tumblr laptop
Credit: By romainphotographer on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In a media landscape where more people are increasingly reading stories on social platforms without necessarily going direct to an outlet's site, Tumblr is yet another space where publishers can build a community of readers.

"We're an audio based organisation but not everyone wants to turn on the radio, or not everyone wants to come to our website, so we want to be where they are – and Tumblr affords us another place to do that," said NPR producer Wright Bryan in a recent Journalism.co.uk podcast.

NPR set up its main Tumblr blog when the platform first emerged and has since built a network of blogs as "it's easy to spin something up there and get it going and the cost if it doesn't work out is pretty low".

Among their blogs is a social media desk Tumblr where the team outlines their strategy and experiments, as well as an "On the Road" blog where reporters post insider-style updates.

What I love about people who use Tumblr is that they're not afraid to read long and they're not afraid to share their opinions and they're not afraid to speak outJulia Carpenter, Washington Post
And as every blog style is set up for a different purpose, the type of posts Tumblr users are likely to see varies accordingly.

The flagship Tumblr

One of the crucial first steps is to get to know your audience. At the Washington Post, digital audience producer Julia Carpenter, who curates the outlet's blog, posts stories "specifically for certain communities".

"We already know things like our audience on Tumblr is really interested in social justice and feminism and race, but they're also interested in this off-beat quirky side to the Post that's kind of a behind-the-scenes look at how our journalism gets made and who's making it," she explained.

One of the projects Carpenter started when she took over the Post's Tumblr was an "overheard" tag, "specifically to log these outrageous, funny, weird, bizarre things I was hearing".

She said the tag has since become popular in the newsroom as well, with other reporters suggesting 'overheards' and other material that might be interesting to the Tumblr community.

washington post screenshot
Screenshot from the Washington Post Tumblr.

"What I love about people who use Tumblr is that they're not afraid to read long and they're not afraid to share their opinions and they're not afraid to speak out," she said.

The Washington Post Tumblr is a mix of all the blog post types the platform can offer, including audio, text, photos or chats.

Tumblr users can also send in messages or questions, and Carpenter said she is "invested" in the audience, getting to know blogs that tend to like Washington Post stories, as well as reading all the notes and reblogging posts herself.

But at the Guardian, the flagship Tumblr is more about showcasing the outlets' stories.

"Generally we go for quotes and photos," explained producer Harry Slater. "And that's because the presentation is consistent across the web and mobile dashboards and also across blog themes.

"That said, during breaking news we found that text posts can work really well, there's often a really strong appetite for facts and one-liner updates.

"And often as with most breaking news stories, there's so much hysteria that the text post allows us to cut through that," he said.

The topic-specific blog

The majority of the posts on the Guardian's main blog are original, and the team only reblogs posts when they're particularly in line with the outlet's editorial tone, like The New Yorker's magazine covers around Ferguson.

But on topic-specific blogs there's an entirely different picture.

The 'Let's talk mental health' blog started after a Guardian project about mental health care in the UK, as "it was pretty clear that there was a need for someone to continue this conversation", explained Elena Cresci, community co-ordinator for news at the Guardian.

"I think reblogging others works really well and also I don't just feature content from the Guardian.

"I think it would be really narrow-minded of us to just do that on a topic-based Tumblr – this is about discussing a topic so if there's something really good on another site I will post it and I will reblog."

guardian mentalhealth tumblr
Screenshot of a link to a BuzzFeed story on the Let's Talk Mental Health Tumblr.

She also advised publishers using Tumblr to "talk to your readers as much as possible" – asking open questions to the community and then reblogging answers, for example, is one way of doing that.

What is success on Tumblr?

But how can you tell if your approach is working?

For Slater, the number of reblogs posts get on the platform is a good indication of success. And if Tumblr users add their own comments as well then you're on to a winner.

But at NPR the jury is still out on how to make the most of Tumblr, which Bryan finds "perplexing" as it's a "community environment rather than a traffic-driving source".

"We're always scratching our heads about that because we have a big following there and we know that they like what we're doing, but in terms of our metrics back on our main NPR website we don't see significant traffic coming from there.

"So that's something we're always thinking about and trying to understand, even as we continue to enjoy being on Tumblr and invest more time in it," he said.

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