Old Media Should Pay Up If It Wants to Tumblr

There goes the neighborhood. Big media is invading Tumblr. For weeks I had been meaning to blog about how old media might ruin Tumblr. I shouldn’t have waited. Monday’s New York Times story “Media Companies Try Getting Social With Tumblr” raises the topic without rightly razing it. How could Jenna Wortham’s story have been any different, since The Times is among the old media vanguard invading Tumblr. Jenna’s story positions the big media invasion as something good. I most certainly don’t agree, given Tumblr’s free-for-all embrace.

Who’s on the list of other-media Tumblr wannabes? Jenna writes:

Over the last few months, other media outlets have caught wind of Tumblr, which is free to use. The newest recruits include The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, BlackBook Media Corporation, The Paris Review, The Huffington Post, Life magazine and The New York Times.

Earlier in the story she mentioned Newsweek and The New Yorker, and it is the first of the two that had me howling a few weeks ago—when I should have blogged this media invasion topic. Mark Coatney—a journalist and not, thank God, a blogger—was the inspiration driving the Newsweek Tumblr (blog locked up my browser while reviewing it for this post!!!). He now works for Tumblr, and here’s where I take another jab at the pathetic state of news reporting. There was a glut of stories both yesterday and Monday announcing Mark’s move from Newsweek to Tumblr, like it’s oh-so new news. Tumblr Staff blog announced Mark’s hire on July 12th. Does nobody check facts or news relevance anymore? These other reports followed the New York Times’ Tumblr profile.

There’s good sense in Tumblr hiring a seasoned journalist, but, so far as I can see, bad policy. Jenna defines Mark’s job responsibilities:

Many of those outlets have done little more than set up a placeholder page. In his new job as a ‘media evangelist,’ Mr. Coatney’s role, and in some ways his challenge, is to help them figure out what to do next.

That’s OK, if they pay. Why should big media get a free social-media platform and in doing so perhaps overwhelm and diminish many of the service’s original voices? If established media wants to play, Tumblr should make them pay. Tumblr’s creative community of bloggers is one of its two major appealing features. The other is the publishing platform. If big media gets a free ride and comes to silence many of the original voices, the community will move along. Tumblr could also diminish as a business, by giving big media a free ride. Founder David Karp and Company can’t sustain Tumblr on venture-capitalist rounds of funding forever.

David has valiantly resisted advertising, but how far will that go if old media and new media mingle together in search of audience they can sell to advertisers or to whom they can pitch advertisers’ products and services? There’s a purity about Tumblr’s technology platform and business model that big media could easily corrupt. David has the right idea about selling extras, like the Premium themes, but Tumblr isn’t doing enough fast enough.

I’d pay, too, if Tumblr offered more extra services. I’m buying themes. What if Tumblr increased audio and video capacity for reasonable fees? I’d pay. Wouldn’t you cough up a little for a lot more?

Mark should be responsible for a big media consultancy operation working within Tumblr. If Tumblr’s doing something so right in social media, as The Times asserts, then Mark has got something valuable to sell. Big-ass media brands, or those with loads of server-sucking traffic, should pay Tumblr for hosting, design services and Mark’s consulting time. WordPress.com charges nominal yearly subscription fees for HD video and other extras. Then there is the VIP service for those old and new media blogs:

You might be a good candidate for VIP hosting if, for example, you get more than 1 million page views a month on your blog. Pricing is based on a flat rate of $500/month per blog (with a one-time setup fee of $1,500 per blog) but is flexible depending on your circumstances and number of blogs.

But WordPress.com is different, even as it increasingly imitates Tumblr. The community interaction isn’t as tight or established around Like, Reblog or other social sharing features. More importantly, Tumblr has conceptually better expertise to sell to big media. The fees can can help Tumblr generate revenue from big media blogs and act as a toll booth against a big media invasion. Free is easy. Established media outlets have to justify paying for something new and uncertain.

My worries are clear. I started blogging at Tumblr in April 2008, at first in off-and-on fashion. About six months ago, I made Tumblr my primary publishing platform. I believe in what Tumblr represents as a creative community of bloggers and as a blogging platform. But if big media gets a free ride—smashing smaller Tumblelogs into roadkill along the way—I’ll have to go somewhere else, where I will sadly watch Tumblr tumble away. Update: I started moving away from Tumblr as a publishing platform in late September 2010.

Editor’s Note: This post was moved to joewilcox.com from oddlytogether.com on Sept. 28, 2010.

Photo Credit: デニス モジョ / Refracted Moments

Do you have a Tumblr story that you’d like told? Please email Joe Wilcox: joewilcox at gmail dot com.