On April 1, Gawker chief Nick Denton passed on some surprising news via Twitter. “Damn!” Denton wrote. “Gawker’s awesome John Cook is about to disappear into the maw of Yahoo. Someone else—WSJ?—should save him. We tried.” Shortly thereafter, he assured his followers this was no April Fool’s joke. Cook, the site’s investigative reporter, was leaving to write for a publicly traded corporation based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
The whole thing was vaguely mystifying. For years, Yahoo had been a distant archipelago, far removed from the life of New York media sharks. And yet, suddenly, in the past few months, strong Yahoo trade winds had begun sweeping through Manhattan. People we knew were suddenly landing jobs there. But who was the shadowy blog overlord gobbling up bodies?
As it turns out, his name is Jamie Mottram. He’s a sunny, 32-year-old sports blogger–turned–media executive who works out of his house by the beach in Wilmington, N.C.—a town of 75,000 residents with a river walk and lots of deciduous trees, located roughly 593 miles southwest of Balthazar.
The Observer recently met Mottram for lunch at Novita, an Italian restaurant near Gramercy Park. He was in town for 24 hours. That evening he would be meeting with some of his recently hired bloggers at a bar in Brooklyn. Just seven short years ago, Mottram said, he’d never heard of blogging. “Now,” he added, “it pays my mortgage.”
During the first quarter of 2010, Yahoo earned $1.6 billion of revenue. Display advertising, company executives say, was up 20 percent over the past year, and investing in original content seemed like a good idea. As a result, Mottram, Yahoo’s managing editor of blogs, is now overseeing a major expansion of the company’s stable of writers and editors.
In October, Mottram hired Andrew Golis, a former deputy publisher at Talking Points Memo, to manage a media and politics blog that will begin sometime this summer. In January, Mottram hired Courtney Reimer, a former freelance writer and MTV producer, to run a new entertainment blog. And there’s also a finance blog in the works. According to Mottram, his team now consists of about 30 bloggers. He anticipates hiring another dozen full-timers.
According to Nielsen Online ratings, in March, Yahoo News was the No. 1 news site in the country, with 40,205,000 unique users. Executives at the No. 2 site, CNN Digital Networks (38,735,000 uniques), recently announced that they, too, were launching a new, robustly staffed blog network, including sites about food (Eatocracy), religion (BeliefBlog), breaking news (This Just In), Afghanistan (Afghanistan Crossroads) and entertainment (the Marquee). Over at MSNBC.com, the third-ranked news portal in the country (33,786,000 uniques), managers are tending to a newly launched Rachel Maddow blog, complete with a team of writers.
“A big part of Yahoo News is portal power,” Mottram said. “Now we’re investing in original content to draw in readers who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be using Yahoo. It’s not wire stories that everybody else has. It’s our original voice.”
Mottram said that growing up in Vienna, Va., a middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., he always wanted to be a TV sports anchor. In college, at James Madison University, he worked as the sports anchor at the school’s TV station. When he graduated, a family friend who’d made a solid career in broadcast news advised him to stay clear of the hellish profession. Undeterred, Mottram sent out his sizzle tape to all the local stations. Nobody called back.
At the time, the tech boom was still in full swing in Northern Virginia, and Mottram eventually landed a job at AOL. For several years, he wandered through the Web wilderness, doing various odd jobs. Around 2003, AOL introduced a proto-blogging software program.
Mottram signed up and created a blog that eventually morphed into an-all purpose D.C. sports site, called Mr. Irrelevant (which lives on to this day). As part of the recruiting effort, Mottram convinced his bosses to let him and his younger brother, Chris, host a podcast called “Sports Bloggers Live.” Over the next year and a half, the brothers Mottram hosted some 200 shows, mixing interviews with sports bloggers like Deadspin’s Will Leitch with silver-tongued sports anchors like CBS’s Jim Nantz and D.C. sports gods like Art Monk and Darrell Green. For the Mottrams it was heaven. But for AOL chiefs, it was one more iffy business endeavor.
AOL pulled the plug. “We were giving people what we wanted them to want,” Mottram said. “Rather than what they actually wanted. Never again.”
Around the spring of 2006, Jim Bankoff, then head of content for AOL, began investing in blog networks aimed at broader audiences. Around the time that Bankoff helped AOL purchase tech blog Engadget and launch celebrity blog TMZ, he got a memo from Mottram, pitching a sports blog network to be called FanHouse. AOL gave it the green light.
According to Mottram, around the summer of 2007, he turned down an offer to join ESPN. Instead, he took a job as the senior editor of blogs and community for Yahoo Sports. The year before, the company had hired Dave Morgan of the L.A. Times to be the executive editor of Yahoo Sports, overseeing a team of reporters charged with breaking news and doing investigative reporting. It was Mottram’s job to assemble the bloggers.
During those two years, Yahoo Sports has overtaken ESPN.com as the top sports destination on the Web. As a result of the success, last year Yahoo executives promoted both Dave Morgan and Mottram—essentially putting the sports guys in charge of the entire editorial show.
“Sports is the best example of how this will play out,” Mottram said. “With Yahoo Sports, you’ve got Puck Daddy, the No. 1 hockey blog on the Web. It performs really well on the Yahoo network, whether that’s on the front page, or in the e-mail, or through the portal itself. But a big part of the approach is that if Yahoo disappeared tomorrow, Puck Daddy would still have an audience. … That’s the goal. It’s about millions of people over time coming in from the Web.”
Yahoo is now gambling that Mottram’s success in nurturing sports blogging will translate to a range of subjects he admittedly knows much less about. With political and entertainment blogging in particular, Yahoo will be entering crowded, hypercompetitive fields.
“I feel like I generally have enough politics sites in my life,” Leitch said. “So the idea of someday regularly going to a Yahoo one seems like a stretch. But again, we all thought the exact same thing about sports.”
The next day Mottram would be flying to California. There’s a desk, he said, at Yahoo’s Santa Monica offices with his name on it. But he rarely uses it. Like most of his bloggers, he prefers to work from home.