The Media Companies Using Tumblr Right, According to Tumblr's Departing Media Evangelist

Exit Interview With Mark Coatney

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Mark Coatney
Mark Coatney

As a senior editor at Newsweek, Mark Coatney helped build the magazine's Tumblr page, earning a following with his chatty and often irreverent posts. Early on, for instance, he breezily asked readers not to expose his Tumblr activity to his boss, then-Newsweek editor Jon Meacham.

When he left Newsweek to join Tumblr itself as its media evangelist in 2010, becoming just its 12th employee, Mr. Coatney took on introducing all kinds of companies to the fledgling platform and teaching them how to use it to better connect with their readers. By the time he decided to leave, Mr. Coatney had helped launch 650 Tumblrs for brands -- including nearly all of Conde Nast's Tumblrs -- as well as nonprofits, government organizations and individuals (like Beyonce).

This week, Mr. Coatney told readers of his personal Tumblr page that he was leaving, making him the second early employee to depart since Yahoo struck its $1.1 billion deal for the company (Tumblr Creative Director Jacob Bijani announced his resignation less than two weeks after the Yahoo deal in May.)

Mr. Coatney, whose last day at the company will be next month, talked with Ad Age about why he's leaving, how media brands should profit from Tumblr and what he plans next. Our conversation, a phone interview supplemented by email, has been lightly edited.

Advertising Age: In November 2009, you wrote on the Newsweek's Tumblr that you "have no idea how to monetize this Tumblog," stressing that experimentation is what mattered at that time. Nearly four years out from that post, what do you think is the next step for media brands on Tumblr?

Mark Coatney: The problem for media companies is to figure out how they can take the attention they've earned for their Tumblr and turn that into something that makes their journalism financially viable. I do think there are some interesting things around native advertising. That model translates very well to Tumblr. Maybe media companies could help brands tell stories on Tumblr and charge them for that. Maybe a sponsored post model makes sense.

There's a built-in audience and media companies can separate it from their typical web audience so there are no conflicts between editorial and advertising content. I don't think there's any one model, but I think there are a few things they can play around with.

Ad Age: What was your charge when you first arrived at Tumblr?

Mr. Coatney: My charge was to bring on board any organization that wanted to be on Tumblr but needed guidance. Coming from journalism, the people I targeted were media companies. Most of my job was to sit down and show them the Tumblr dashboard and show them how it works, and how it's useful and how it's different from WordPress. I had my targets, but I got so many inbound requests that I didn't expect. So my first year was handling everything that came inbound. After maybe a year and a half to two years we started segmenting what I do into other parts. Now we have someone who just handles book publishing, music, fashion, and then we have a whole sales infrastructure. It was fun to do everything at first.

Ad Age: Who got it early on?

Mr. Coatney: BlackBook had a really good and interesting Tumblr and a series of good people doing it. Early on, the Conan O'Brien show -- in 2010 when his TBS show was starting -- did a Team Coco Tumblr that was really good and innovative. IBM Smarter Planet, which was up and running even before I started, is really cool. NPR and "Fresh Air" got it pretty early on. Rolling Stone was really great. Sesame Street was very, very good.

Ad Age: And which media brands stand out to you now?

Mr. Coatney: NPR has been doing these single-topic Tumblrs that are all submissions-based. One of them asks listeners to take a picture of what's in their cabinet and share it on Tumblr. Asking questions and engaging readers has really become an important part. GQ has long been really good at this. There's also Planned Parenthood -- even though it's not a media brand -- that does this well. When you visit their Tumblr you see us a big "Ask us anything" box. It's super service-y. That's a good model for any media company.

Ad Age: Why did you decide to leave Tumblr?

Mr. Coatney: It was just a good stopping point, you know? I did a lot of things, and I now have a little financial security, plus a new baby, so this seemed like a good moment.

Ad Age: In April, Tumblr shuttered Storyboard -- its editorial project to curate and highlight posts on the site -- laying off three journalists. What role, if any, did you play in Storyboard?

Mr. Coatney: The whole reason I went to Tumblr was to do something outside of journalism and Storyboard was journalism, so I tried to stay away from it. The idea of it was good, to report on Tumblr, and The Daily Dot has picked up on it, so there's clearly value there. But I understand from the Tumblr perspective why it was shut down. Before the Yahoo deal, we weren't really making money, so it was hard to justify to the board.

Ad Age: What's next for you?

Mr. Coatney: I'm not entirely sure. One of the luxuries is that I have some financial cushion and some time, so I'm talking to some people that might be a good fit and thinking about something that might be more useful.

Ad Age: What do you mean by more useful? Is that in journalism or do you mean to take up humanitarian causes?

Mr. Coatney: That would probably be more useful [laughs]. But journalism is what I know; I've been doing online journalism since 1994. I've been in situations where I've looked at what's happening in traditional media and thought I would do that differently, so maybe I could put my money where my mouth is, but I just don't know at this point. It might be something on my own or it might be as part of a larger thing.

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