Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer
When Verizon announced earlier this week that it was selling Tumblr, the blogging platform Yahoo acquired in 2013 for $1.1 billion, most of the attention focused on the price: according to Axios, the communications conglomerate sold Tumblr for just $3 million (Vox says closer to $2 million). In other words, Yahoo vaporized about 99 percent of the platform’s theoretical value in the six years it owned the company. But apart from this massive bonfire of value, one of the most interesting things about the Tumblr sale was the acquirer: Automattic, the parent company of WordPress. If Tumblr was the Coney Island freak show of the blogosphere, WordPress is the more dependable cousin—the one with a steady job. Could the combination of the two bring back the glory days of independent blogging? Some are clearly hoping that it will, and if anyone has a chance of pulling it off, it’s probably WordPress.
More than 35 percent of the world’s 1 million most popular websites run on the company’s publishing software (about ten times the number that use its nearest competitor). That list includes many leading publishers such as The New Yorker, TechCrunch, the BBC and Variety magazine. But the software behind all of these sites isn’t the product of some massive corporation like Microsoft: founder Matt Mullenweg cobbled it together in 2003, when he was just 19 years old. Even more surprising, the core of WordPress is still open source, meaning anyone can help develop it, and any user can download, install and run it for free. Automattic helps manage the free version, but also sells a for-pay version and related services to large publishers. The company is valued at over $1 billion.
In an interview with The Verge on Tuesday, Mullenweg—who is now CEO of Automattic–makes it clear the purchase of Tumblr wasn’t just an attempt to cash in on a Verizon fire sale. Part of his motivation, he suggests, was to try to bring back some of the magic of the old days of blogging, when the web seemed to be mostly made up of individuals writing on their own websites instead of just posting to a Facebook news feed. And Mullenweg clearly sees the open-source, do-it-yourself ethos of Tumblr and WordPress as an alternative to the centralized control of a social-networking behemoth like Facebook. “I would love for Tumblr to become a social alternative,” he says. “It has the fun and friendliness of some of the other networks we use, but without that democracy destroying…” The sentence is left unfinished, but it’s obvious who he’s talking about.
More than just about any other piece of software, WordPress helped fuel the blog revolution in the mid- to late 2000’s, like a digital Gutenberg printing press. Although many early bloggers used a variety of tools, including Moveable Type and Blogger (founded by Evan Williams, who sold it to Google in 2003 and went on to become a co-founder of Twitter), WordPress quickly became the go-to name for anyone who wanted to publish their own writing. And as media companies like The New York Times started to dabble in the web, WordPress also became the default platform for many of their blogs as well. TechCrunch started the technology blog boom and was eventually acquired by AOL; The Huffington Post built a user-generated content empire of blogs before it was also acquired; and blogs helped start the careers of some notable journalists, including Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept and CNN’s Brian Stelter, who got his start with a self-published blog called TV Newser.
As Twitter and Facebook rose in popularity, blogging—which took more time and effort—declined, to the point where you could count the number of independent bloggers on one hand. Tumblr continued for a time, powered in part by porn, which Verizon banned after it acquired Yahoo, something that many believe killed the service. But Mullenweg told The Verge that Tumblr still has a significant number of loyal users, and that he’s hoping to offer them monetization features and other services. Whether WordPress + Tumblr can create something that go head-to-head with Facebook and Twitter—and whether independent journalists would take to such a thing as an alternative to social networks—remains to be seen.
Here’s more on WordPress and Tumblr:
A company with no HQ: WordPress takes the idea of distributed software to the ultimate extreme, in that the company itself has no headquarters or head office. Mullenweg is based in Houston, but the company’s 850 or so employees work in more than 69 countries around the world. Mullenweg says he travels constantly—about 375,000 miles last year—to stay in touch with them.
The Internet needs Tumblr: Angela Watercutter writes about Tumblr for Wired, and says “it was, and occasionally still is, a living embodiment of what the internet can and should be… the antithesis of other social media hubs like Facebook and Twitter and Reddit.” Other networks simulate community, she says, but Tumblr embodies it.
Verizon and media didn’t mix: The decline of Tumblr was due to more than just the porn ban, according to this piece from Fortune on Verizon’s media troubles. The company’s media investments, including Tumblr, have turned out to be a disaster—the telecom giant wrote down the value of its media holdings by $4.5 billion in December of last year, including its G90 streaming service.
Yahoo didn’t get it either: Even before Verizon ruined Tumblr, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer got started ruining it right after acquiring it, according to a number of Tumblr and Yahoo watchers. The company tried to turn the service into an advertising vehicle, but it failed miserably, in part because the culture of Tumblr resisted ads (founder David Karp was famously opposed to advertising).
Other notable stories:
CNN international correspondent Clarissa Ward says she was targeted by a Russian propaganda campaign while working on a report about the country’s activity in Africa and the involvement of a secretive group of mercenaries. As the network prepared to publish its report, a site linked to a Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” released a video about CNN’s trip to Africa, which included clips of the team at their hotel that were filmed without their permission, and accusations that they bribed local residents.
According to her newly published book, MSNBC correspondent Mariana Atencio got a call from a network executive just before she was about to leave for the White House Correspondents Association dinner in 2017. The executive told her not to dress “too Latina,” Atencio writes. An MSNBC spokesperson told The Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple that “action was taken” for what the network called an “unacceptable comment.”
The New York Times looks at how the Chinese government is using its control of the media to manipulate the public’s view of protests that have been taking place in Hong Kong. In one case, when a projectile hit a woman in the eye, the state television network said it was thrown by a protester, and posted what it said was a photo of the protester counting out money, implying she was a paid provocateur.
Jessica Lipsky writes for CJR about the enduring influence of the newspaper for the Black Panther Party, which she says not only helped produce some of the civil rights movement’s top leaders, but also acted as a kind of economic support system for members of the black community, because those who sold the paper got to keep 10 cents out of the 25-cent cover price.
The Nieman Lab reports that the News Guild, one of the leading unions for journalists and other media staffers, is going to re-run the election of a new president. The organization held an election in May to choose a new leader, but critics soon complained of irregularities, including more than a thousand members who never received a ballot. The Guild represents workers at Quartz, BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox, HuffPost, and Slate, just to name a few.
New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet talked with CNN about a recent newsroom meeting in which staffers complained about bad headlines and other gaps in the paper’s coverage, including its reluctance to use the term “racist.” Baquet said the paper’s job was not to “be the leader of the resistance,” but one Times journalist told CNN that “when the stakes are so high and so many people feel personally threatened and there’s real danger in the air, the show-don’t-tell approach feels inadequate.”
According to the latest research from the Pew Center, people over 50, black Americans, and Americans with a high-school education or less are more likely to say they follow local news “very closely,” and they prefer getting their news from TV rather than online. The research is based on a survey of nearly 35,000 adults between October and November of 2018.
I talked with Casey Newton, the Silicon Valley editor for The Verge, on CJR’s Galley discussion platform about a wide range of topics, including whether the government should break up giant technology companies like Facebook and Google (he says they should), and whether media companies should take the money Facebook is offering to pay for their content (he says they should do this too).
Miles Kohrman and Katherine Reed write for CJR about the way that mass shootings are covered and how it needs to change. They argue that the news industry “hasn’t seriously reckoned with its responsibility to cover mass shootings with the discretion they require [and] if we don’t change that soon, we risk further contributing to the uniquely American crisis of mass killings.”
ProPublica, which has gained attention for large-scale investigative reports based on public data, has published an open-source guide for other media organizations and journalists that want to use large datasets in their reporting. The guide was created in part with funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative.