This week on Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Peter spoke with Mashable Executive Editor Jessica Coen, who worked for years at Gawker Media. The two discussed the evolution of media sites, why video matters more than ever and how, back in the day, running a sex tape on Gawker netted you flowers and an apology instead of a lawsuit.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
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Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that’s me. It’s powered by Digital Media. That’s a real company, an actual, honest-to-God real company. I’m here with Jessica Coen, honest-to-God real person. Hi Jessica. How are you?
Jessica Coen: Hello. I’m great. How are you?
I am well. Thanks for coming. Been wanting to do this for a while, ever since you became editor in chief of Mashable.
Executive editor, yeah.
Executive editor. Is there an editor in chief? I fuck up every one of these intros.
No. We have a chief content officer and then the executive editor, so it’s like, “Do you really need a double chief on the masthead?” These decisions really don’t matter to me.
All right. I got your name right, title wrong.
You’ve done many things prior to this. Among them, you were an editor of Gawker.com. I am interviewing every single former editor of Gawker.com and I’m halfway through.
How does that make you feel?
Makes me feel kind of old. Maybe I should do something else with my life, but it continues to be interesting, so thanks for coming. Gawker.com, Vocativ. You were just telling me what Vocativ was. You were at Vanity Fair for a cup of coffee. Where else? Jezebel?
Jezebel for five years, yeah.
Do we have your full resume here?
I think those were the high points.
Okay. Good, so we’re done. Thank you.
Oh, New York Mag. I launched The Cut and helped grow Vulture and Daily Intel and all of that. Grub Street.
You were a veteran of New York media, digital media.
I suppose so. Now, that makes me feel old, but ...
Thanks for coming. Why don’t we start off with what you’re doing now?
You are running edit for Mashable. You started this last fall.
I remember, because I’m very old, learning about Mashable back in the Myspace days when it was an enthusiast’s blog for people who were creating businesses around Myspace and you’d learn how to funk up your page and then it became a high-flying digital media operation and it’s now pivoted into video, and you’re doing what there?
I’m overseeing editorial across all of our platforms. That includes the website. It also means Snapchat and Facebook. Basically, in a nutshell, every day I’m determining our editorial priorities and story selection and voice based on this pivot and the focus of the brand, and deciding what we should do and what should we cover, how should we tell this story, and doing it in a way that makes sense for what Mashable is.
Explain what Mashable is today, because I’m a little confused. I think I know, but you tell me.
Oh, you think you know?
Okay. Well, we can argue, but Mashable is a culture, entertainment and tech site. You say “enthusiasts” and I’ll say “passionate.” We target passionate readers who are obsessed with whatever given topic that they cluster around. For us, it’s a lot of web culture. We find that there are huge, obsessive communities around entertainment, and then the tech stuff has always been part of Mashable’s DNA. We live where those three come together and we choose to focus on stories that have audiences that are really, really devoted to them.
What’s a devoted audience?
A devoted audience would be the “Star Trek” fans, the “Game of Thrones” fans, everybody who cares about the retro Nokia phone, web culture. It could be people ...
Are those moving targets or do you have someone who’s writing about “Game of Thrones” daily — or at least daily during a season?
If there’s something to write about.
Sure, but we’re not doing recaps and we’re not doing ... We’ll do a recap of “Game of Thrones,” but I’m more concerned about that recap not telling readers what happened because they already watched it and they already talked about it on Twitter, so I want that recap to bring some analysis to it, maybe bring in random theories, pointing out Easter eggs, that sort of thing.
It strikes me that it’s a general interest publication for the internet. Is that fair? Are you comfortable with that?
We don’t really cover news in the traditional sense anymore. We don’t do incremental news hits. We don’t really cover politics or global developments in that way.
I just read an awesome Kellyanne Conway story on Mashable.
Because you flagged it for me because it had an awesome headline. Do you remember what the headline was?
It was something along the lines of, “The Real Reason Kellyanne Conway Was Sitting on This Couch; Oh Lord, This Story is so Dumb.”
Yeah. It was great. It was awesome.
I would not call that a news hit.
No. No, but this is a thing in the news. We’re writing about it. We’re writing about it with a Mashable sensibility which is now, I think, a Jessica Coen sensibility. It seems like you’ve ...
Well, I can’t take full credit for that. I have a newsroom full of talented journalists.
You’re sharpening it, right? I think of Mashable, generally, pre-Jessica, Mashable had a more bland, generally enthusiastic attitude about the internet. It seems like you’ve sharpened that. Am I making that up in my head?
I can’t tell you whether or not you’re making up an opinion. I would argue that it was never bland, but it was certainly more broad. In terms of just editorial strategy right now and forevermore, it makes sense to just focus. You can’t be everything to everyone. You’re not going to win that game. If you try and cover everything, you own nothing. My mission is very much to decide what we own and how we own it.
Was that your battle plan coming in? “Let’s sharpen it. Let’s narrow it. Let’s focus on some things”?
Yeah. That was very much established before I came on. That was the battle plan that was communicated almost a year ago at this point. I had the mandate and I knew what we were going for and I was very luckily given the opportunity to find a way to reach that point in my own style.
Let’s set up the context of Paul Cashmore.
Pete Cashmore. I always screw up the name.
Titles, founders ...
If you gave me Google, I’d do this much better. He created Mashable when he was like 4 or 5 years old.
Something like that, yeah.
I don’t do well with dates either.
Scotland. Famously sold the company to CNN years ago. Felix Salmon reported in Reuters. Reuters sent out a press release saying Felix had a big scoop. It’s a joke because they did not actually sell.
Yeah. I’m giving you the slip trying to figure out, “How wrong are you this morning?”
Reuters actually put that out. I remember the press release. It was Felix sort of half drunk standing up in Austin saying, “I heard that it was sold for 200 million dollars.” That’s a Felix accent, too.
I don’t want to make a Felix joke.
Felix came to our conference. He’s great.
Anyway, Pete Cashmore still owns it. Time Warner’s invested. Last year they went through a pivot. You alluded to a pivot. They laid off some people. They said, “We’re going to refocus on video,” which is what everyone says they’re going to focus on. Lots of eyes were rolled at that point, saying, “All right. Yes, you’re going to pursue the big video opportunity.”
When you joined, I was surprised because I thought, “All right. Jessica’s really good with words. She doesn’t strike me as a video person.” What was the pitch to bring you there, and especially given a site that lurched around over the last year?
Let me start by saying I can’t take credit for video. Video is run out of our studio’s operation, and there is an editorial video team here in New York and I work with them.
Right, so when a company says, “We’re focusing on video,” and then they bring you in, how does that work?
Sure, we’re focusing on investing resources in platform-first opportunities and video, but that doesn’t change the fact that Mashable is this large media and entertainment company, and a large part of that, perhaps the biggest part of that, it’s the words. It does make sense. The outward-facing Mashable identity is very much defined by what’s on the site, and then as we develop platform-first stories, those staffers are taking cues and editorial direction from what we’re putting on the site.
Platform-first means you’re going to read it on Facebook before you read it on ...?
It’s going to be a Snapchat-specific story.
You’re doing the word stuff, so the pitch to you was what? Who brought you into Mashable?
Greg Gittrich, our CCO, brought me into Mashable. I had worked with him briefly at Vocativ prior to that, and the pitch was, “Here’s this large organization full of extremely talented people and we need someone to lead it.” It was very simple and it struck me as a really fantastic opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
What was your ... I don’t want to get you on the defensive. You started off at Gawker. Gawker is famously snarky and gimlet-eyed about media broadly.
Or it was.
Was. I’m assuming that, like a lot of other folks, you looked at Mashable and said, “This is kind of a mishmash of a site.” Did you have to get over that perception?
A bit, but I knew where they were headed already, and I’m not going to speak to what was going on prior and that shift. That’s really not my concern at all.
Got it. Not your concern.
I look ahead at where we’re going, so I see the raw materials there. I see that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel, which is an ideal situation for me. It’s just, “Let’s rearrange some spokes. Let’s figure out what we can do to have the wheel spinning more effectively.” I don’t want to keep going with this metaphor.
Yes. We’ll stop. What’s a day at Mashable? You start off, since you’re not covering breaking news, there’s less of like, “All right. We know that …” I’m sure you probably did a “How to Watch the President” streaming speech, right?
Yeah. Standard issue. Yeah.
What’s the organizing principle for the day? You get up and say, “Let’s write about XYZ.” People are pitching you stuff. You’ve got long-term projects, all of the above.
Right. We start the day in a very traditional newsroom sense. We have our early-morning meeting. All the senior editors and I sit around a table and my deputies and whatnot, and they go through and tell us what’s on tap for the day. Some stuff I might nix. Often I don’t, but a big part of the job is deciding, especially at this point, what we’re not. A lot of times, especially when it comes to breaking news or whatnot, it feels like a little bit of a “kill your darlings” situation, but that’s okay. That’s part of the process.
You’re telling them, “Don’t do this because we can’t make it any better than the version we’ve already seen”?
Or “This doesn’t make sense for us,” or, “This doesn’t feel right for us,” or, “If you really want to cover it, you need to give me an angle that feels Mashable to me.” We do this morning meeting and we go through and I get all the pitches for the day, and from those pitches I put a selected list of what I think are the priorities for the day and what I definitely want to see go up and the stories that we’re going to flag for homepage or special promotion or whatnot. Then I send that to the entire staff across all the platforms. That is a slow but steady way to communicate and telegraph what matters and what we want to see and ...
We want more of this.
Yes. Exactly. That’s the start of my day. That’s every day.
What’s the story they’re bringing to you and you’re saying, “No, this isn’t for us”? Is it, “This is a story that’s popular somewhere else, thus we should do it. This is a story that’s in the news, thus we should do it”?
It’s a combination. A lot of it is editorial inclination, but we’re also using data to identify what’s surging across the web and what people care about, but none of us worship at the altar of algorithms. I just like using data to make informed editorial decisions.
I always wonder about that. There’s a tool that Facebook just bought. We use it as well, but basically it says, “Hey, this is what’s popular on other internet sites,” and I get the logic of the thing. If it does well for websites X, Y and Z, then you should do it as well. Then I also think, “Well, what is the purpose of being the fifth version of that story?”
Well, I don’t think you want to be the fifth version of just writing that same story, but it helps you to identify a topic people care about and that gives you ...
CrowdTangle. That’s what it’s called.
CrowdTangle. Oh, okay, so it’s CrowdTangle. There’s Data Miner and then we have our own in-house technology suite, Velocity, and we use that pretty much constantly, but we go through that and we decide, "What in here makes sense for us?" I don’t want to be the fifth person on a story, but if people care about something, let’s find a way to talk about it that’s at least interesting. I’m trying to think of something ...
Kellyanne Conway is a version of that, right? That’s a story everyone’s talking about on the internet. You probably are not the first, second, third or fourth.
I’m probably the 15th, but it was a fun headline and it was kind of like, “Oh God. Okay, so here’s this story, but seriously, are we talking about this?” I love introducing that kind of content to a website because part of what I want Mashable to be and what I tend to do when I take on new positions is I’m really focused on personality-driven stories and conversational stories, and I very much want our team to come at a lot of what we do with the approach that they might when they’re talking about it with the person sitting next to them or at the bar after work.
Wait a minute, that sounds like the old Gawker ethos.
It’s funny because I spend a lot of time there.
Yeah, but it’s the “Don’t write it journalese, don’t write the thing, don’t copy the cadence and diction of the story you just saw. Explain it like you would to your friend at the bar.”
Yeah. Okay, to go back to that retro Nokia phone, it’s got Snake. The story is, “Oh my God, it’s got Snake.” What I like on Mashable is, “This Was Really Hard to Play, and I’m Embarrassed to Admit That.” That, to me, is a more fun read.
Did you say you take on repositions a few minutes ago?
Take on repositions?
I misheard it. I thought you were saying you’re a fixer upper of websites.
No. I said when I take on positions like this, when I face these sort of projects. I’m not going to call myself a fixer upper.
But taking on a position means running a website, so you’ve done that now multiple times. Wait, it’s 13 minutes and 35 seconds into it. We make money from advertising, so we’re going to hear from an advertiser and then we’re going to hear about you taking on positions.
I want you to be able to eat. Do it.
And we’re back with Jessica Coen who is running Mashable. Not running Mashable. Way up the masthead at Mashable, but I want to talk to you about how you got there. We’ve talked about Gawker a bunch of times. You were the second, third editor of Gawker.com?
Third. I took over in 2004, which was the Stone Age when just one person at a time was running the site.
How did you get that job?
This is a bloggy dreams come true thing, and it does not work this way anymore, but I was living in LA and I was two years out of college and I had an incredibly boring desk job.
What’d you do?
I was an assistant at 20th Century Fox.
That’s what everyone moves to LA to do, is a version of that, right?
I moved to LA to do Teach For America, actually. I was teaching high school English in South Central and then after that I decided, “Hollywood, bright lights.”
I’m done helping youth. I’m done educating.
I have earned my get-into-heaven-free card. Now I’m going to go sell out.
It’s, “Now I’m going to do Hollywood.” Turns out Hollywood’s boring.
I wanted to move on from Teach For America. It was a very well-meaning program, but it wasn’t right for me at that time and I had connections ... It was like, “I need a job.” I just signed a lease. I had a connection to get an assistant gig, so I was running to the commons area fetching egg white omelets for my lovely boss while she was stuck in traffic on Benedict Canyon or whatever. It was very LA.
I was there. I was bored out of my mind. Spent a lot of time just sitting at the desk browsing the web, and it was during that time that I realized I really wanted to go to J school and I wanted to be in New York, so I put applications out to J schools and in the meantime, I was noticing these blog things. This was 2004 ...
This was when not everyone was blogging. It required work to blog.
There was like 100 people ... It was what? A hundred people and it was called, “The New York Blogger Scene” or whatever, and they were all using Blogger. Remember Blogger?
I couldn’t tell you what sort of clicking path led me into that.
You were writing your own stuff on your ... Was it jessicacoen.com?
Yeah. It was not jessicacoen.com, but yeah, something like that.
You were writing about what?
Oh my God. Silly, silly stuff. “Oh, I went to a Strokes concert,” but I was also doing signature, snarky-ish one-liners on either Hollywood news that I had seen ...
Was your thought, "This is job training. I’m showing my work so someone will hire me," or was this, "I’m literally so bored I’m just going to type stuff"?
“Literally so bored that I’m going to do this, and I want to go into journalism and professional writing,” and no, what I was doing on that site was certainly not journalism, but anyway, I wanted to keep my brain moving and that was part of it, and it was fun. It was really fun to be writing again.
You’re pushing that stuff out and then someone sees it in New York City and says ...
Yeah. It was a very old-school ecosystem. I can actually trace it. Mark Graham, who is at the Post running Decider, I found his site because ... it might’ve been like a random blogger rotation homepage thing, and I found it and it was very clear reading his stuff that he was from very close to my hometown in Michigan and was living there, so I was like, “Hey, what’s up? This is random. You don’t see a lot of that,” and then he linked to my blog one day and then, because he linked to it, Blogger X linked to it and this and that and ...
That’s literally how blogging worked. You would link to someone else. You would list a group of people you were linking to. It was a little sort of cabal of people.
Yeah. Exactly, and I certainly wasn’t trying to work my way up the link ladder, but eventually ...
Eventually, Choire Sicha and Nick Denton started seeing my stuff.
Did you know who they were? Did you know what Gawker was?
Oh God, yeah. Yeah.
This is when Gawker, it’s hard to remember this now, was a giant deal, even though it was small traffic-wise.
People like you, people like me, this is sort of what we oriented our world around.
Right. Right. Very inside baseball, obsessive, very fun and focused on micro news in a way that really doesn’t happen anymore and probably wouldn’t fit with our current climate anyhow, but yeah, it was like a darling website.
They just plucked you and said, “Come to New York. We’ll pay you very little …”
At that point I had been accepted to Columbia for J school and some of my blogger friends, many of whom I hadn’t even met in real life, knew about that. I received an email from Nick Denton that said, “Hey. I heard you’re moving to New York. Any plans?” I was like, “Whoa.” I wrote back and I said, “Actually, I’m going to journalism school.” I couldn’t tell you the exact conversation, but it was something along the lines of, “Well, that’s a shame because we were interested in having you come onto Gawker.” I said, “Wow. I …”
No, I prefer to get really deep in debt.
Like strange, interesting opportunity or $50,000 for one year? Hmm. I actually went to Columbia.
Oh, you did?
I did. Well, no, I went to them. I’d already put in my deposit. Sorry. I did not go to Columbia. I went to the powers that be and I said, “I’ve got this professional opportunity and is it possible to switch to some sort of part-time program or differ ... What can I do here?” They just kind of laughed me off. That was fine. Gawker was this unknown weird quantity at the time, so I just in the way that only a 24-year-old who has nothing to lose can, I thought, “Why not? Columbia’s not going anywhere. I can always reapply,” and this was just a really interesting, strange opportunity and it seemed like something that people really cared about and people in the industry I wanted to be a part of cared about, so I went for it.
You show up in New York. You’ve never been to New York. You didn’t live in New York.
I did my teacher training for Teach For America here, so I spent six weeks in Mott Haven, and that was it.
Your entire experience in New York is six weeks doing Teach for America training and now you’re supposed to be this New York insider media person, and, by the way, people are paying attention to you, right?
It was absurd, yes.
Because Conde Nast people are reading you. What is that experience like when you get dropped into that world and you run all of Gawker because you are all of Gawker. There is no other thing.
There is no other thing. No, it was terrifying. It was absolutely terrifying, and I think you could look back on what I did those first six months, and it’s no secret I had no idea what I was doing. Nick very much loved the idea of an outsider, and that outside perspective, the observer of these things, but I didn’t even necessarily have the context to make informed commentary on what I was observing, so it was a bumpy first stretch there, and I have to give credit to Nick to this day for not canning me, because he certainly would’ve been justified in doing so.
How long did you spend there?
Two years. What was the highlight/lowlight?
Oh God. It was so long ago that I couldn’t tell you a lowlight, just maybe various nights where I would come home from something and have an email from Nick. I was like 25. I was staying out all night, and I’d be like, “Oh my God. It’s 3:00 am. I’ve been drinking and I have to write this thing about this thing that happened at Soho House. So-and-so got a pie in their face, and then Nick got a pie in his face, and what am I doing?” It was that kind of thing. I would say that’s not necessarily a Gawker low, but at that age it was ...
I was going to say, “Ah, you got sued by so-and-so or …”
No. N, lawsuits. There was a very strange Fred Durst incident where we got a C and D [cease and desist] from his people, and then I wrote this unhinged ...
Oh, is there a sex tape?
Yeah, and I ...
Because there was a Fred Durst sex tape. I remember this. Yeah.
We hosted it for maybe six minutes and ...
It always comes back to a sex tape.
I think I had it up for maybe six minutes and I took it down and we got a letter from his legal team and I responded with this completely unhinged nonsensical, “How dare you, sir,” sort of thing, and the next day he sent flowers and an apology.
Oh, that’s great.
It was just so different.
I love Fred Durst. In my mind I love Fred Durst.
Can you imagine that now? It would never happen now.
No. Now Fred Durst would continue to sue you and Peter Thiel would back his lawsuit.
I know. The stakes were very, very different.
Yeah. Gawker used to publish the lawyer’s notes.
Absolutely, and we also published a lot of stuff that we got just from readers. One of my favorite tips was we did something called Gawker Stalker, which sounds really awful now when you just say those words, but we would just take submissions from readers of who they’d seen about town, like, “I saw Peter Kafka at Duane Reade at 78th and Amsterdam.”
Least successful Gawker Stalker ever, but yeah.
Yeah. Well, you know. You were famous to someone, I’m sure. We would get such a wide range of ... Mike Myers with a hockey stick on the Lower East Side.
You would encourage people to stalk, literally?
Well, just, “I saw this person doing this thing.” It’s a very New Yorky ...
This becomes memorialized years later in “The Newsroom.” Aaron Sorkin.
Yes, it does.
HBO show. It’s awesome.
I know. It was very strange. Very, very weird.
Some of my favorite things came from that. There was a very small thing. Someone sent a tip in right after Katrina, Condi Rice was in a very expensive shoe store on the Upper East Side somewhere and buying shoes while New Orleans is imploding. Just to be able to say, “This is what someone’s telling us,” because it was a smaller site. It was different. I know I just said the stakes were different, but I can’t overemphasize that. It was a weird time. It was a weird time and it was all fun and games till it wasn’t.
Right. By the way, the Aaron Sorkin thing, he repeats a scene where Jimmy Kimmel in real life was taking down a Gawker editor, who’s not you.
No, that was Emily Gould who took over right after me, and he was angry because of a Gawker Stalker that I posted.
Jimmy Kimmel sitting in for Larry King, attacking Emily Gould about one of your items.
Yes, and it was mine.
Years later, it becomes an Aaron Sorkin show. That’s fantastic. If we had time, we would stitch in the bit from “The Newsroom.” We don’t have time for that, but you guys should go back and watch it. It’s great.
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You left. You went to Vanity Fair, I remember from outside going, “Oh, this is what happens.” You go to work at Gawker. You probably don’t get paid very much. Probably get paid very little. You work your butt off. Everyone in New York pays attention to you, and then you really launch your career. You move up and then you get that big job at Conde Nast, similar to what the New York Observer used to be. I assumed, “All right. Well, that’s what you’re going to do,” and then you didn’t stay there very long.
No, I didn’t. Vanity Fair had already been my dream job, absolutely, so after two years running Gawker and I still to this day am the longest-running Gawker.com editor, which is kind of strange at only two years, but I was definitely burned out and at the same time I’d been approached with an opportunity to work at a publication that I had read growing up that I’d always kind of — no matter how jaded I’d become about New York media in such a short period of time, there was still this awe of ...
Right, so two years in New York, you have your dream job. Everything’s great.
I’ve got my dream job, and at that time I come out of Gawker, which was my first media job, and back then bloggers really did sit in their pajamas and work at home all day and I came out completely feral. Take that and then put it in Conde Nast and imagine what that was like, but I felt that ...
Spell out the difference for folks who haven’t seen the ...
I was not quite polished enough for that environment. I was very young, too, and really more than anything I was very impatient about the business of editorial.
You can learn how to buy whatever boot you need to wear, right?
Yeah, it wasn’t that. It was more of a ...
“Why can’t I publish this thing now?”
“Why do I got to wait?”
Yes. Why do I have to wait? A lot of the why you have to wait even now, 10 years later, ridiculous. It just wasn’t the right fit for me at that time. I still have some really awesome experiences and I’m very lucky to have spent time there and it’s a great ... What they’ve done with the website in recent years is fantastic.
Yeah, it got really good in the last year.
Yeah, it absolutely has.
That idea of like, “I was a blogger. I thought I wanted to get a big media job. Turns out I don’t want a big media job,” or at least you didn’t want a big media job at Vanity Fair.
I didn’t want that big media job.
From there you went to New York Magazine, which is sort of a mix of the two.
Yeah. It’s not as if I were putting myself back out on the market looking for a new gig, but Ben Williams, the editorial director of Nymag.com, approached me and they were looking for someone to run, revamp, launch the blogs on the site, and that was a very long process of discussions with him, and it was the kind of thing I couldn’t pass up. It was ... compared to what I understood about other companies and my own experiences, New York Mag, even back then, really got the web and understood the importance of it, and there was no redheaded stepchild thing going on where ...
It wasn’t the B team.
It wasn’t the B team.
You do that for a few years and then you end up back at Gawker Media?
Yeah. I missed it. We all just ...
This was unusual. Again, sort of the perception of Gawker was everyone gets burnt out, spit out. You end up hating Nick Denton. Terrible things have happened to you, and in return you’ve gotten a career, but you’re never going to come back to Gawker, and then you did.
Well, I came back for Jezebel, which is quite a different experience, but I got to the point with New York Mag, which I loved it and it’s really rare. I learned to be a manager. I learned to be an editor and came to understand the business. I also, at a point, realized there was only so much farther I could go with it. You hit a wall ambition-wise, so I had an opportunity to run Jezebel, which was something that I was friendly with everybody at the company still. I was friendly with Anna Holmes. I’d always been very much a dedicated reader and ...
This was the Gawker Media ...
Women’s blog. That’s a funny way of saying it. Yeah. Totally.
Women’s site. You know?
Any way you say it, it’s going to sound funny.
Do we even call them blogs anymore? I was thinking about this. When did bloggers become journalists?
People who write things?
It’s interesting. I’ve noticed it, and it’s not to say I’ve never liked the word “blogger.”
I remember going on panels where they’d say, “How do you pitch bloggers?” I said, “Well, it’s …”
Their email works the same way.
Ten years later, finally the phrase, like, “Oh, they’re just a blogger.” That seems to have finally been put to bed.
For the most part. Let’s say in context where it used to be what you would toss around, you don’t hear that.
You went to run the Gawker Media lady site.
Yes. The women’s website, and I was the second editor there and it was ... I really missed the freedom of Gawker media. Those sites operated as their own planets in kind of a larger Nick Denton universe, but I missed that freedom very much, and while Gakwer.com was a totally different beast and a different era for the company, now there was an office with office supplies. The company was growing up.
Health insurance, maybe?
Yes. Health insurance. Actually salary. It was big. A living wage. I really wanted to go back to that, that level of freedom but in a more professional environment. It seemed like a good opportunity for me to really spread my wings and see how ... really gauge what a targeted audience is like, something very specific, like general interest women stuff.
This is still an era where people are ... We should start thinking about Facebook and how to publish your Facebook, but Nick Denton at that time is saying, “No, we’re Gawker.com, we’re Jezebel.com. We’re not doing any of that. We’re not going to work for Facebook,” essentially.
At that time, when I went back over ... I want to say it was ’08. No. No, that’s not right. No, it was 2010 that I went back over, so we were not in a place where we were ignoring Facebook. In fact, I remember there being office competitions to see how many “Likes” you could get on your Facebook page, your site page within a given day. We weren’t ignoring it, but in terms of building out major strategies and teams, absolutely not.
Right. When we were talking earlier, you were saying platform first. The idea that you do distributed content and you publish stuff specifically for Snapchat, that’s a new idea. It’s now conventional wisdom. At the time it was still crazy.
When I came out of Gawker Media, it was like this whole new world from which I’d been sheltered, which is a blessing and a curse, right? I leave the nest again and I was like, “Oh, I used to write the Facebook headlines myself.” It’s like that’s not how it works anymore.
Is that the biggest change now? You started out, what, 2004?
Been there for a while. Do you think that’s the biggest change in digital publishing, is this idea that you’re publishing for multiple platforms?
Like this idea that you are creating content and telling stories for the plot form and crafting these stories very specific to the audience on that platform and that’s very new, comparatively speaking.
The new conventional wisdom is if you want to succeed on Snapchat, you just can’t repurpose the stuff that you made for Facebook. You’ve got to have a dedicated team. I believe all that. It still seems like you’re going to end up taking the same story and maybe do it with a vertical video instead of a non-vertical video. Are you really making stuff from scratch that’s only seen on Snapchat?
Yes and no. Yeah, absolutely, or we create editions that are focused on one topic that we certainly don’t have a package on the website devoted to that topic. Yes, we make use of stories that are on the site to work into an edition but we’re not actually using the stories themselves. We’re using, “Okay, this iPhone rumor. Let’s take that, put it in an edition as a part of seven different snaps having to do with that edition.”
Some of the raw elements are there, but you still have to create stuff. That seems super taxing.
It is, but it’s a lot of fun.
Especially at Mashable where you’ve really got to do it at scale. Like Recode, we’re a small operation and we don’t know that same pressure, create a Snapchat channel, but you guys have to do that.
Yeah. Our Snapchat is very successful, so that’s what we’re doing, and it’s really focused on tech, and we have our deputy tech editor who oversees it and runs a team that is part studios, which is the visual, and then part editorial in terms of story selection and how we’re writing it and how we’re telling it.
You went to Michigan, right?
See? I do some research. Let’s imagine you’re graduating from Michigan this spring, 2017. You would like to get into media.
Oh God, I would be foolish ...
What does that career path look like, do you think?
Oh, man. I knew this would come up.
Are you hiring 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds?
Where are you finding them?
We pluck them from the streets.
Yeah. You harvest them.
We grow them on our own cornfield. No. The career path and how it’s, “Go get a job in a newsroom. Go work for a media company.” I would say if you’d asked me that eight ...
It’s still, “Go to New York. Go to LA. Go to the hub of the media industry,” the idea of being in St. Louis or a third-ring suburb of St. Louis?
Where do you want to go with that career? Do you want to be doing shoe-leather journalism, hardcore investigative reporting? Go to St. Louis. Own stories there and then climb up from there.
Yeah. Maybe. It still strikes me that as distributed as the internet is, the industries, the jobs are still centered in these handful of cities.
I know. As much as we want to say, “The internet lets you do everything from everywhere,” it’s become increasingly focused in New York and LA and San Francisco.
Someone who’s walking into your newsroom for the first time and they’re 22, 23, 24, they work where before?
We hire a lot of interns, people who go through one or two rounds of our internship program, so some of our journalists, this is their first job, which is kind of ... I’ve never worked at a place where we’ve been so diligent and open to hiring interns, which is really cool. I like that. I like working with people from the get-go and watching that growth and helping them find that growth. People who have been at other places prior, people who are in their mid 20s, late 20’s, Huffington Post or Mental Floss or Business Insider are some of the people we’ve brought on recently.
What do you think they think their career path looks like? When you went to Gawker, your thought was not, “I’m going to be blogging for many years. I’m going to go and eventually get that job at Conde Nast.”
I’m assuming they probably don’t think about that career path, or maybe they do?
I’m not sure that they do, especially if you’re digital-first. It’s just speaking from experience, to start digital-first and then cross over can be really difficult, but if you want to be an editor, you’re probably seeing your career path digital.
If you want to be writer, you might be more open to whatever happens next, but I think in general you look at a job, especially as you’re younger, you look at jobs at places like Mashable where you can make your name. Make your name. I hate the phrase, “personal brand” because I don’t think that’s necessarily applicable here, but make a name for yourself, have people know who you are based on your work and then start shopping around. Not necessarily at Mashable, but anywhere.
Don’t leave Mashable. Stay at Mashable.
Stay at Mashable forever.
It does strike me that, look, it’s part of the Recode pitch. It’s a small site. You want to be ... people will know who you are because you cover commerce really well or Uber really well. It seems like at the bigger sites, like the Business Insiders, but also Mashables, there’s a lot of people there. They’re probably doing a bunch of different stuff. It seems harder to build out your personal brand. It seems like the media companies are less interested. Again, Gawker is another example where you can make a name for yourself by doing a specific thing. It seems like that’s harder to do at Mashable.
Oh, absolutely, but that is not ... The larger the organization, the more difficult it is to do that, but I don’t believe that personally, so my approach is very much identifying rising talent and rising stars and seeing those opportunities with younger writers and really pushing them to develop their skills.
We talked about this a few times. Mashable, like everyone else, has said, “Video is the future. The future is video.” Marc Andreessen just said the future is video. Video, video, video. All makes sense logically. There’s certainly a commercial opportunity there. For someone like me who doesn’t do video that much, someone like you who’s made your living in words, do you think about, “All right. I’ve got a recalibrate what I do to flourish in a video world? Someone else is going to figure out video. I’m going to keep typing”?
No. I’m certainly not going to keep typing. I think if we’ve got a story that we’ve published, I will often take that story and say to the video people, “You might be able to do something with this.” There might be a jumping-off point there. Maybe you do just want to repackage it or maybe you want to do something more in depth here, or maybe there’s the beginning of an idea here that could become a series or what have you.
On the other hand, when we’re tossing around ideas and brainstorming media links, a lot of times it’s, “Hit the pause button. Actually, that would be a really great video.” We don’t do one-off videos, necessarily, but if someone’s got an idea that could be part of a series or we could franchise it out in some way, then I’m going to stop the writing and explore that.
It’s in your head even though you’re going to hand it off and it’s not your expertise, but you’re comfortable with that notion.
Yeah. Yeah, I’m not a producer. Like you said, I’m a words person. I am ideas and voice and brand, so here’s the story I want to tell. I take that to the very qualified studios team and I say, “Okay. You figure out how to tell it and the best way to tell it.” And if we should be telling it, if we have the resources to tell it, go. They know what they’re doing. I don’t know that part of it and I respect their expertise.
In a week you’re going to be hanging out at South By Southwest in Austin with ...?
Explain how you went from ... Well, I’m not going to go through your whole career. What’s the deal with Cookie Monster? What are you doing with him? Can I get in on the Cookie Monster action? I’ll be there as well.
I would love it if you would come by.
We could definitely do some sort of cookie segment with you. What Mashable is doing is we have a deal with Twitter to do a live broadcast March 10th, 11th, 12th ...
Wait, you’re going to be on video.
I’m going to be on video.
So there, we can solve the whole problem.
It all comes together. It’s a wonderful media content ecosystem. Yeah, we have a three-day deal with Twitter where we’re going to do live broadcast for three days, the 10th, the 11th, 12th at 1:00 pm eastern for 90 minutes. End plug. It’s going to be a high-energy talk show. It’s segments. We’ll do interviews. We will do performances, comedy and music, exclusive guests and ...
You’re going to interview Cookie Monster or he’s performing?
Cookie Monster is a host.
He’s one of my co-hosts.
Will you be on camera with the monster?
I hope so. I certainly hope so. In terms of how we organize it ... Because there are multiple hosts. It’s Cookie, it’s Tracy Edward, one of our social editors, Kerri Doherty, who’s a comedian, and myself.
We’re joking here, but the whole idea is that you do do multiple things, right? You type and you edit and you can be on camera with or without Cookie Monster. This is now part of the job requirement.
There’s a way to do this without ever going on camera or making a podcast or recording video or whatever it is, but it’s better if you are comfortable with some version of this.
Yeah, absolutely. Whether I’m on camera or not really doesn’t make a difference to me, but I’m still typing before that. I’m still looking at scripts. I’m still talking to people about, “Okay, we have an opportunity to interview this director. Well, this director has produced a movie that is kind of ... How do we want to cover it? What’s the story that is right for us?” I’m still very involved in making sure the content we’re choosing for this live show is on brand for us.
It’s fun, right?
It is fun.
Say it’s fun. Good. Okay, I’m glad you said it’s fun. I was talking with Janine Gibson who was this really high-flying ... Still is a high-flying editor, but at one point we were going to run the New York Times, and then last fall she was producing, actually for Twitter again, a live broadcast for the election night, for BuzzFeed.
This is what happens to you these days.
I believe your colleagues at The Verge did it for CES.
They did it. Other people at Vox Media may one day work for Twitter or with Twitter. You never know.
Jessica Coen, thanks for coming.
Thanks so much for having me.
Thanks for making it happen.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.