On April 1, Gawker chief Nick Denton passed on some surprising news via Twitter. “Damn!” Mr. 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. Mr. Cook, the site’s investigations editor, 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.
On a recent Monday afternoon, The Observer met Mr. 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. He has brown hair and blue-green eyes. He looked well rested and tan. His major concern was where he’d watch the Washington Capitals game that night on TV. He ordered the ravioli. Just seven short years ago, Mr. 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, Mr. Mottram, Yahoo’s managing editor of blogs, is now overseeing a major expansion of the company’s stable of writers and editors.
In October, Mr. 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, Mr. Mottram hired Courtney Reimer, a former freelance writer and MTV producer, to run a new entertainment blog. And there’s also a new finance blog in the works (paging John Carney!). According to Mr. Mottram, his team now consists of roughly 30 or so bloggers.
He anticipates hiring another dozen full-timers.
The sudden thawing of New York’s media job market recently reported by The Observer apparently extends beyond newspapers and magazines to top Web portals.
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, including former Village Voice editor Laura Conaway.
In short, we are in the middle of a big-portal blogging renaissance. And Mr. Mottram is one of the key patrons.
“A big part of Yahoo News is portal power,” said Mr. Mottram. “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. It’s our writers.”
Mr. Mottram took a bite of his ravioli. He 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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. “It was like blogging for dummies,” Mr. Mottram said. “They needed guinea pigs to blog and show the people how it was done.”
Mr. 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, Mr. 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 scrappy 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. “It’s wasn’t easily consumable,” said Mr. Mottram. “And it didn’t really generate a lot of traffic. Listen to a podcast for 45 minutes and it generates one page view.”
AOL pulled the plug. “We were giving people what we wanted them to want,” said Mr. Mottram.
Elsewhere, AOL was struggling. The walled-garden approach wasn’t working. Around the spring of 2006, Jim Bankoff, then the head of content for AOL, began investing in blog networks aimed at broader audiences. Around the time that Mr. Bankoff helped AOL purchase the tech blog Engadget and launch the celebrity blog TMZ, he got a memo from Mr. Mottram, pitching a sports blog network to be called FanHouse. AOL gave it the green light.
“Jamie was able to see that there was so much talent out there that was not being used—or was being used on someone’s blogspot page,” Will Leitch, the founding editor of Deadspin, told The Observer. “He recognized that you could organize it and make it larger.”
“It was freaking AOL, not exactly the world’s coolest company,” said Mr. Leitch. “But Jamie was so lively. If never felt like a massive company paying all these people. It always felt like Jamie’s mom-and-pop thing. He made it not embarrassing to write for AOL.”
“He has a better nose for Web creative talent than just about anyone I know,” said Mr. Bankoff.
According to Mr. 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 Mr. Mottram’s job to assemble the bloggers.
Mr. Mottram compares his time at FanHouse to The Dana Carvey Show, which failed in 1996 after one season but employed a team of writers, including Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Charlie Kaufman, who went on to great things. At Yahoo, Mr. Mottram rehired many of his early FanHouse favorites, including MJD, J.E. Skeets and Greg Wyshynski. Mr. Mottram declined to say how much on average Yahoo pays its full-time bloggers, but noted that “we haven’t seen much, if any, attrition over the two-plus years of doing this.”
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 Mr. Mottram—essentially putting the sports guys in charge of the entire editorial show.
Next up: politics, media, entertainment and finance!
“Sports is the best example of how this will play out,” said Mr. Mottram. “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 email, 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 all its own. They come back to it whether it’s via RSS, or social media referrals, or SEO traffic, or bookmarks. That’s the goal. It’s about millions of people over time coming in from the Web. That’s what Yahoo’s investment in original content can breed.”
Yahoo is now gambling that Mr. 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,” said Mr. Leitch. “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.”
Mr. Mottram finished his ravioli. The next day he 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.
CORRECTION: In 2007, before Mr. Mottram left AOL for Yahoo Sports, he received a couple of job offers but ESPN was not among his suitors at the time.