How not to act online: Tumblrs Mark Coatney

Mark Coatney by Dana LaceyA new brand of thoughtful, engaging journalism is about to explode online, says Mark Coatney, who recently left Newsweek to work for social media start-up Tumblr. Too bad most media companies aren’t prepared to take advantage.

Mark Coatney got his first job in journalism after sending an e-mail to Time Magazine‘s newsroom alerting them to a typo on their site. “This was 1994,” he says. “They were shocked someone was reading it.” He was hired as a reporter, where he co-founded, and later landed a job at Newsweek. “The point is, someone wrote me back. I owe my whole career to that someone at a big media company talked back.” Most companies don’t engage with their readers at all these days, he says, even though they have all the right tools at their fingertips.

Coatney went on to work as an editor at, where he spearheaded’s experiments in social media, including Facebook and Twitter, and was an early adopter of Tumblr, a quick-growing social media platform. He’s now Tumblr‘s director and self-described “media evangelist”: he helps media companies develop their online strategy without sacrificing quality journalism. He spoke to a group of media executives on Oct 16 at an event for the The Canadian Journalism Foundation and Rotman School of Management’s media management program about the tricks and tips he’s learned since implementing’s social media strategy.

Canadian Journalism Foundation's and Rotman School's media management program
Attendees listen to Coatney speak during The Canadian Journalism Foundation and Rotman School of Management’s media management program. By Dana Lacey.

Followers and ‘friends’ are important, but executives should be wary of social media metrics — a million “followers” on Twitter amounts to around 400,000 real people, while the rest are simply spam accounts. On the other hand, each real person that follows a publication’s Twitter account potentially represents a larger network. A Twitter follower might also have a Tumblr account, for instance (or Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare, etc.) Each platform comes with its own dedicated community of people, all potential readers. Coatney puts it this way: if 100 people share a story on Tumblr, as many as 100,000 people will see it.

At Newsweek, Twitter was a “great tool for mining what other people were saying.” Coatney found that comments on the magazine’s Facebook page were a lot better quality than comments on, where readers are anonymous and “way more likely to be a jerk.” Accountability is key to fostering intelligent debate, he says, although he admits he hasn’t yet figured out how to use Facebook as a platform for a brand with a unique voice.

Another undeniable truth: Not all readers are created equal. Google search results aren’t necessarily the holy grail we thought they were. Coatney says you’re more likely to retain readers if they arrive at your site through social media: a post or “like” on Facebook comes from someone you know and trust; a tweet on Twitter comes from someone you’ve chosen to follow; a photo stream on Tumblr is curated by people whose taste you admire. Google Analytics might tell you which combination of phrases is being searched for, but by that time it’s already too late. “The quality of traffic is more important that quantity,” he said. At Newsweek, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr referrals represented only 15% of traffic, but the readers read twice as many pages in one visit (six as opposed to three) and were a lot more likely to return to the site.

Tools designed exclusively for sharing content — Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon — also have their place in the newsroom. “They work well if someone is tending to them,” Coatney said, but only if the curator is empowered to act as a voice of the publication. “You have to customize your social media so it’s not just a self-interested corporate entity.” News organizations that muzzle their employees usually turn their social media feeds into bland, press-release spewing self promotion. Instead, social media should be used with the same considerations of any marketing plan: what voice do we want the publication to have, and how should we use it? How can we inform and entertain and be more useful to people? “You should talk to people in a way that people talk,” he says. “It’s great until you say something the company disagrees with.”

Coatney worked out a system at Newsweek: around half of the posts he produced were original content, while the other half promoted content from other sources. “In the practical sense, it’s free content,” he explains. He’d spend 10-20% of his spare time as an editor using social media to build a “more fully realized stream without having to make the content myself.” He’d also insert a bit of personality and the odd music video recommendation (“Newsweek loves the Pixies!”) to create a sense of conversation. The strategy of link and content sharing is also considered good online etiquette, and helps foster community where there might not have been one. Coatney’s favourite reader comment, in response to a story he shared: “Now there’s not a 0% chance I’d ever buy Newsweek.”

The nature of experimentation means Coatney’s also made some mistakes, like live tweeting events that had followers begging for a ceasefire. He loved that he had carte blanche at Newsweek — ”what were they going to do, fire me?” — but by the time the sale of the magazine was announced he was ready to take a break from journalism.

Working for an online startup carries its own risks, but at least he’s not constantly fretting over his e-mail, Coatney says: he sometimes feels residual worry when his inbox hasn’t beeped for a while, remembering that he used to check his email “first thing in the morning, all day, and right before I went to sleep” in vain attempt to stay on top of the journalistic pileup.

Not that he’s strayed too far from journalism. He still keeps its own Tumblr. He still thinks like a journalist, trying to figure out what combination of content to publish. In an explanatory note on his blog, Coatney writes that the decision to leave Newsweek wasn’t easy, but “This isn’t a decision about the future of Newsweek; it’s about the future of Tumblr, and what I believe is a really interesting and great opportunity to help shape and grow a community, and to guide publishers into a new and better way of connecting with their readers. One of the reasons I’ve long been interested in online journalism is in the ways it can be, in a way no other medium can, a two-way communication between writer and reader; Tumblr is one of the best ways I’ve seen to accomplish that. My new job, basically, will be to take the lessons I’ve learned at Newsweek and bring them to other media outlets. The mission is to show how this platform can be key to connecting journalists and readers, making the process more engaging and conversational.”

Tumblr focuses on the visual: the most popular feeds are stuffed with large, attention-grabbing photos. (Read the NYT’s beginners guide to using Tumblr for a great introduction.) But there’s definitely a place for great journalism, Coatney told J-Source after his talk.

Photojournalism is the obvious beneficiary. The Economist got it right away, he said: they use huge photos, they respond to readers, and they use infographics, loved by magazines and, increasingly, newspapers. They also show that clever heds and deks and especially colourful quotes still have their place, Coatney says. Open The Economist’s Tumblr and the first entry you see (at least at the time of this post) is a quote: “In
2003 Bono, a rock star and poverty campaigner, proclaimed that ‘The
world needs more Canada’. This week, the world decided it didn’t.” Would you click on that? I know I did. It also gives a sneak peak of tomorrow’s print edition cover and a full-page hand-drawn editorial cartoon.

Tumblr encourages users to think like a magazine editor, who uses pullquotes–a juicy quote or stat from the story — to lure readers into the story as they flip through pages. “The best quotes from stories, along with photos, get people’s attention,” Coatney says, “which is hard to do when you’re competing with over 100 clickable spots on each page.”