Mashable content chief Jim Roberts on the Singapore plan, what he’s looking for in an editor, and why legacy media are scared to death of change

Jim RobertsJim Roberts is the executive editor and chief content officer of 10 year-old digital media website Mashable, which is soon to launch in Singapore.

In this Q&A with Mumbrella Asia Robin Hicks, the former assistant managing editor of the New York Times and executive editor Thomson Reuters Digital talks about what Mashable is looking for in a Singapore editor, what he says to detractors about Mashable’s broadening of focus beyond tech, what he thinks of brand newsrooms, and why he wants a reporter who knows everything and anything about Elon Musk.

How’s the search for a Singapore editor going?

We’re only half way through the search, but if I leave Singapore without a few strong candidates I will have failed. We’ve talked to several people, and I’ve been impressed with who I’ve seen so far. They all come from very different backgrounds with very different skills sets, but I’ve been very encouraged by the calibre and candidates seem to have the sensibilities and mindset that we’re looking for.

What are you looking for?

I haven’t looked at the job description in a while, but I’m looking for a lot of qualities – a sensible, responsible journalist with a great deal of creativity; the ability to think beyond text-based journalism; a keen sense for photography and video and how it can all be mixed together; a strong command of social media, and how they present themselves. It’s clearly not just a job for just any journalist.

What’s your take on native advertising? The head of native ads for Daily Mail in Australia told Mumbrella recently that they use their own journalists to write native ad copy

Well, first of all, we don’t call it that. We call it sponsored content, and there’s a distinct difference. In general, we have journalists that do editorial and another group that prepares sponsored content. They’ve been a few occasions where we’ve been asked for a certain type of content, for instance one company that wanted to be associated with climate change coverage. The sponsor was an NGO and not a brand per se, but it still counted as sponsored content. Our climate journalist worked on that. But for the most part, if a brand is looking for a specific kind of material, we have a team of writers who report to the sales team. So there’s a distinct split, but we’re also open to creative interpretations. But if a brand really is very much the centre of the content, we won’t do it.

Have you had interest from brands in Asia about advertising opportunities yet?

Gwen Tan

Gwen Tan

Gwen Tan joined us three weeks ago to work on brand partnerships as director of strategy and business development. That part of the business is still nascent. But we have already had interest and have met with agencies who are interested in Mashable and reaching our audience. In Southeast Asia – Singapore, Malaysia Indonesia, Thailand and The Philippines – we have close to two million unique visitors per month already. So it’s not like we’re starting from scratch.

What’s the target for the rest of the year?

We’ve talked about it, but I need we need to be realistic. When we launch hopefully in the third quarter of this year, then we can set targets that will be reasonable but also ambitious.

What do you mean by realistic?

I’m a big fan of keeping my feet on the ground and not stretching things too far. In a year and a half, we’ve grown from 22 million unique visitors to 41 million. Some of that has been down to more effort going on content and marketing, and if we can do the same kinds of things this year, we should be able to see similar sort of growth helped by expansion in this region.

What about mobile?

The way the site has been designed, it’s totally responsive; everything we do performs well on mobile, particularly the visual storytelling we do. We don’t declare we’re mobile first, but we don’t really think about platforms.

What do you make of the local media scene in Singapore? The two mainstream media companies, Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp, are not finding adapting to the digital world easy…

Well, having interviewed people over a broad spectrum of news organisations some have traditional backgrounds. Everyone who has caught my eye has some degree of journalism experience, but we wouldn’t take someone with a print background alone.

How easy do you think it will be to make money in Asia?

I have no expectations that getting revenue will be easy. We’re going to have to work for it. And we need to establish a reputation first. It’s not going to be like opening the doors and money flowing in, but we would not be here if we didn’t think we could build a successful brand. We plan to build an audience first, then monetise it.

How much are you investing in Asia?

I can’t say. I know I have the budget to hire two journalists. That’s what I’m looking for. And we’re looking to hire local, or rather people who have lived here for a significant length of time and who understand Singapore and more broadly Southeast Asia and Asia.

What sort of stories are you looking to generate in Singapore?

The ideal sort of stories would convey a sense of the Singapore culture, the way of life, the challenges and opportunities that people face, but translate well to a broader audience around the world. It’s not easy to do, but it’s something we’re also trying in Australia and the UK.

What sort of brand recognition does Mashable have here?

I’m a little surprised by how strong it is. From talking to journalists here I can sense that it’s strong – and it’s not a fake knowledge, they know the brand and its history.

What do you say to people who protest that Mashable has morphed from a tech site to something much broader to cover all sorts of news?

There has been some backlash, but not a lot. Occasionally we’ll see some things on twitter that ask, why aren’t you sticking with tech? You were better when you were just about tech, etc. But while we’ve expanded into other topics we haven’t cut down our tech coverage. We’ve actually grown our tech coverage, just not as fast as other verticals.

We now have more tech reporters than ever. When Apple does a product launch, they’re the best days ever in the newsroom. Tech is still the core of the business, and we’ll never stray from that. We just want to give people more reasons to come across our content.

We’ve grown from 22 million to 41 million uniques in a year in a half, and a lot of that growth has come from broadening our scope. There will always be critics, but I’m not too worried about that.

A lot of topics that we’ve covered are somewhat connected to tech. For example, how tech has disrupted the entertainment world. If you asked consumers in the US what was the most important technology for them, they’ll say Netflix. It’s been a Godsend to people’s entertainment choices and has changed the way Hollywood and the TV industry works. I love that we can run stories that have a chunk of tech in the middle with other issues floating around it.

A new topic we’re going to focus on is transport, and we’ve invested in science coverage. Both topics are about innovation, so what we’re writing about does not stray too far from the core of the site.

Tell us a bit about the Mashable newsroom.

It’s an excitable place. When something happens that is interesting to us we get very excited. That’s why I love working there. There’s an incredible energy level that you feel around the building.

And there are screens on the walls and Nerf guns and the like, presumably?

Yes, there are Nerf guns and screens, some showing news and others showing traffic analytics. Some guy had a bow and arrow the other day. It wasn’t a real bow, but it was scary.

How many staff do you have?

About 230 in total, full time 170. Reporting to me on the editorial side are 65 journalists, 50 of them in New York City. Overall, with interns on the news side it would be around 90 staff.

What do you make of brands such as Philips and MasterCard setting up their own newsrooms?

Fascinating. I’m flattered that they’re adopting methods we’ve been using for decades, but our approach to the ever changing world of new business is to ‘bring it on’.

I’ve worked in legacy media. Their attitude to change is: ‘OMG what are we going to do now?’ At Mashable, it’s the opposite. When a new platform comes out, Pete Cashmore [the 29 year-old CEO and founder of Mashable] wants to know how we’re going to use it. The minute [live streaming Twitter app] MeerKat hit the stage, he said ‘Let’s get into this’. We want to learn how to do it. I cannot overstate enough the difference in attitude to how we view change. Legacy media is scared to death of it. For us, it’s our lifeblood.

Isn’t that tough on you culturally as a busy newsroom? How do you find the time to try out new stuff?

Sure, it makes it hard. When MeerKat and Periscope came onto the scene, we had to pivot our approach. We wanted reporters to use it, and lend their personalities to it. But that meant shifting their schedules around. It’s my job to figure out how to factor it in.

We want to do everything, and we don’t want to stop doing anything. When new technology comes along, we try to adapt it into our work flow. Streaming is a good opportunity to do that. We can use it at live news events. During the recent riots in Baltimore, one of our guys was tweeting, writing stories, doing Snapchat and Periscoping. Once you’re doing three, why not do four?

We want our reporters and editors to be capable of covering stories in a number of media, but also recognise that certain stories require specialist expertise. At the moment, we’re hiring a big video team. We will end the year with probably a video team of about, on the editorial side, 29 people. We’re eight or nine now.

How obsessed are you be metrics? And do you know that each day you are on track for the sort of growth you want to see?

I look at several things. I will check Google Analytics about four or five times a day, but I don’t obsess over it. We also use Omniture, and I will look at that once a day to check for the best stories and the things that are moving the needle. I know what I need to hit on a daily basis to move passed the 41 million mark, so it gives me a baseline. I know that every day is not going to be great, but I want the 41 million mark to continue to go upwards.

What are your goals for web traffic?

Right now, I’d like to get to 1.5 million uniques a day. If I can hit that every day and increase that trajectory I’d be very happy. This is very achievable and some of this should be the outcome of international expansion.

Can you tell us a bit about your editorial strategy?

Well, transportation is a big deal for us right now. Although we do a lot of it already, we don’t have a transport tech reporter. I want a reporter who honestly lives and breathes Elon Musk [the boss of SpaceX, Tesla Motors and SolarCity], who is all they think about. He’s a fascinating individual. He’s a visionary. The contributions he’s made to society and innovation have been stunning. We can’t cover him enough.

Singapore is not an easy market for journalists. Can you say what Mashable’s approach will be to reporting here?

When we cover any issue, we do it respectfully. We consider ourselves to be sensitive journalists. We respect people and we respect their sensibilities. We’re not harsh. We don’t make fun of people. And we are respectful of the local markets we are in. I would not want the government to control us, but we would not want to operate outside of their guidelines.


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