In fact, many Storyboard articles were republished in traditional journalistic outlets like Time and Mother Jones. “I’d tell people this, and they’d be simultaneously wowed and appalled. Like, is this a new kind of advertorial? Is it somehow more or less acceptable than advertorial?” Bennett says. “But the reality is that most mainstream outlets like the ones I just listed are struggling. So whether or not you think Tumblr is a legit journalistic entity, if some editor is coming to you with a package that is written, produced, edited, and good, and offering it to you for free, news editors are pretty much like, fuck yes. Plus, partnering with Tumblr made them cool!”
She continues, “There is a lot of crap journalism out there, so sometimes it bothers me when people get all high and mighty about branded content. I really think it’s the story, not where it comes from.” But it’s increasingly difficult to figure out where a story comes from. As sponsored journalistic content and branded advertorial and brand-affiliated independent publications proliferate, the lines are getting blurrier and blurrier. It might be helpful for media consumers to demand more up-front information on how a story was produced—who paid for it? And who signed off on its publication? The Storyboard editors never published a statement explaining their editorial independence or decision-making process, though Bennett says, “we probably should have.”
Maybe all of this is moot. Many non-media companies tire quickly of their experiment in paying for independent journalism. “If we do too much storytelling ourselves, the fear is that we’re going to take away from our community of storytellers,” Tumblr cofounder David Karp said on a podcast recently. “They’re already terrific at this.” It sounds pretty similar to what Fletcher, the former managing editor of Facebook Stories, recently told students at Washington State University: Facebook “doesn’t need reporters” because it already has a billion members supplying content.
What advice would Bennett give to a journalist considering a job at a brand-affiliated publication? “Decide if you’re comfortable feeling like a PR person, and if you’re not, make sure you can do content that doesn’t suck. Or just say fuck it and take that $$$$$$,” she says. “No, but seriously, I think it’s possible to create good, compelling content for a brand—and you’ll likely be given the resources to do so, but I think it all depends on the brand and the bosses. One thing to ask: Will your work have to be approved by PR?”
Also, be aware that there is a significant culture gap between traditional media companies and tech startups—for better and for worse. “Tumblr has no phones,” Bennett says. “So we get there, and I’m all, ‘I need to do interviews,’ but everyone’s like, ‘Oh, we just use our cellphones.’ This was before they hired a sales team. So I’m conducting interviews on my cellphone, which cuts out constantly, in the hallway in the elevator duct, ‘cause there were also no phone booths. I had Aziz Ansari on the phone one time, and I couldn’t hear a fucking thing he was saying. My phone dies as I’m trying to record it. Ultimately we almost had to kill the interview because it was so bad.”
If you do take the leap, don’t expect any more stability than you had at your old-media job. “In the end, Tumblr decided it didn’t work, for reasons we’re not sure of,” Bennett says. “The truth is, I don’t have any regrets about going to work for Tumblr. Getting to experiment in this space—even if it ultimately led to being unemployed after barely a year—was way more exciting than watching budgets shrink, ad pages shrink, and everything else that has happened at old media outlets like Newsweek over the past year.”