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October 8, 2012 / Gina D.

ONA12 Unconference panel: Are social media companies writing about themselves practicing journalism?

Are journalists hired by a company to write about that company — or its products/services — producing journalism, or is what they’re doing more accurately described as marketing?

An exchange at one of the a.m. ONA ’12 Unconference sessions — “Is Tumblr the new Time Inc.?” — struck me as quite the philosophical one-two punch. An audience member posed the original form of the question above, which I’ve paraphrased to add context, and it struck a nerve with panelist Jessica Bennett, executive editor of Storyboard, Tumblr’s… ‘zine? Is that term still in use, or am I just showing my age? Oh, and BTW, Facebook has one, too: Facebook Stories, which was also represented on the Unconference panel, despite being absent from the session’s submitted title.

People working for a company writing feel-good stories about using the only product produced by said company… seems like a no-brainer: marketing, it is. But hold on a second — I’m not done yet.

Conversely, a follow-up comment from a member of panel — suggesting that in a certain context, one could call everything on Twitter “journalism” — definitely struck a nerve with the crowd. An interesting notion, but of course, utterly ridiculous — so much so that it struck me as lashing out. Spend two minutes on three random Twitter feeds, and I’m pretty sure it will be quickly apparent how preposterous that last notion is. (I’m sorry to say that the whole exchange happened fast, and I’m not 100% clear exactly who on the panel made the Twitter comment.)

Before I wander too far into the forest here, let me take a moment to clarify: I’m not throwing rocks at Tumblr, or Facebook. I’m merely laying the groundwork for a discussion I believe 1) has merit, and 2) is incredibly interesting… Pondering the definition of journalism is something I always find really fascinating, and even moreso when the definition(s) I’m hearing from someone else unleashes the kind of defensive volley I saw exhibited in that giant yet sparsely populated back conference room at the Hyatt Regency in downtown San Francisco a few Saturdays ago.

On one hand, I can see Bennett’s perspective. In addition to their content appearing in reputable web publications (since we’re not quite yet to the point where we can drop the “web” from that noun), what she and the editorial team at Tumblr are doing is telling stories about their community — not unlike the kinds of community news readers laud and crave. Those same stories that many in newsrooms shovel only to fill holes and keep the paychecks flowing while waiting for that juicy exposé on a respected government official to fall into their laps. After all, we’re all Woodwards and Bernsteins at heart.

On the other, I’m fairly certain the stories — often interesting features/interviews reflecting on culture, issues, people and places — wouldn’t dare make Tumblr seem like anything less than a Mecca of hipster diversity and the future salvation of individuality currently being drained by other more popular — dare I say, mainstream? — methods of social media. Call it a hunch.

No doubt, storytelling is storytelling, and every “boring” community snewser (see what I did there?) is an opportunity lost by a journalist who didn’t bother to elevate it. Trust me; I’ve had the good fortune to work with a reporter or two who found ways to make even the most mundane of assignments — on any topic — blossom into compelling reads. Any. Topic.

But good stories aren’t at issue here. Again, the question here is: Is this journalism?

Forbes called it “newspaper-like.” I could be wrong, but the “-like” in that headline — in the headline! — didn’t strike me as being put there solely because they lack a concrete community or a physical product, especially since its previous coverage of Storyboard highlights the fact that most of the content it was churning out initially was not original to the extent of being sued. And The Atlantic’s take on “the microsite.”

It’s clear Ms. Bennett sees herself views herself as a journalist to the core, and you needn’t be in that particular unconference session to know that. Her posted resumé contains several entries headlined “Newsweek,” another from the Village Voice, and a New York Press Club award named after a pioneer in investigative journalism.

Tumblr clearly concurs, given her title — executive editor — as well as the fact that they have an editorial department (not a marketing department) that produces content for Storyboard

It will be interesting, for sure, to see how this department, its site and its staff evolve. No doubt. But until they get themselves cops and city hall beats, I’m thinking I’ll stick to the traditional definitions of journalism.



Leave a Comment
  1. contradict / May 29 2013 2:25 AM

    Doh! I was domain name searching at namecheap.
    com and went to type in the domain name: http://beyondtetris.
    com/2012/10/08/is-this-journalism/ and guess who already purchased it?

    You did! lol j/k. I was about to buy this domain name but noticed it was taken so I thought I’d come check it out. Wonderful blog!

    • Gina D. / Feb 3 2014 9:31 PM

      Did you finally pick up this domain? Someone did, late last year. Boo.

      Well, enjoy it, I guess. Thanks for playing.


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