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So What Do You Do, Jessica Bennett, Executive Editor of Tumblr's Storyboard?

'We're literally creating this as we go along'

By Janelle Harris - September 5, 2012
Once upon a time, anyone worth his word count knew that to be a journalist -- a really credible, respected journalist -- he would have to score a byline on the pages of an actual newspaper or magazine. Jessica Bennett is part of the vanguard eagerly changing that dynamic, and the executive editor position she's settling into at Tumblr is a keystone in the new media movement.

Recruited from her spot as writer and editor for Newsweek, she says that her new position as a Tumblr griot of sorts is a natural fit for her and a logical transition for the company considering its explosive growth.

"I think there was so much interesting stuff happening within Tumblr and almost a culture rising out of it that they wanted to somehow capture that in a journalistic sense," Bennett explained. "So, my job is essentially being a correspondent and editor for the Tumblr community. It's hard to explain and it sounds very journalism-from-the-future, but it's finding ways to pull out the really fascinating narratives and trends and issues that are coming out of Tumblr."


Name: Jessica Bennett
Position: Executive editor, Tumblr
Resume: Spent seven years as a writer and editor at Newsweek, covering social issues, gender and sex and appearing frequently on-air. Has written cover stories on teen bullying and sexism in the media, and has been honored by the Newswomen's Club of New York, the New York Press Club and the Society for Professional Journalists. Left in March 2011 to launch Storyboard, Tumblr's editorial arm. Remains a contributor to Newsweek/Daily Beast.
Birthday: September 3
Hometown: Seattle
Education: B.S., journalism, Boston University
Marital status: Single
Media idol: Nellie Bly and Nora Ephron
Guilty pleasure: Clothes, "which is hard when you have a tiny NYC closet."
Favorite TV shows: Girls, Mad Men and Homeland
Twitter handle: @jess7bennett


What are your specific duties? Were your tasks and goals set in advance, or are you adding things that need to be done along the way?
It varies from day to day. The position has evolved a bit, and a lot of it is kind of figuring it out as we go, but it's not that dissimilar to what I did when I was at Newsweek. I am constantly looking for good story ideas, I'm doing a lot of editing, I'm assigning features, I'm writing, I'm producing video and just overseeing all of the stuff that goes out on Storyboard, which is our editorial site.

So, all of your creative ideas come from the Tumblr community?
They're loosely related. For example, we did this big piece about how fandom has changed in the Internet Age based around One Direction, the UK boy band, who is huge on Tumblr. It was the kind of feature story you'd read in a newsmagazine, but not so Tumblr-specific that it couldn't be digestible to a mainstream audience. So, a lot of the ideas I come up with I'm getting from being on Tumblr and monitoring what's happening on there. If Tumblr were a digital city, then we're covering the ideas and themes coming out of that city like a reporter from The New York Times would be covering New York City.

"If Tumblr were a digital city, then we're covering the ideas and themes coming out of that city like a reporter from the New York Times would be covering New York City."

At traditional media outlets, layoffs abound and positions are being eliminated at an alarming pace. Yet, many new media companies are still unproven. Did you have reservations about leaving the stability of an established company for one that is still finding its footing?
Well, "stability" is not a word I would generally use to describe Newsweek or any print magazine in this age. So, no, I didn't have any hesitation. It's a new thing and it's exciting to be part of something that doesn't exist yet in the journalism world. We're literally creating this as we go along. It enables me to do things like travel or take on big stories, because budgeting is less of a concern. It's kind of liberating in a way. It's a start-up, so you never know what could happen but, honestly, I feel a lot more secure. It's exciting to be part of something that's new and growing instead of something that's shrinking, which is happening at every major media outlet now in the print world.

Is syndicating content the wave of the editorial future? What does that say about journalism as a whole, if what you see on Storyboard is also picked up on MTV News and New York magazine, for example?
I think that that kind of goes with our model at Tumblr and most of the models in the media age, which is about collaboration and sharing content that is good and creative and worthy and not so much about hoarding things. I remember in the print days, we used to hoard the best content for the magazine. It took years to break out of that, even at Newsweek, so we could be posting things online and understanding that there was as much value there as there was in the print publication. At Tumblr, we want to share as much content as we possibly can. We're not touchy about it as long as people are crediting it. For us, it's really about getting the stories out, not so much about taking credit for anything.

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Richard Lawson, Senior Writer for The Atlantic Wire?

Do you think that makes it challenging for each outlet to develop its own voice?
No. I feel like as long as you're staying true to the brand, collaboration can only be beneficial. We're still developing our voice, very much, so a lot time has been spent bringing a new magazine voice to it. But, for a lot of the publications we're been partnering with, our voice still works. I think that's part of being a good journalist: being able to adapt your voice for different publications and making it work for many outlets.

Many writers are being taken to task for "lazy journalism" that involves half-hearted fact-checking, plagiarism and flat out making up sources. In your opinion, what's a root cause for this issue, and what types of checks and balances are in place at Storyboard to avoid those kinds of instances?
We have a staff of three, so we're not pretending to be The New Yorker by any means. But we're trained journalists and we treat Storyboard with the same journalistic rigor and ethics that we would any other publication. I mean, based on [Newsweek's August 27 cover story], we now know that Newsweek does not have fact checkers. We never had fact checkers when I was working there. It was really up to the reporter to be thorough in their reporting, so we do the same thing at Tumblr. The editorial department can't monitor everything on Tumblr itself. That would be insane. But we certainly edit everything on Storyboard and make sure it's up to our standards.

"It took me years to realize that the invisible, objective, non-brand I was taught to be in journalism school is a thing of the past."

Tumblr has gone from pledging no advertising on its site to embracing it. How does the new business model affect what you do?
It doesn't right now. There are no ads on Storyboard, so we're not catering to a certain advertising audience. The advertising model is so new [that] we're still tweaking it and seeing how it's going to evolve. But as far as advertising models go, I think it's really creative and interesting to see the way Tumblr has approached theirs. It's the one place where you're not being bombarded by teeth-whitening ads. To be an advertiser on Tumblr, you also have to be a creator on Tumblr, even if it's a brand. I'm like the last person to say I enjoy advertising -- I do not -- but some of the advertising that's been featured on Tumblr has been really good and thoughtful.

How, specifically, can someone get these cool, new positions when many have not been created yet? Should people just pitch themselves as editors to social media sites, turn themselves into social media "gurus," or look for open positions?
First, understand that journalism is changing and embrace it. A lot of companies are creating positions like this. I saw one on Kickstarter, and Facebook is starting Facebook Stories, which is essentially a version of what we're doing. So, I think we're going to see more social media and tech companies telling the stories of their users. Second, brand yourself. It took me years to realize that the invisible, objective, non-brand I was taught to be in journalism school is a thing of the past. And, lastly, I guess I'd say just know how to tell a good story. High-quality writing, compelling narratives -- they're harder than you'd think to find, especially in an age where the Web is saturated. Also: pitch me stories!

NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Richard Lawson, Senior Writer for The Atlantic Wire?


Janelle Harris is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. She documents her editorial adventures at www.thewriteordiechick.com.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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