A tremor rippled through the online media world on Wednesday, when former New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts said he is joining Mashable as executive editor and chief content officer. The news about Roberts — whose most recent job was trying to reinvent Reuters online, until the wire service company decided to mothball the venture –came as a surprise to many, since he is a veteran newsman and Mashable is seen by some as a pageview-driven source of entertainment rather than a place that does serious journalism.
When I called Roberts and asked him what convinced him to join the site, he said he was impressed with the vision of the executive team when he met with them — including founder and CEO Peter Cashmore, who started the site in 2005 when he was just 19 and living in Scotland, as well as chief strategy officer Adam Ostrow and chief operating officer Mike Kriak (the Mashable team also includes chief revenue officer Seth Rogin, a former VP of advertising for the NYT).
“I immediately grew very comfortable with and confident in the executive team, from Pete to Adam Ostrow to Mike Kriak… these are smart people, they want to grow the company, they’ve got big but what I would say are smart ambitions. It just feels good — and the publication sits squarely among many of my interests.”
Is Mashable going to start getting serious?
To me at least, Roberts joining Mashable feels a little like when BuzzFeed hired Politico staffer Ben Smith to broaden the site’s ambitions and expand into more serious journalistic pursuits like investigative reporting and long-form feature writing — or when The Huffington Post hired former New York Times senior editor Tim O’Brien to build a broader news team there (and later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting).
Like BuzzFeed, Mashable has expanded rapidly based on its use of social tools and sharing, and now claims to have 20 million unique visitors a month and an average of six Mashable stories retweeted every minute (although some of that may be due to a network of automated accounts that routinely retweet Mashable content). Update: In an email, Mike Kriak said Mashable was “thrilled” to have Roberts, and added that the site is profitable — although he didn’t provide any independent confirmation of that.
When I asked Roberts whether his hiring means that Mashable is going to move beyond entertaining stories about the social web or traffic-driven news briefs and spend more time on investigative or “serious journalism,” he said that is part of what he will bring to the company — but that he is also interested in exploring how to use what Mashable does well, including the social web, to expand what journalism means and how it is done.
“Anyone who knows me knows what a big Ben Smith fan I am, I admire him as a journalist and admire what he’s done at BuzzFeed — and I would be lying if I said his success and what he’s done there had not at least crossed my mind. Mashable and BuzzFeed are different publications, but I do think there are some ways we can put more resources into deeper journalism — but just as BuzzFeed has expanded the palette of storytelling techniques, I think there’s a lot of room for exploration and experimentation as well.”
New techniques for digital journalism
Roberts said that the last eight years he has spent involved in digital media, most of which was spent at the Times, has gotten him excited “not just about the techniques of digital journalism but the way in which new tools can be brought to bear on everything from deep narratives and investigative journalism to more playful things.”
Like many other online outlets, including BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, Mashable has been criticized at times for aggregating journalism produced by others instead of doing its own, and Roberts said he is sensitive to that, since the New York Times used to complain bitterly about the Huffington Post and other sites that engaged in such behavior:
“I was on the other end of that argument at the Times [so] I definitely understand the criticism and understand the risk, but I think there is a balance that can be achieved. Mashable does a lot of original journalism, and it will continue to do a lot, and I hope it can do even more with me there. But by the same token, aggregation is part of what it does and part of what it does well, and I think there are readers who appreciate that.”
As for what specific areas Mashable might concentrate on when it expands its horizons, Roberts said he didn’t want to go into too much detail because he has just joined the company — but he did say that one topic was the environment. “I think there is a nexus between the smart innovative tech coverage that Mashable has invested in over the years and what’s going with the climate — and with potential solutions or technologies that could be brought to bear,” he said. “That’s something where I’m going to invest a little passion.”