Few images better capture the unfettered optimism and indignity of digital media than 2014 at South by Southwest, where a line of hoodie-wearing attendees snaked around the block at Mashable House, a pop-up lounge run by the tech news site, to get their picture taken with Grumpy Cat. Nearby, AOL “digital prophet” Shingy swung on a Mashable-branded wrecking ball.
It was also a good time to be at Mashable, when it was still true to its founding in 2005 by a 19-year-old Scot named Pete Cashmore as a blog about social media but showing big ambitions. Traffic was on the upswing. The company wasn’t making fistfuls of profits, but it wasn’t losing money, either. It had just closed its first round of funding, $13.3 million led by Updata Partners. Former New York Times assistant managing editor Jim Roberts had joined the company to lead a more ambitious editorial agenda.
Success in digital media requires doing a million things right, though, and Mashable seems to have fumbled a number of them. Former employees and observers cite a loss of editorial focus and unique identity, lack of financial controls, an ill-executed shift to video content and hesitance to diversify revenue away from the fickle ad market. Mashable wouldn’t make executives available for this story.
All this time, people at Mashable were closely watching BuzzFeed, which like Mashable, started with a focus on light, sharable content, but had hired Ben Smith from Politico to build a serious newsgathering operation. The meme coverage that built Mashable was becoming commoditized. So Mashable used its new capital to hire Roberts and other pedigreed journalists.
Soon, there were stories on terrorism and Ukraine leading the homepage, a big change for a site better known for covering social media and internet memes. Whether it was the increased editorial resources, Facebook’s generosity or both, Mashable’s traffic soared to over 27 million monthly uniques in December 2015, according to comScore.
The shift was debated internally, though, and caused friction between Roberts’ new hires and pre-existing staffers.
“It came from Pete on down — ‘What’s going to be our version of Ben Smith?’” a former insider said. “’They got Ben Smith, so we need someone,’” said another, describing the philosophy. “’They started BuzzFeed Studios; let’s start Mashable Studios.’ I’m surprised they didn’t call it ‘MashFeed’ at some point.” But as an ex-editorial staffer said, the pivot to general news made Mashable a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Everyone was aware BuzzFeed was beating us on stuff, and the tech pubs didn’t take us seriously.”