Mumbrella is 12: The year we turned off the comments

As Mumbrella turns 12 in the year of Covid, founder Tim Burrowes offers his annual update on our journey so far

This week marked Mumbrella’s 12th anniversary.

My first post was on December 9, 2008, and every year since then I’ve written something about the journey.

You can read my previous updates here:

Every year since Mumbrella started, writing our annual update has been a little less my story to tell. In the early years, that was as the team grew and it got to the point where I was no longer involved in every single project. And since the end of 2017, I was no longer an owner of Mumbrella.

As part of that sale, my contract ran until mid February this year. If Mumbrella’s owner Diversified Communications had wanted to end the relationship, that was the first day they’d have been free to do so. And similarly, that would have been my first opportunity to walk away. Happily we recommitted and this has been my first year as a simple employee.

So it gets harder each year to write an annual update that could be seen to take credit for successes I didn’t drive, or risk looking like I’m criticising setbacks I wasn’t involved in.

Particularly this year. I’ve been on long service leave since September, to write a book about the Australian media. By the time I submit the epilogue to the book on February 1 and get back to work full time, I’ll have been away from the day-to-day Mumbrella for five months.

And of course, like every media company, Mumbrella’s story this year has been one of surviving Covid. That was challenging enough for any media company, but even more so for one where more than half of the business model was through running in-person events. Add into that mix ownership by a company mainly involved in the global exhibitions industry and that’s quite a place to be.

In times of crisis like that, there were far worse owners for Mumbrella to have than privately owned organisations that can look to the long term.

How long ago the start of the year now seems. I was covering a conference in the UK in early March where there were a couple of references to Omnicom staff staying away because of some sort of health scare. By the next week back in Sydney we were awkwardly elbow bumping and hand sanitiser pumping at the Mumbrella Travel Marketing Awards. And then we were  cancelling the Mumbrella Automotive Marketing Summit due to take place in Melbourne the following week to coincide with the Grand Prix that never took place.

Before you knew it, Mumbrella360 and CommsCon and the Mumbrella Awards and all the other events we’d spent a decade building up were heartbreakingly being either cancelled or postponed.

And a few days later we were recording our first (bumpy) Zoom-based Mumbrellacast and then I was racing down the Hume Highway out of New South Wales to beat the Tasmanian border closure.

Yet this time last year, we’d just wrapped up the first Mumbrella Marketing Retreat, up the road from my place here at Sisters Beach. For many years, our memories will be sub-divided into before, during and after Covid.

I certainly didn’t expect to spend 2021 living in Tasmania, writing a book. I hadn’t expected Covid, let alone a book deal.

Like every media company, Covid defined Mumbrella’s year. But it wasn’t the only part of the story. I’ll come on to that.

Our traffic for 2020 went gangbusters for the first half of the year.

Covid was a disaster for the media industry, with a lot of layoffs. And there was an appetite to read about it, as there usually is with bad news.

For the first half of the year, our page views were up 14.4% on 2019, which had itself been a record year. From January 1 to June 30, we delivered 6.9m page views.

Like many companies, the whole team moved to four-day working weeks.

Traffic growth for the next quarter fell away a bit – it was up by just under 7%.

And in the final quarter, two major changes happened. First our editor Vivienne Kelly was made redundant as part of a restructure, and the new vacancy in the structure remained open for some time. On top of the fact that the team was working four-day weeks, effectively that meant we perhaps had 30 percent fewer editorial staff hours than usual. And shortly afterwards, on September 18, we took the decision to end comments on Mumbrella. It’s hard to unpick those two factors as they occurred about the same time, but what I can share is that from September 1 through to December 10, our page views were down by 28.3% on last year.

Mumbrella traffic 2020 vs 2019 | Source: Google Analytics

From January 1, the team will be back to five days a week working, and that should give us a better picture.

But this week, a new fact reached the public domain which may help explain a bit more why we took the decision to end the comments.

As our newly promoted head of content Damian Francis wrote at the time, one of the reasons was that with Covid depleting our editorial resources we had to choose where to focus our efforts, and that included on time spent moderating. For every high quality comment, there were a lot of poor ones that needed to be read and discarded.

But we were also aware that behind the scenes a legal case was going on between Jason Dooris and his former agency Atomic 212. You may recall Dooris left the agency not long after Mumbrella’s investigation revealed that he and Atomic had won a number of industry awards through making untrue claims.

One of the allegations being made in the ongoing legal battle was that Dooris had been working to destabilise the agency since his departure. Atomic alleged he had planted false stories about the agency losing business which AdNews had published.

It’s now a matter of record that Dooris also posted 36 comments on Mumbrella about the agency, using a variety of pseudonyms. As we revealed on Tuesday, his own lawyer wrote to us and asked for their removal, presumably as part of the legal process.

When Damian announced the decision on comments in September, we were already aware of this issue, but not yet legally safe to disclose it.

And that’s one of the challenges for industry comment sections. It can be nearly impossible for moderators to understand the difference between a well meaning, well informed anonymous comment, and one attempting to weaponize Mumbrella against an adversary.

Many readers and friends of Mumbrella were disappointed with the decision to turn off comments, and it was frustrating not being able to say more. And I must admit, we still miss them. I still find myself trying to figure out if there’s another way. Honestly, I’m yet to think of one that would work, although we’ll continue to mull on it. (If you’ve got any bright ideas, feel free to drop Damo a line.)

But that’s a conversation for 2021.

And there’s much to look forward to.

Led by Damian, our mostly new editorial team will finally get to show what they can do five days per week. Personally, I’m looking forward to meeting my new colleague Zanda Wilson and (re)meeting my former B&T colleague Olivia Kruimel. At the moment I’m merely a listener to their Mumbrellacast performances. (There’s lots of good stuff on the final radio ratings of the year in this week’s Mumbrellacast.)

As I say every year, thanks for following us on the journey.


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