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April 19, 2016, 10:43 a.m.

Mashable chief content officer: We’re still investing in journalism our “audience loves and values”

“We decided to move away from general interest news and broad coverage of the world. The reason we did that is we really want to focus on where our strengths and expertise are and where we can stand out.”

I profiled Mashable in July 2014 as the company was in the process of ramping up its news coverage. At the time, Jim Roberts, the New York Times veteran who’d been hired to lead Mashable’s news operations, told me that his goal was to build on the site’s origins as a site covering technology and social media.

“Mashable’s core has really focused on the confluence between technology and digital culture, and those topics are still really essential to us and are really at the heart of what we do,” Roberts told me at the time. “I guess what I’m trying to do is, to the extent that this is possible, is cling to that core, reinforce it as much as possible, and then build around it in a very natural way.”

Now it seems the company is retrenching toward its roots. On April 7, Mashable announced that Roberts and chief revenue officer Seth Rogin had left the company. In all, 30 Mashable staffers from across the company lost their jobs. In a memo announcing the change, Mashable CEO and founder Pete Cashmore said the company will “move away from covering world news and
 politics as standalone channels.” And on the heels of a $15 million investment led by Turner, Cashmore also said that Mashable was reorganizing its video team so “animators and
 video producers will now have the opportunity to work on our most
 important video projects — from digital shows to television to branded
 series.

”

Many of the headlines about the staffing changes emphasized that Mashable was changing its focus from news to more entertainment-focused topics. CNN, citing two sources, reported that Mashable COO Mike Kriak said in a staff meeting that Mashable was “‘moving away from harder news’ and toward an ‘entertaining digital culture.'” Politico Media reported that the move was “part of a pivot toward non-news video content.”

On the same day the company announced the staffing changes, it also introduced Gregory Gittrich as Mashable’s new chief content officer, and he and the company have been pushing back against those reports. In an interview Monday, Gittrich, formerly of Vocativ, said Mashable would still be covering news through its realtime news team and through the lens of technology, culture, science, and more. The company also released a memo from Gittrich that claimed there were “inaccurate comments externally about how the recent changes could hurt the quality of our journalism.”

“We really want to focus on where our strengths and expertise are and where we can stand out,” he told me. “The reality is that there’s no shortage of content being created and filling up the feed. With all that competition for audience, all that competition for attention, and all that noise, it’s important that we have a clear identity and a clear voice. It’s even more important as we create stories for many platforms. “

Gittrich and I (along with a Mashable spokesman who listened in on the interview) spoke about how Mashable now plans to cover news, its emphasis on video, and its relationships with social platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Joseph Lichterman: You touched on this in your memo, but can you walk me through your vision for a Mashable story?

Gregory Gittrich: The key is we’re investing in the journalism that the Mashable audience loves and values. We’re really focusing on original reporting, reviews, features, profiles that tie back to our core sections: tech, entertainment, science, web culture, business, social media, and lifestyle.

The other component of that is our realtime news team. That realtime news team is a big part of what Mashable does well and a our realtime coverage definitely stands out. We’re focusing and investing on that team as well.

Lichterman: You specified that you’re moving away from politics news and general news. How are you defining that and why did you decide to move away from those topic areas?

Gittrich: We’re definitely still covering news. I was very clear about that in the note. We’re going to cover news through all of those core areas that I mention.

We decided to move away from general interest news and broad coverage of the world. The reason we did that is we really want to focus on where our strengths and expertise are and where we can stand out. The reality is that there’s no shortage of content being created and filling up the feed. With all that competition for audience, all that competition for attention, and all that noise, it’s important that we have a clear identity and a clear voice. It’s even more important as we create stories for many platforms.

In terms of politics or other big breaking stories in news, we definitely plan to cover those but through the lens of these other sections. One, of many examples, would be the developments in the debate around encryption. We would definitely cover that through our technology unit, our business desk.

Lichterman: You mentioned this in your note, and just to me now, that you’re interested in covering what Mashable excels in and areas that your audience “loves and values.” Would you say that the audience that Mashable is going for wasn’t looking for general news or more dedicated politics reporting?

Gittrich: I’d say that the areas that we chose are the ones that we think we have the clearest identity and the best depth of expertise in. I also think that it’s important to note a couple of things: We’re a startup. So we definitely want to try different things, experiment, and see what works for us. Over the past three years, a lot of investment was made, and I think a lot of that is being overlooked. I read the story you wrote a couple years ago, and I thought at that point it captured a portion of what was being done here. A good number of those folks are here and continue to do great work.

If you look at what Mashable has done over the past two and a half to three years, even with the changes, our editorial staff is now nearly three times as large as it was three years ago. We’ve expanded to new markets. The realtime news team was not only created, but filled out: We just added our first reporter in London in March. The science team was launched. We’ve also expanded units that have existed previously: Entertainment, culture, and tech all have more reporters and more analysts. And then the entire video operation was built from scratch. Part of that was building a global news unit, and we’re constantly evaluating what works for us and what our audience wants from Mashable. We decided to invest in our core areas. We’re in no way wavering from our commitment to deliver original, well-reported, exclusive stories in areas where we think we stand out and where our audience really loves our coverage.

Lichterman: You’ve emphasized a number of times realtime news coverage. I’m curious what that will look like. Will be more focused on social platforms? I was just clicking through the Mashable News Twitter account before we got on the phone and there was coverage there of the explosion in Jerusalem today and other news, but I didn’t see that anywhere on the Mashable homepage or the world section. Can we expect to see more of the real-time stuff on social exclusively?

Gittrich: Definitely. I think that realtime team is perhaps best positioned to innovate around how we cover big developing stories. In some cases, that could mean creating content, creating stories that are designed to live entirely on social platforms. We’re going to look at whether we always need to use a live blog, how we use video, animation, and illustration both alone and together to tell stories in unique ways. Brian Ries and that team is excited to do that and that’s one of the reasons we made the decision to expand that operation both here in New York and in our various bureaus.

Lichterman: When the changes were announced, it was reported that Mike Kriak said Mashable was moving “moving away from harder news” and toward an “entertaining digital culture.” CNN reported that with two sources. I’m curious why you think people got the impression that people were moving away from harder news? That seems like something you want to emphasize, at least from the conversation we’re having now.

Gittrich: I wasn’t in the room. I can’t speak to what was said and why that was a takeaway. I can tell you, I was hired to focus on our core coverage areas, invest in everything that our audiences loves, and ensure that our voice is consistent as we expand across more platforms. The change has always been that we’ve decided not to focus on general interest news, for all the reasons that I laid out in the past few minutes.

I can say that there was a good amount of change all at once. Whenever that happens it takes sometime to talk through everything. I’ve had a great first week. I’ve spoken individually with just under 100 people and through that all we’ve published many great stories, and I called out a handful of them in a note this morning. There are many more. That’s why I wanted to be here. Without question, the reason Mashable was attractive to me is the journalism, is the storytelling is the depth of expertise in all of these areas — also the willingness to try new things. I’m excited how we can take video resources, how we can use the data to tell stories in different ways and keep doing a lot of the things that we’ve been doing.

Lichterman: Building on that, one of the things I noticed in your memo this morning is that editorial, audience development, social, and video “are going to be brought into one content team” to work together. How will that arrangement work and why are you making that change?

Gittrich: We need to think about the audience at every step. The day of publishing stories and handing it off to the social team to promote are over. In my mind, they’ve been over for a long time. What we decided to do was to bring the social team, the audience team together with the editorial team with video all into one content operation so we can focus on the best ways to tell stories. The audience and the social team is now right in the center of the newsroom. What we’re looking to do is constantly discuss and figure out ways that all the big stories we’re telling can reach the audience we want them to reach. As you noted earlier, we’re also going to be talking about what the best way to tell this story on this platform. You’ll see us creating content that’s for specific platforms, whether that’s Facebook, or Snapchat, our own website, or anywhere else where we can reach that audience.

Lichterman: Pete, in his note the other week, said that branded content is now at the “center of our ad offering.” How do you view branded content in that fit? There’s been a lot of discussion about the scale of web advertising and how it’s impacting news organizations moving forward.

Gittrich: I’ll say that looking at the industry, branded content is without question important. All of our competitors are creating and distributing branded content. It’s our fastest growing revenue. That said, we also have to find other sources of revenue, and our push into video helps us create new opportunities.

Lichterman: Regarding video, there was the investment from Turner last month and discussion of TV as well. How are you thinking about TV and video and what might we expect to see from Mashable as you look toward television?

Gittrich: To take a step back, I would say that all formats of storytelling are important to us: text, multimedia together. We are, without question, making a big investment into video. The reason we’re doing that is our audience is increasingly getting our information from watching video, whether that’s on our site, on social platforms, OTT, or television. There’s no question video is vital to our success.

In terms of what we’re looking to do to television, we’re looking at everything from short-form to documentaries to series. We have good partners in place, not just with Turner, but with Bravo and we’ll be talking a lot more about that in the weeks ahead about specific projects that we’re working on.

Lichterman: You mentioned a couple times also creating content directly for social platforms. There was a report in The New York Times that Mashable is “diverting resources to increasing their audience on Facebook” and there’s been a lot of discussion of Facebook Live and Facebook video as well. How are you focusing on Facebook and what does that strategy look like?

Gittrich: Facebook is an important platform for us. We have a huge following and an engaged audience, but we’re not diverting or reallocating resources to fill a Facebook following. Facebook is very important to us. Snapchat is very important to us. We’re looking for ways to create content that is designed to live on those platforms and be attractive to our audience. That’s what we should be doing and that’s what our competitors are doing. That doesn’t mean that we’re not also doing content for our website and everywhere else where Mashable content lives.

It goes back to what we were talking about earlier about bringing together the various video units, audience, and social channels that as the content is being created and as our audience is getting stories, news, and information in all these places, we need to create stories for all these platforms and we can’t pretend that a story that might be perfect for Facebook will work for Snapchat or work on the website. We need to take in mind the expectations of the audience and the presentation where they’re seeing the content. That’s been going on for years, not only at digital operations but at big multimedia and multiplatform operations.

Lichterman: I know it’s been reported that Mashable has been one of the partners that Facebook is paying to experiment with Facebook Live. Can you tell me about that arrangement and how you’ve been experimenting with Facebook Live?

Mashable spokesman Paul Cafiero: Unfortunately, we can’t comment on any of the financial arrangements we have with any of the platforms. I won’t be able to help you there, but we can talk about how we’ve been using Facebook Live.

Gittrich: On the content front, we’ve been experimenting with Facebook Live for sometime now, both in studio and in the field. We’re, in the weeks and months ahead, going to be rolling out new live video offerings from series to event coverage and we’ll see what works for us. We’ve got a great team here, really creative journalists who are excited about finding out what works and what doesn’t on Facebook. The same thing with Snapchat, and the same thing with Instagram. I think Instagram going to 60-second video is also an opportunity for us and our competitors.

Lichterman: Taking a step back, and looking at the industry as a whole, what do you make of the trend of publishers becoming more reliant on these platforms like Facebook and Snapchat as places to not only share content, but host it? What do you think that means for publishers like Mashable?

Gittrich: I think it goes back to the audience. The audience is consuming news, stories, and information on all these platforms. The days of navigating to a website, coming in through the homepage, looking at a couple apps are over. It doesn’t exist anymore. Media companies need to differentiate themselves by having a clear voice and brand, and also need to be experimenting with ways to reach the audience across all these platforms. That’s very important to us, and we’ll definitely be focusing on that and investing in that in the weeks ahead.

Lichterman: There are some people who think there’s an over-reliance on these platforms and that, at some point, publishers just become another name in the stream and lose a sense of editorial independence almost. Is that a concern or something you’re thinking about at all?

Gittrich: It goes back to everything we’ve been talking about. Mashable has a very large and engaged audience, and that audience loves our coverage of tech, entertainment, science, culture, and social media. We have a strong relationship with them. That’s how we’re going to succeed. Focusing on that and making sure that we deliver quality stories in a consistent voice no matter where we’re reaching our audience is vital. That’s what you’re seeing play out across the landscape.

Photo courtesy Mashable.

POSTED     April 19, 2016, 10:43 a.m.
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