Media Moves

BusinessWeek.com chief: We need to think more about our audience

May 27, 2008

John Byrne is the executive editor of BusinessWeek and the editor in chief of BusinessWeek.com, meaning that he’s in charge of the magazine’s strategy of increasing editorial content to attract more readers to its Web site.

John ByrneByrne’s transformation from one of the country’s top print business journalist to online guru wasn’t easy — or overnight. He’s the former editor-in-chief of Fast Company magazine and the author of eight books on business, leadership and management. As a senior writer at BusinessWeek, Byrne was the author of a record 57 cover stories.

His articles have explored the fairness of executive pay, the folly of management fads, and the governance of major corporations. Byrne also is the creator of Business Week’s ranking of the best business schools (which was launched in 1988), the best and worst boards of directors in America (which first appeared in 1996), and its listing of the nation’s most generous philanthropists (which first appeared in 2002).

Byrne came to BusinessWeek in 1985 after four years at Forbes, where he was associate editor and a staff writer. Our paths crossed during the strike year of 1994, when we were both team owners in the BusinessWeek fantasy baseball league. (I stupidly drafted Jose Canseco.) Byrne says the league continues today.

Byrne recently talked to Talking Biz News about BusinessWeek’s online strategy. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. Why leave the print publication last year, where you’ve had more cover stories than anyone else?

It was a surprisingly difficult decision for me. When my boss, Steve Adler, came to me and asked if I would be interested in the top online job, I thought he was crazy. “No way,� I said. “I’m a print guy, and I really don’t know enough about the digital space to take that job. Not me!� In fact, I shut it down as quickly as I could and began volunteering the names of others who I knew could do the job exceptionally well. There was no shortage of proven talent in our shop. Steve asked on a late Friday afternoon over a Starbucks coffee near the Rockefeller Center skating rink.

That weekend, I told three of my best friends about the offer and those conversations consumed both Saturday and Sunday. My friends all thought I was crazy for turning Steve down. I should say that all three of those friends have spent the vast majority of their working lives in print. All are highly successful and in key leadership positions in the magazine business. They all declared print dead. They all said digital is the future. Not to step into that future, they urged, was a huge mistake. It was a chance, they said, for an old dog like me to learn new tricks.

BusinessWeek.comToday, I laugh about my initial response because it was so old world, even clueless. But I had spent my entire career in print and that is what I knew, from the time I delivered the morning and evening newspapers in my home town. Well, this dog was in his mid-50s but eager for a new challenge. Truth is, the moment I said no I was secretly thinking that this could be a fantastic adventure for me. I’m all about intellectual curiosity and personal growth. I had been editor-in-chief at Fast Company for about two and one-half years and executive editor of Business Week for about two years. Taking on this new challenge seemed to be the right thing to do at the right time.

And it was hardly foreign space. When Business Week first went online in 1994, I probably spent 20 percent of my time in the first two years building out our business school franchise on BusinessWeek.com. When I headed up Fast Company magazine, we became the first business magazine to launch a blog—and I was among the most active bloggers on the staff. So I took the leap, first on an interim basis in early 2007 and then formally in June of last year.

2. What impact do you think you can make, or are making, on BW.com?

I profoundly love this profession. I believe in journalism’s most basic values—to inform and enlighten with integrity, to bring intelligent analysis to a complex world, to capture the great drama that business truly is, to teach, help and inspire people, and—let’s face it—to attempt to reform what’s not right with the world. I don’t believe there is a more creative place or a place more suited to accomplish all those goals than digital. You have so many ways to be a storyteller online. That’s why I think of the web as not just another medium, but rather a new utility, like electricity. It’s print, radio, and television all in one, except better and much more than all of them together. One of my largest frustrations as a magazine journalist had been the inability to really follow a story.

In magazines, unlike newspapers, you try not to do the incremental story. You aim for the big story and walk away from all the pieces that would generally lead a journalist to the bigger, more thoughtful piece. Or, for that matter, all the subsequent pieces that allow you to own a subject and be a total authority on it. One of the dirty little secrets of the online world, particularly for magazine journalists, is that it allows you to really own a story. You can write on one topic every other day, or every week, if you want to. You can do series of articles as we have done on how credit card companies have aggressively marketed cards to jobless students who don’t have the ability to even pay the bills. The space is unlimited, and it’s important to drive stakes into the ground and they we will own the business stories that matter. So we’ve tried to do that with a large number of topics, from immigration to outsourcing, from health care in America to Wal-Mart.

Choosing what to cover and what to build online, whether it’s the most complete directory of the world’s top executive headhunters or interactive case studies featuring videos with CEOs such as GE’s Jeff Immelt, P&G’s A.G. Lafley, and Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli, is a kick. We just hired a fantastic young reporter, Tim Catts, and put him on the road for four months to do two things: blog daily on the economic hardships facing our country and write one substantive piece a week on Recession in America. It’s a sort of Alistair Cooke style of journalism, a letter from the recession front. I’m enormously proud of the journalism we do on the site and of the people here who do it.

Last week, we were awarded an EPpy for the best business online site with more than one million unique visitors, winning over a competitor I have the greatest respect for, The Wall Street Journal. This week, we won three New York Press Club awards for online investigative reporting on immigration, for online consumer reporting for our series on credit cards on campus, and for online feature work. Earlier this month, we won the second National Magazine Award (ASME) in two years for our coverage of business schools and the community we’ve created around it. That was a special thrill for me because of my early work online in the mid-1990s to make this a space we should own. And earlier this year, we finished second, behind only Time, as the best news/business website in the Magazine Publishers Association Digital Awards.

Beyond the journalism, however, are the big strategic issues. Our strategy is simple: 1) dramatically scale the site so that far more business professionals in the world experience what we do, and 2) become the business/financial player with the deepest and most meaningful reader engagement. Scale is obvious. Everyone wants to increase traffic. No big surprise there. Last year we hit new records in unique visitors, page views, and visits. In the first quarter of this year, we’re up 23 percent in uniques and page views and 25 percent in visits.

Our goals are much more aggressive, though, and we have some new things that will soon launch to make a very big difference there. I’ve been secretly working on a major online project with our general manager. It will launch in late summer, and I’m really excited about that. But my single most important goal is making reader engagement a reality, a place where readers can have a true conversation with us and with each other, and for those conversations to be as rich and vivid as the core journalism on the site.

3. What type of content does the online site need to improve the most?

I think we need to increase our explanatory journalism online, quick and speedy analysis on the most important breaking news in business. That said, it’s less about improving the journalism (I hate the word content) and more about creating an environment where a true community can flourish. It used to be said that content is king. I don’t believe that’s true, anymore. Online there are vast amounts of information available to everyone for free. There’s a great difference in the quality and credibility of that information. So what your brand stands for is still extremely important. But the overwhelming amount of information out there tends to erode the value of any single piece of journalism.

Content just isn’t enough and readers prefer to get their news online from multiple sources. So content isn’t your King on the chess board. It’s probably not even your Queen. That’s hard for a lot of journalists or editors to fully understand. Some think those changes diminish what they do and what they’ve dedicated their working lives to do well. That’s an emotional reaction to the profound changes in our business. In fact, those changes make journalism a far more creative craft than it has ever been and a far more exciting place to be. In this world, context becomes King, not content. The environment you create to enhance and extend your core journalism by harnessing the intelligence and participation of your readers is what counts. As Jeffrey Rayport, a former Harvard B-school prof and a friend of mine, puts it: “Content and brand are table stakes today. The main game is to engage users directly in authentic, compelling, loyalty-inducing site contexts.�

Let me put it a different way. By and large, journalists and editors are product-centric. They think this business is still all about stories as products. They pour a lot of energy and intelligence in those stories to get them to be as good as possible. But truth is, they rarely think of the reader in shaping those stories. We need to move from a product-centric view of the world to an audience-centric mindset. That takes me back to all our reader engagement initiatives. Mike Shatzkin, the head of a consulting firm called Idea Logical, says it best: “In the future,� he says, “you will not monetize ‘content;’ you will use content as a tool to monetize ‘community.’�

So that’s what we’re trying to do. It isn’t easy. The other day I suggested to my senior team that every Saturday we turn our entire home page over to user-generated content. People looked at me as if I was the devil. They thought we shouldn’t surrender our real estate to our readers. They thought it would lead to confusion and they believed that many of our readers wouldn’t be interested in it. I’m not so sure. But the point is we need to keep trying new things that deepen our relationship with our readers. There’s nothing, frankly, that’s more important and that’s why we’re devoting so much energy and effort to it.

We recently hired an editor for reader engagement who will be joining us in a few days, and we’ve launched a series of initiatives designed to get the context that will make a difference for us. Earlier this year, we started “In Your Face,� a module on the home page that features a reader and an excerpt of a substantive comment he or she made on a story. Those modules, with photos of our readers, are on every channel and sub-channel home page on the site. The goal is to highlight the intelligent and thoughtful contributions of readers on our site and to reward them for making those contributions. We also created a collection area for all of these comments and photos. Then, we added “Dialogue with Readers� on our home page, featuring direct links to conversations between our journalists and our readers.

A little over a month ago, I started a blog called “What’s Your Story Idea?� in which we actively ask our readers for their story suggestions. I’ve now assigned about six ideas to journalists and the first of these will debut this week. We’ll fully credit the reader for the idea, with his or her picture and a small bio. And we’re using this feature to essentially invite the reader into our newsroom. For the “Recession in America� series, for example, I’m asking readers where we should send our reporter and who he should interview. Some of the suggestions are fantastic.

But this is just a start. Increasingly, we’re having readers inform our reporting and writing of stories in all sorts of ways. Take this week’s cover, “Beyond Blogs.� Writers Steve Baker and Heather Green started their reporting process online months ago by asking readers what needed updating in their still popular 2005 cover “Blogs Will Change Your Business.� As recommendations from readers came in on their Blogspotting blog, Steve and Heather annotated (with highlighted links) the online version of the original story so that users could see both what it used to say and what it now should say. The online story, with all those pop-up footnotes, became an incredible read in itself. And when Steve recently did a story on Twitter, the micro-blogging service, he began writing topic sentences for his article on Twitter and asked users to fill in the rest of the paragraphs. Now that’s audience-centric.

4. How does BusinessWeek try to differentiate content online and content in the magazine?

We simply try to take maximum advantage of the multi-media aspects of the digital world. We can’t do audio, video, or interactive journalism in the magazine. We can’t do either the depth or breadth of coverage on any topic in print because the space is extremely limited. We do far more service journalism online than in the magazine as well because there’s an evergreen quality those articles have in management, small business, and investing coverage. I also think a lot of people go online to seek an answer about a problem they have, or they go online for education. Those stories are less perishable than news stories so they have great appeal for an online site. There’s more of a long tail to them.

5. What’s the importance of the Web site to building the overall brand?

It’s extremely important. Thanks to the website more people than ever before are exposed to Business Week’s journalism. Indeed, our total audience has effectively tripled thanks to our online presence and so has our output of journalism. We’ve moved far beyond the days when the content of the magazine was the sole focus of our online efforts. Here’s a statistic that floored me: Last year, more than 95% of our traffic went to exclusive online journalism that was not published in the magazine. And those magazine numbers include all the traffic to magazine stories in our archives back to 1994.

In any given month, we’re producing online nearly four times the stories published by the magazine and that number doesn’t include podcasts, videos, or slideshows. So the website is building the overall brand in ways that could not have been imagined only a few years ago. It’s also a more global audience that is expanding by leaps and bounds. In April alone, our traffic from Europe was up 67 percent from a year earlier and in Asia, the traffic was up 78 percent.

6. How often does something run first online and then in the magazine? Is that something that would increase in frequency in the future?

Quite often. It’s a rare week when two to four stories that ran first online don’t appear later in the magazine. In some cases, these stories are first drafts of breaking news pieces with analysis. In many other cases, they are online enterprise stories that are repackaged for the magazine with a little more reporting and editing. Given the extraordinary output of journalism online, I would expect this to significantly increase in the future.

7. If a print reporter has an exclusive, do you envision a day when that story would break first on the web site?

That’s already happening—every single week. Matt Goldstein, one of our finance reporters who we recruited from TheStreet.com, has broken a string of important stories online. He and David Henry, another finance writer, got the scoop that the feds were examining insider trading at Bear Stearns. Peter Burrows in our San Mateo bureau, along with Chi-Chu Tschang in Asia broke the story on the gray market in iPhones and how one million of the devices bypass Apple’s restrictions from China to Eastern Europe and Australia.

And frankly, a lot of our exclusives are being done by our online reporting crew. It was Aaron Ricadela, who covers technology for BW.com from Silicon Valley, who broke the news that General Motors is considering skipping Microsoft’s Vista operating system, using the anecdote to tell the larger story of Microsoft’s struggle to win acceptance for its flagship product. Pallavi Gogoi, who has won several awards for her online coverage of Wal-Mart, has done superb coverage of Circuit City’s battle with its own shareholders which foreshadowed the company’s now-imminent sale to Blockbuster.

8. How could the print reporters and the online reporters collaborate more on a story?

That’s an interesting question. So far, most of the collaboration occurs around the big editorial projects. This summer, for example, we’re doing something we call Business@Work. It’s a collaboration between us and our readers. We’re using an online poll to ask readers to identify six key issues that they are dealing with in the world of work. Once we nail down those issues, we’ll ask readers to contribute essays and videos about those challenges and how they may have solved them.

The result will be a summer double issue for the magazine devoted to a lot of reader-generated stories, but also a tremendous amount of coverage online as well as on BusinessWeek TV. In this case, our online edit staff is working closely with the magazine staff to pull this off. That happens quite frequently on the big projects, but less often on individual stories. But we have made tremendous strides toward a fully integrated newsroom.

About four years ago, less than 10 percent of the published words produced by magazine writers were exclusive to online. In 2005, that number increased to a third, and in 2006, fully 52 percent of all the published words written by our magazine staff didn’t appear in the magazine but instead appeared online. I don’t have the numbers for last year but I think it’s pretty much close to 50 percent again. And that number doesn’t include blogs, podcasts, videos or slideshows. Most of our 23 blogs are written by magazine staffers. I don’t think there are many newsrooms in the world with that level of integration.

9. How do you see business journalism evolving online?

One of the most fascinating things about online journalism is how quickly it is changing. Rarely a week goes by when a key player isn’t announcing something new that changes the game. Most of the announcements of late have to do with the addition of social media software on many sites. A lot of what’s happened has been off-the-shelf bolt-ons that really don’t change the game very much and aren’t likely to create the kind of reader engagement we’re trying to make real.

As far as I’m concerned, you can’t create meaningful reader engagement by simply putting an off-the-shelf piece of technology on your site. It’s about people, not technology. So if you’re not really committed to this, it won’t happen—it’s a real mindset change that requires a lot of hand crafting. Software isn’t going to have a conversation with your readers, and software isn’t going to accept story ideas and report and write them. That’s the job of editors and writers who need to fully embrace their audience. The collaboration that results from this embrace will really change the game.

10. You mentioned earlier a YouTube for business as being in BW.com’s future. How would that work?

We’re finally getting this in gear for our Business@Work feature by creating a Business Week channel on YouTube so that our readers can upload videos on it. That should go live shortly.

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