Instagram looks to expand its 'editorial' team

Rod Mar was on his hotel patio, relaxing near a fire on Saturday night when he received a call from Instagram’s Alex Owen. Mar, a sports photographer whose clients include ESPN and Sports Illustrated, was in Phoenix to cover the Super Bowl. But he was about to become the focus of a news story. Owen, a community manager at Instagram, had recently discovered Mar’s account, and wanted to feature Mar and his spectacular shots on Instagram’s blog.

The story — a scant 160 words about Mar’s photography philosophy — was posted on Sunday, and by Monday afternoon it had generated more than 1,000 notes (likes and reblogs) on Tumblr, and Mar’s Instagram following had grown noticeably.

“I know that from my daughter who is 16 years old and right in the middle of Instagram’s wheelhouse,” Mar told Digiday, admitting that his daughter monitors his account more closely than he does. “The response has been amazing. [There are] lots of people looking at my work that hadn’t seen it before.”

That is exactly what Instagram hopes to achieve for its users as it looks to grow its “editorial” team. Like so many other platforms before it, Instagram is looking to hire former journalists to identify and popularize budding Instagram stars. (The editorial — or community management — team is actually part of Instagram’s marketing division.)

Platforms creating their own media operations is a common tactic now. Messaging app Snapchat has started creating its own media. Facebook and Tumblr have tried it. And LinkedIn continues to transition from a professional network to a career-focused media company. But the success rate for tech companies becoming publishers is mixed, with many finding finding that the cost- and labor-intensive nature of media production can be at odds with a tech company’s desire for optimal efficiency and scale.

Instagram is currently looking to hire at least five more people to help with “daily editorial” production, and it wants candidates with legitimate editorial bonafides. The senior features editor is expected to have at least eight years of editing experience. Another position, titled community editor, calls for at least five years of editorial experience. This month, Instagram hired Alex Suskind as the platform’s inaugural music editor. Suskind has written for Esquire, New York magazine and Sports Illustrated.

Instagram’s editorial team currently consists of a dozen staffers who, as with Owen and Mar, are tasked with finding interesting Instagrammers and writing features about them to be read by the rest of Instagram’s 300 million monthly active users.

The new hires are a reflection of Instagram’s growing user base and corresponding need for more reporters, according to spokeswoman Liz Shepherd. The team now has an editorial calendar and puts out two posts a day on its blog.

And with 70 percent of its users coming from outside the U.S., Instagram’s editorial operation is particularly focused on highlighting more international users. The editorial team added community managers in Brazil and the U.K. last year to better serve those communities, and it is currently looking for someone who can report on Instagram users in France.

It’s not unprecedented for a tech company to hire media refugees. Facebook continues to hire media experts in order to help its outreach with publishers. Snapchat rolled out its long-awaited original media initiative last week. And LinkedIn’s media operation, which involved in-house editors looking over user-generated articles, has become its fastest-growing business segment in company history.

But tech companies have also struggled when trying to launch their own editorial teams. Anonymous sharing app Whisper lured viral traffic extraordinaire Neetzan Zimmerman away from Gawker last January to be the platform’s inaugural editor-in-chief, only to fire him this January amid a user-privacy scandal. Facebook hired former Bloomberg social media editor Dan Fletcher in 2012 to be its managing editor and launch Stories, a section that would publish human-interest stories about Facebook users. Fletcher, too, only lasted a year. And Tumblr infamously fired its entire staff of journalists in April 2013 — also after just a year — in an oddly worded public memo.

“What Tumblr really wanted was cheerleaders, and from the perspective of the company, I actually get that,” Jessica Bennett, the journalist who edited Tumblr’s journalism initiative, told Digiday. “Hiring journalists to do marketing makes sense: we’re good storytellers. But those journalists need to understand that what they’re being set up to do is marketing. We thought we were legitimately going to be able to do journalism, and we weren’t willing to compromise that. And then we got fired!”

That Instagram’s editorial team is housed under marketing will help it to avoid such difficulties, she said.

Despite the growth plans, Instagram is not yet planning to expand its operation beyond its current blog or to move into longer, more substantive pieces, Shepherd said. It’s not entering Medium’s territory and becoming a true platform-publisher hybrid. But it does see an editorial infrastructure as integral to the platform’s success. By highlighting lesser-known talents such as Mar, Instagram is able to up their numbers of followers and, in turn, increase user engagement. And user engagement is arguably the most important metric for any digital media endeavor, platform, publisher or otherwise.

Homepage image courtesy Rod Mar, Instagram