Mashable content chief Jim Roberts on looking for a journalist obsessed with Elon Musk

jim roberts Jim Roberts is the executive editor and chief content officer of 10 year-old digital media website Mashable.

In this extract from a Q&A with Mumbrella with Asia editor Robin Hicks, the former assistant managing editor of the New York Times and executive editor Thomson Reuters Digital talks about 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.

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 is 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 and 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.

Read the full Q&A including plans for a new Singapore office on Mumbrella Asia

  • Mashable’s Adam Ostrow is speaking at this year’s Mumbrella 360 on June 3 and 4. For more details click the banner below.

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