The Internet’s all aflutter over the news that Tumblr has shuttered Storyboard, its navel-gazing experiment in journalism, after just one year. The platform was created to shine Tumblr’s digital spotlight on carefully curated user-generated content, as well as original content created by its editorial team.
“A year ago, Tumblr did something unprecedented—we created an editorial team of experienced journalists and editors assigned to cover Tumblr as a living, breathing community,” says Tumblr founder and CEO David Karp on Tumblr’s staff page. “And as Tumblr continues to evolve, we’ll always be experimenting with new ways to shine light on our creators.”
Storyboard appeared to be a success, boasting partnerships with networks like MTV, pieces in the digital edition of Time magazine, and a nomination for a James Beard award. Storyboard represented a valiant effort to breathe new life into the ailing body of traditional journalism by offering its own version of a digital update.
But if Storyboard was a success for Tumblr, why end it now? What does it take to create a sustainable combination of user-generated content, sponsored content and online journalism?
Karp’s claim that Storyboard’s mission was unprecedented isn’t exactly true. The Huffington Post was one of the first aggregation sites to become demonstrably popular, and the site mines its readers for contributions on everything from local news to entertainment. And Buzzfeed has managed to strike a lucrative balance between curated content, sponsored content and legitimate journalism.
But Tumblr was built to allow users to curate their own content, serving as an alternative to increasingly ad-heavy networks like Facebook and Twitter. Why would a social platform spend time and resources on an editorial team to do the same thing its users do on their own?
Successful fundraising and unsuccessful monetization
Despite benefiting from a wildly successful round of funding from investors, Tumblr has only recently begun to generate revenue. And with social networks attempting to monetize even routine communications, Storyboard might have been one step too far for its users.
Then, there were the awkward attempts to create sponsored content. After asking brands to pay for the privilege of being featured on Tumblr during Fashion Week in 2011, fashion houses rebelled and rejected ad prices as high as $350,000. As AdWeek points out, it’s tough to keep publishing quality content without a constant supply of funds to support it: “the larger development…seems to underscore how difficult online publishing can be if there isn’t an offline revenue stream such as events to keep the lights on.” Traditional publishing is slowly starving without ad dollars, but online publishing needs revenue to survive as well.
Although early online publishing efforts mirrored traditional publishing, the medium no longer resembles its print counterpart. Storyboard represented Tumblr’s ambition to be more than a microblog—but without proper planning, a dependable revenue stream and a captive audience, ambition can morph into failure.
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