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The changing truths of journalism

SHOWCASE | December 21, 2008

In more than 30 articles, the Winter 2008 edition of Nieman Reports takes penetrating looks at various aspects of digital journalism and its emerging prominence. In this essay, John A. Byrne, executive editor of Business Week, describes what he calls "the changing truths" of journalism. (This is one of several articles posted here in advance of the publication of Nieman Reports.)

By John A. Byrne

I learned about the death of the American newspaper early in my life. I was all of 16, a gawky office boy at The Morning Call in Paterson, New Jersey, when I was caught inside the obituary of an institution: The daily that I had carried on my back as a newspaper boy, the paper where my ambition to be a journalist was born, was being closed. I remember that day in December 1969 as if it were yesterday. Teary-eyed, I walked through the sea of wooden desks and metal filing cabinets and into the chilly night. It was an awakening to see the reporters openly crying and consoling each other.

Newspapers die hard—and the obituaries over the next few years are likely to make us think of massive casualties in a war. Strip out the classified business, and you’ll find that magazines face many of the same problems as newspapers: ever rising paper (and for us even worse postage) costs, the swift migration of advertising from print to Web, the inability of online revenues to offset the decline of print ads, and often declining readership. Yet as bad as the newspaper business has fared to date, some observers say magazines are even further behind the transition.

A recent study by the Bivings Group shockingly discovered that a survey of 50 top magazines were behind newspapers in deploying Web 2.0 technology.1 Whether it’s blogs, video, RSS feeds, or reader comments on stories, magazines trail newspapers in their adoption. “Newspapers fared better than magazines in nearly every category in 2007,” according to the study by Bivings, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.. “In general, we have found that magazines are slower at adopting Web 2.0 trends than newspapers.”

As the editor in chief of BusinessWeek’s online operations and the now much older kid who walked through a newspaper closing, I’m both perplexed and shocked by the magazine industry’s laggard status. We have every advantage in largely serving existing communities of readers in specific niches, from cooking and wine to sports and entertainment. Of course, I’m fortunate to work at a place that gets it—with 28 staff-written blogs, nearly 5,000 videos, plenty of RSS feeds, and a lively comment section where tens of thousands of readers weigh in with their views every month. It’s why our site now boasts double the readership of our weekly magazine: more than 10 million unique visitors monthly vs. a 4.7 million audience in print.

When we talk about other new ways to compete, most magazines don’t seem to know where to start. Aggregation? Forget it. Few editors want to link to other stories that send people away from their own sites. Curation? Writers don’t “curate” journalism or discussions. They report and file stories and move on. Verticals? Editors want content that appeals to the broadest swath of people and gets massive traffic. User generated content? Most editors still turn up their collective noses at stuff created by their audience. Computer algorithms that replace news judgment for the prominence you give a story? You’ve got to be kidding. And Twitter? What’s that?

As BusinessWeek has morphed from a brand that produces a weekly magazine to one that is pretty much a 24/7 multiplatform organization, the truths of our business have changed as well. Here’s what they are:

•   Context is as important today as content. It may, in fact, be the new king on the throne. That’s because the world is evolving into niche communities, organized around individual interests and passions. Keeping your audience deeply engaged in the journalism you do is necessary to induce loyalty to your brand.

•   We live in a world in which there are far too many stories chasing far too few eyeballs. What readers need in this environment is often help in organizing, sorting and sifting through all the articles.

•   Consumers prefer multiple sources of news and consult 16 to 18 media brands a week. That’s according to a McKinsey & Company study.

•   Creating more journalism isn’t necessarily the way you win online. It’s costly, and the gains in audience from putting up more stories are by and large incremental.

•   The smart and elegant organization of content through links and editorial curation has as much, if not more, value than simply publishing more of your own articles on the Web.

Responding to What We Know

How to best take advantage of these trends? In early September, we launched one of the most ambitious efforts ever to both stretch the BusinessWeek brand and to reinvent ourselves. We call it the Business Exchange. It allows our readers to create and organize around their own topics of interest, from active investors to youth advertising. The moment a topic is created by any user at bx.businessweek.com, a Web page pops up with links to stories and blog posts on that subject from all over the Web. No preference is given to BusinessWeek editorials. A story by one of our journalists is treated no differently than one from Forbes, Fortune, or The Economist or, for that matter, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post. A blog post by a BusinessWeek blogger, moreover, gets the same treatment as one from Henry Blodget at Silicon Alley Insider or John Battelle at Federated Media.

The “front page” or “cover” of each of these topic sites is not determined by an editor but by the community of readers. Whenever a user adds, reads, saves, shares or comments on a story or blog post, that activity is noted by a software algorithm that then places the content on what is essentially the front page. That way, only stories and blogs deemed the most active or useful are shown to the reader, who benefits from the wisdom of the crowd.

All the members of each topic community are recognized—by photo, profile and their contributions to the network. Indeed, if you admire a member of your community, you can peer over his shoulder to see what stories he is reading, saving, adding or commenting on—if he chooses to keep that activity public.

Our reporters and editors do not report, write and edit for the Exchange. But they do help to curate the content, adding relevant stories, blog posts, white papers, academic reports, and other reference materials to each topic. If you cover the stock market and an important story breaks on the New York Stock Exchange, you’re expected to immediately search the Web for the best coverage and add it to our topic on Wall Street. A journalist might pose a question or make a comment to help fuel a conversation on the latest news and analysis rather than pick up the phone and start calling his or her sources.

Of course, this is no replacement for original explanatory journalism that remains at the core of what we do at BusinessWeek. It follows the dictum by Jeff Jarvis, the CUNY journalism professor and blogger, who advises media to “Do what you do best. Link to the rest.” In a world where time-constrained professionals are trying to keep up with an overabundance of information in their specific fields, the Exchange serves a highly valuable purpose. No less important, it connects like-minded people from every corner of the world in an online community that enriches the journalism at the center.

In this way, content becomes a roaring campfire that gathers around it a thoughtful and engaged group of people. It’s still at the center of the party, sparking compelling insights, opinions and storytelling that make journalism more memorable and meaningful than ever. But the conversation has become as important as the journalism. In other words, the context of journalism has become as important as the content. That’s because the Web is not merely a new distribution platform for information. It entirely changed the game. In this new game, journalism ceases to be a product, like a table that is handed down to an audience. Instead, journalism becomes a process that fully engages its readers—in the beginning, by asking them for story ideas; in the middle, by asking for the community’s help in reporting a story and, in the end, when the published story sparks the larger conversation among readers and journalists who greatly expand on the story.

It’s ceding a level of control and much more influence to your audience and benefiting from giving up total control. The outcome, I believe, is deeper and more meaningful engagement with your readers who also become sources who can enrich and improve journalism. This engagement, in turn, leads to new ideas, such as the Business Exchange, where a news organization lets the community tell us what topics it wants us to gather content and expertise around.

Little more than six weeks after our pubic launch, the Exchange already had a broad and fascinating array of more than 600 topics and thousands of registered users. The imagination shown by our users in creating unusual topics exceeds our wildest expectations. There’s “Conscious Capitalism,” “Bailout,” “Recession Job Search,” “Genetic Testing,” and “Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance.”

In the 18 months during which we were developing and building the Exchange, we called it “the microvertical.” And that’s exactly what it has turned out to be—a series of microcommunities around very vertical topics. Consider the number and variety of “green” topics: “Green Building,” “Green Cars,” “Green Computing,” “Green Investing,” “Green Technology,” and “Green Travel.” And then there’s “Renewable Energy,” “Solar Energy,” “Wind Energy,” “Hybrid Cars,” and “Biofuels.”

Running Into the Future

Recently I experienced a flashback to that day when I walked out of the Morning Call newsroom nearly 40 years ago. I was in a classroom with some of the smartest people in digital media at the New Business Models for News Summit at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. It was yet another conference dealing with the analog-to-digital transition of journalism, and our group was devoted to the scary subject of “newsroom efficiencies.” Our case study? The Philadelphia Enquirer (a make-believe newspaper) had just folded, and we were charged with coming up with a replacement product. The group solution: Do away with print altogether and create an online site with 35 editorial employees to replace a daily newspaper with an edit staff of 200. All of the 20 “content creators” on our staff would have to take photographs, shoot, edit and produce video, do audio overdubs and on-camera video stand-ups, as well as report and write. Based on traffic and revenue projections, the group figured it could afford an editorial budget of $2.1 million. That translated into an average salary of just $60,000 a year for a “content creator,” and at least one person in the room argued that salary was too much.

This new Enquirer replacement, incidentally, would heavily rely on citizen journalism and pay-per-click freelancers. There would be no global or national news, sports or entertainment, but rather a linking strategy to third-party content to cover those important subjects. The “content creators” would focus largely on local politics, education, sports and human-interest stories.

The Philadelphia solution is an outcome I never want to see—not anywhere. A strong and vibrant fourth estate is not only essential to a fully functioning democracy but to the efficiency of a society. But the only way we can change that outcome is to embrace and champion change and innovation in our profession. We need to recognize that this is one of the most creative of times in journalism and, along with that wave of change, one of the most terrifying transitions for many media brands. This period has the opportunity to be our Renaissance. We need to reinvent and transform journalism—and the business model that supports it—to secure a successful future.

For a traditional media company, the Exchange is a revolutionary departure, one of many we and other magazines need to make to succeed in a new and different world. I know one thing: I never again want to be a part of another media obituary.

John A. Byrne is the executive editor of BusinessWeek and editor in chief of BusinessWeek.com.

Editor and publisher, Combined Cycle Journal
Posted by Bob Schwieger
01/02/2009, 11:00 AM

Business Week has been twisted up in its shorts for years, controlled by company executives who know virtually nothing about media.
The real problems began, I believe, when BW morphed into a magazine of meaningless executive profiles--e.g., "How John Smith turned around Acme Towel." All nonsense. But it did get lots of advertising from those who were profiled wanting to parlay their exposure into higher stock prices and perhaps sale of their respective companies to get the windfall gain. The M-H executive corps thought they were geniuses.
Real business journalism would have been on top of the disaster that struck in 2008 years earlier. But research was put on hold and other cost-cutting measures were adopted. "Editorial is an expense and the budget should be XX% of revenues and that's it."
If you focus on what's important to run a successful media organization--researchers/writers/editors and a FEW motivated salespersons (not a bunch of whiners who always need something else (higher circulation, etc) to sell a page of space--you eliminate half the staff and have plenty of money to dig into and write about what's important. And that gets readership.
Then you move the entire operation from the monument on Sixth Avenue capable of choking off any original thinking to more modest quarters befitting an editorial operation.
Next, look at all the people who are paid from the BW trough who are not in editorial or sales and start by eliminating the non-essential. That "staff" component could be cut in half overnight and probably in half again a year later.
To sum up, editorial products die when owners (management) lose their way.

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