Mashable editor Jim Roberts on how he approaches the news

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When Mashable editor-in-chief Jim Roberts joined the site a year ago after a couple of decades working for the New York Times, some were surprised that the veteran journalist would go to a new-media upstart, especially one that wasn’t known for its high-quality journalism. But Roberts told a group of Canadian journalists Monday night that he has no regrets about his decision, and that the way Mashable approaches the news — as a social activity — is the way that content works now.

While media outlets like the New York Times spend hours thinking about what stories should go on the front page, and where to put them, the front page of Mashable is almost entirely automated, Roberts said: stories that are being shared heavily — based on the company’s proprietary Velocity ranking — show up highest, although editors can pin specific stories to the page if necessary.

Sharing is the main guiding principle of Mashable’s approach to news, Roberts said: with any story, a reporter or editor should be asking themselves whether it is something they would share with their friends or family. The Mashable editor said that when he is looking through Twitter or Facebook or the news-wire, if something catches his eye and is worth sharing then it should be on the site.

That focus on social behavior goes in both directions, Roberts said — Mashable also makes heavy use of platforms like Twitter and Facebook for finding news when there is a big event like the uprising in Ukraine. In the early stages of that incident, there was far more information coming through social channels than there was from mainstream media, he said. Mashable uses tools like Geofeedia, Dataminr and Storyful to sift through and verify the content it finds.

Roberts said that unlike a news entity like the New York Times, Mashable has the luxury of not having to cover everything — it can pick and choose which stories to focus on, based on whether it thinks those stories will resonate with its audience, which he described as “millennials and those who think like them.” And that means a combination of hard news stories and entertainment — but finding the right balance between whimsy and serious journalism is hard.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Mashable editor said that even though the site’s staff — which numbers almost 55 now, up from 35 when he joined — is mostly young, they still tend to think about doing stories using primarily text, because it is the easiest thing to produce. Roberts said he is trying to get his writers (or “content creators”) to think more about other ways to tell stories, whether it’s with Instagram photos or tweets or video.

From a business perspective, Mashable is profitable, Roberts said, and has been since it started. The company raised $13 million in January to finance its growth efforts, he said, which include covering new topics and verticals such as climate change and sexual equality. Mashable founder Pete Cashmore — who started the site in 2005 from his home in Scotland when he was just 19 — is closely involved in the evolution of the site and meets with him weekly, said Roberts.

When it comes to sources of traffic to the site — which averages around 40 million unique visitors a month, the Mashable editor said — Facebook is by far the largest single social driver, accounting for anywhere from 25 to 30 percent of the site’s visitors on a typical day. While Twitter accounts are the responsibility of the individual reporters and news desks, Mashable has a team of people who just focus on Facebook, and trying to figure out why certain stories go viral and others don’t.

Although Mashable looks closely at sharing, and displays the sharing numbers at the top of each story, Roberts said that isn’t used to determine compensation for writers — and in fact, he encourages them not to focus exclusively on traffic, but instead on coming up with ideas that they believe are worth sharing. Not everything works, Roberts said, and it’s easy to get caught up in trying to figure out why, but there are just too many variables.

Roberts said that in addition to expanding the topics it covers, Mashable is thinking about the future of wearables and how that might affect the company’s business. And when it comes to competition, he said he closely follows BuzzFeed and VICE, among others. For an overview of some of the Twitter discussion of Roberts’ talk, you can check out a Storify collection I put together.

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