May 11, 2012

The New York Times shows Tumblr its basement


Jeff Roth: Keeper of the Morgue

Here’s the first couple paragraphs from a recent article about a basement. Not just any basement, a New York Times basement, otherwise known as “the morgue,” where more than 150 years’ worth of photographs and newspaper clippings are stored.

To get here, one must leave the shiny glass tower that is the 40th Street headquarters of the New York Times, walk a half-block down the street and descend three levels below the sidewalk. Here, in a nondescript tower, she will emerge from a dirty elevator, walk past a janitor’s closet, a giant, rusted pump contraption with running water and finally reach a pair of metal doors. There are glue traps with belly-up cockroaches in the corner.

“I swear, we haven’t taken you to a torture chamber,” a Times photo editor quips, as she walks through the double doors.

There is no computer in the morgue. No Internet service. No cell reception. If a person were to die here – perhaps by an improperly secured two-ton cabinet – it’s safe to say it would take days for anyone to find his body.

Welcome to the most extensive archives repository of the most respected newspaper in the world.

The article goes on to describe the morgue’s metal file cabinets, historical relics, and its well-dressed, nimble-minded caretaker. All interesting stuff, to be sure. Equally interesting is the outfit behind the article: Tumblr.

Most of us have heard of Tumblr’s new Department of Editorial, which oversees Storyboard, which is geared toward telling stories that can reach the social site’s millions of dedicated, enthusiastic users.

Storyboard is a regular collection of features highlighting talented creators and their work, as found within and around the massively diverse Tumblr community. Produced by the Department of Editorial, these stories are told with words, pictures, video, music, charts, animation, or any other voice these creators choose to speak with.

There’s never enough time or space to tell every story, but there are many ways to tell it. If you’re interested in submitting a story or story idea to Storyboard, just create a Tumblr post with the #storyboard tag. Our editors will read them all — liking, replying, reblogging, or promoting the cool, creative, and compelling stuff. And if the story seems really good, we may ask to tell it here.

The article posits that the Time’s Lively Morgue Tumblr is breathing new life into the morgue, which for years has been a financial suck:

The morgue may conjure images of decay and death in its name — dead stories, dead politicians, the death of, dare we say, print — but to anyone who’s had the luck of spending any time in it, its value is clear: a place of living, breathing history that remains untouched by time.

Saving graces work in mysterious ways, however, and today, the morgue may be saved by the same force that for so long has threatened to kill it.

Since September 2010, the Lens blog at the Times has featured an occasional series of archival photos, dug up from the morgue by Times’ photo editor Darcy Eveleigh. From black-and-white images of Antarctica to the art of window washing, getting the photos print-ready took some work: the images had to be repaired for tears and cracks, retouched and scanned, markings erased, sometimes whited-out limbs had to be put back in.

After just a few entries, the series became so popular that it led to a knockoff site out of the San Francisco Chronicle. Readers began sending in their own photos. And suddenly, the word “morgue” — long forgotten around the newsroom — had found new life.

Lexi Mainland, the Times’ 33-year-old social media editor, heard about the project, and proposed a Tumblr, where the photos could have a permanent home. Six months later, the “Lively Morgue” was born, with new entries every week, spread virally throughout the web.

In some ways Tumblr’s decision to report stories happening within the Tumblr universe reflects contemporary culture’s solipsism. But by turning the lens inward, Tumblr enlarges the profiles of its users while broadening its own purpose. Just like newspapers have been doing for more than one hundred years.

Of course there’s many differences between then and now. Chief among them is rather than selling papers, Tumblr is banking on growing its user base, thus increasing overall value, simply by telling users stories about other users.

Welcome to the age of meta-journalism.




Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.