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Storyboard Speaks: Laid-Off Tumblr Staffers Discuss David Karp’s Decision

“Had we taken the simple ‘rah rah Tumblr’ approach, would we still be around? Who knows.”
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(Photo: Twitter/successmagazine)

Earlier this week, Tumblr CEO David Karp took the stage at PaidContent Live for a panel called “Tumblr and the Future of Media.” It was a poignant title considering that one of the topics discussed was Mr. Karp’s recent, rather brusque blog post announcing the end of Storyboard, a high-profile editorial experiment that hired journalists to write features or film documentary video about Tumblr’s community of “creators.”

For example, this Storyboard piece about a photojournalist documenting a gang truce in El Salvador (on his Tumblr) was published by Mother Jones. One about activists and feminists using nail art (and the growing subculture on Tumblr) was produced in partnership with the Daily Beast.

“We decided it wasn’t really the right tool in our tool box,” a hoodied Mr. Karp told the conference goers gathered at the Time & Life building. “It was working in some regards. It wasn’t working in the ways we intended.”

That decision came as a surprise to Storyboard’s editorial staffers. “We were not warned that the department might be shut down,” Chris Mohney, Tumblr’s former editor-in-chief, said by email, in the first interview since he were laid off last week. As was previously reported, former executive editor Jessica Bennett got the bad news just before boarding a plane. Editorial producer Sky Dylan-Robbins declined to comment for this piece.

There was a similar lack of transparency regarding those unrealized intentions Mr. Karp mentioned at PaidContent. “We weren’t given any more specifics about what we were doing wrong or right–or not doing at all–than David indicated either in the announcement or in his remarks at the conference,” Mr. Mohney said.

(In our recent report about the growing leadership vaccuum at Tumblr, one source cited Mr. Karp’s “wildly unpredictable and inconsistent” management style as a possible motivation for the executive departures, as well as Mr. Karp’s tendency to play favorites.)

When Storyboard launched a year ago, its use of “almost retrograde feature journalism” to promote the Tumblr brand was closely watched by media insiders as a vanguard of a VC-approved way of making original reporting pay, like Facebook Stories, which followed that summer. Storyboard sounded like a more sophisticated version of branded content, which has rushed into the vacuum left by the waning media industry, blurring the line between advertising and editorial.

In Storyboard’s case, the mandate was to cover “Tumblr as if it were a digital city–the ideas, trends and culture coming out of it,” said Ms. Bennett. “I had no problem with that being deemed marketing as long as I was getting to produce the kind of rich, compelling content that I got into this business to do.”

But reporters considering working for brands or tech companies may want to take note. Tipping more towards journalism rather than branding might have been an issue for Storyboard.

“I sort of wonder whether part of the problem was that the content was actually too good,” Ms. Bennett conjectured. “Like, had we taken the simple ‘rah rah Tumblr’ approach, would we still be around? Who knows. But the reality is that we’re journalists, not flaks. That’s why Tumblr hired us in the first place!”

At the PaidContent conference, however, Mr. Karp seemed to insinuate a different reason for closing Storyboard: the fact that it picked favorites.

“We want to give you the stuff you’re going to love on Tumblr, but we don’t want to say what great stuff on Tumblr is. We don’t want to say what great content is, or these are our favorite blogs. We don’t wan [sic] to color it too much or scare anybody off.”

In response to those comments Mr. Mohney said, “It’s worth noting that far more so than Storyboard, Tumblr’s Spotlight and Radar have historically been about doing that exact thing. Of course, both those spaces are for sale, unlike Storyboard.”

Was Tumblr worried that Storyboard was encroaching on potential revenue opportunities? “Hah no. Storyboard was never a revenue thing, and never could have been with our resources,” Mr. Mohney said. “What I’m pointing out is that Tumblr has always promoted good content to users through Radar and the Spotlight, and now those two spaces are the things they are selling to advertisers. Make of that what you will.”

Like Ms. Bennett, Mr. Mohney is clearly proud of what Storyboard was able to accomplish, as well as its insistence “that the marketing mission could not compromise the the quality or tone of the editorial we published.”

“If you want an example of how that dynamic can tilt toward PR and lose its ability to compel an audience, look no further than Facebook Stories–beautifully produced features that did just a little too much cheerleading for the patron platform, and so read as commercial,” Mr. Mohney added. “The main unfortunate similarity between Facebook Stories and Tumblr Storyboard was that both were held at something of a nervous arms’ length by their company, for what I suspect were totally different reasons.”

Neither project, he explained, was acknowledged or promoted by the parent company. “I’d imagine the segment of Facebook users who knew about Facebook Stories was even smaller than the percentage of Tumblr users who knew about Storyboard,” he said. Why Tumblr opted for that route, “only management knows for sure,” he said.

Mr. Mohney also had some advice for anyone considering launching this kind of hybrid endeavor. “Make sure, from the start, that there is a clearly expressed purpose in line with the goals of the organization, and that there is sufficient buy-in from the people in charge to see it through to achieving that purpose. We thought we had done so internally–several times–but obviously not.”

As for another remark Mr. Karp made during the PaidContent conference, calling profitability “not a metric that is particularly important to [Tumblr]” both Mr. Mohney and Ms. Bennett declined to comment.

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com