The New York Times has figured out at least one way to appeal to Tumblr’s photo-crazy users: “The Lively Morgue,” which posts several photographs from the Times’s vast archives every week. “That’s a way the Times can make a Times-y Tumblr blog, but fun and lively,” says Aron Pilhofer, 47, the newspaper’s editor of interactive news.
If you’re wondering why the Times cares about having a successful Tumblr presence, you’re clearly over 40. Tumblr, which the average middle-aged American has probably never heard of, is an Internet behemoth, heavily skewed toward the young. There are some 100 million Tumblr blogs, drawing 172 million monthly unique visitors. Roughly 60 percent of Tumblr’s audience is under the age of 34, and more than half of that group is under 24. “Go to where young people are; don’t expect them to come to you,” says Jessica Bennett, 31, executive editor of Tumblr until her department was eliminated in April.
In addition to being a forum for reaching younger readers, Tumblr is a launching pad for content throughout social media. When Starbucks announced that it was introducing a new larger cup size in 2011, graphic artist Andrew Barr of the National Post of Canada made an illustration showing that it was larger than the capacity of the average human stomach. A Web producer posted it to the National Post Art & Design Tumblr blog, and it was reblogged widely, picked up by the Huffington Post, Gizmodo, and Buzzfeed, and discussed by Anderson Cooper on CNN. It received thousands of retweets and Facebook likes.
So photos aren’t the only kind of image that goes viral. Rather it is content that makes the person you share it with feel something, whether shock, amazement, or delight. While that may mean random ephemera like the infamous video of a chain-smoking toddler in Indonesia, it can also describe serious enterprise reporting. Vice Media has broken through with short gonzo documentaries like The Vice Guide to Karachi. “We’re exploring the insanity of the modern condition,” says Jason Mojica, Vice’s lead video producer, adding that the Vice website tries to focus on “things that make you say, ‘Holy shit! I can’t believe this exists!’”
They feel strongly about trust, taste, and tone
Back in the dark ages of the 20th century, one typically had to choose a handful of news brands and forgo the content offered elsewhere. For example, a reader living in New York or Boston might subscribe to the Times or the Globe rather than The Washington Post, and just accept the fact that sometimes her hometown paper would not have that day’s most important inside-the-Beltway story. Now, anyone can read the three most important political stories of the day from three different sources based in three different cities. So there is also a need for someone to sort through all those different sources, and others, to find the best or most important stories every day.
A key factor at play here is that many young people have come of age amid growing suspicion of experts of all types, and they are exposed to increasingly bitter partisan critiques of mainstream reporting. In September 2012, Gallup reported that “Americans’ distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60 percent saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”
A recent study by George Washington University and the market-research firm ORI finds this skepticism especially pronounced among young people. According to the report, 24 percent of American adults overall say information they get on social networks is of the same quality or of higher quality than that from traditional media outlets, versus 39 percent who say it is about the same quality and 31 percent who say it is of lower quality. But among those 18 to 25 years old, 31 percent said social networks provide higher-quality information than that of regular media, and only 25 percent said social networks offer information of generally lower quality. That’s a significant change from the Cronkite era of mainstream media authority.
“For years, people didn’t see information on social media as equally trustworthy,” says study author Dr. David Rehr, a professor at GWU’s graduate school of political management. Social-media news, he adds, “has moved into the mainstream of quality information.”
Those who no longer believe what the media tell them turn to people they do trust to help them decide what to think. “People don’t know who to trust, so they trust their friends,” says Jen Nedeau, 28, a director at the digital advertising firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. “People read what their friends recommend.”