from those kind of sources. But Tumblr really is not one, in terms of “is this increasing traffic?”

On the other hand, in terms of if you say it’s valuable to have a core of you younger readers getting exposed to Newsweek in a way that they haven’t been before.

It’s kind of misleading to measure the success of a Tumblr in particular because I think readers of blogs in general and Tumblr in particular are very aware of people trying to just point them somewhere else and it just doesn’t really work.

It’s funny because we’re doing it from an edit perspective, and on the PR side I think they think it’s successful because in that world any positive press is [good]. They’re used to having things that aren’t as directly measured. Which is great. Some of my biggest promoters here have been the PR folks because they’ve seen it as a really great vehicle for their stuff.

Do they send you stuff to post?

No, which is nice. Katherine Barna, who’s in the PR department, has her own Tumblr, it’s mostly her dog you know, which is great. But they have been very good about this thing — “Just go and do whatever you want with it.” Which is, I think, the only way it really works.

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