Journalism on the web requires a new way of thinking. As editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com, John A. Byrne is responsible for guiding the BusinessWeek brand on the web.
In this exclusive interview Byrne, who was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company and is the author of eight books, talks at length about BusinessWeek’s strategy for engaging readers and managing BusinessWeek’s web brand.
What is BusinessWeek’s approach to the web?
We have one overriding goal: to have the deepest and most meaningful engagement with our audience than any other business site in the world. It’s an incredibly ambitious objective because we have set the bar high for our definition of engagement. Most other online properties define engagement as a metric. For them, it’s simply time spent on the site or pages viewed per monthly unique. We see engagement as core to what we do and how we do it.
It’s partly our willingness and our desire to collaborate with our audience, and it’s partly our ability to encourage that collaboration so you’re getting far more than world class business journalism when you come to BusinessWeek.com.
Let me give some context here. Journalism, by and large, has been a product produced by writers and editors and delivered to an audience. That was fine when there was no technology to allow journalists to engage in an ongoing dialogue with readers and to allow for true collaboration between the writers and the readers.
What journalism needs to become is this digital age is a process that embraces and involves your audience at every level, from idea generation to reporting and sourcing and finally to the publication of the article when the journalism then becomes an intellectual camp fire around which you gather an audience to have a thoughtful conversation about the story’s topic.
If done well, that conversation, orchestrated by the writer or editor of the article, has as much or more value to a reader as the journalism itself.
Why is this important? Because it’s the best way to differentiate your journalism in an increasingly commoditzed world and it’s also a way to induce loyalty and participation in a highly competitive web environment. The web is becoming a place of transactions that erodes relationship building. Engagement cements this very crucial relationship with your audience.
If an audience is involved with your content, it will also be engaged with the advertising on the site. That’s a far more valuable audience to an advertiser than the ephemeral surfer who drifts across the web in search of a specific story or piece of information and has no real relationship with your brand.
So what has BusinessWeek done to make engagement real?
Let’s go back to changing journalism from a product to a process that fosters relationships. On the front end, we have a blog called “What’s Your Story Idea?” that solicits story suggestions from readers. We assign our professional journalists at least one or two reader ideas per week to execute.
And when we do, we give full credit to the reader for the idea. We feature a photo and a mini-bio of the reader who suggested the story in the first place. Also, every week at BusinessWeek, we have several CEOs and government officials who pass through our New York headquarters.
So also at the front end we tell our audience who is about to visit and ask them to submit questions for us to ask. We pick the five best queries from readers and then videotape the subject answering those reader questions. We call this feature “Five Questions For” or “5Q4” for short.
In the middle of the process of this new journalism, we’re telling our audience what stories we’re working on and asking their advice on how to report these pieces. We’re tapping the collective wisdom of a very smart crowd to improve the quality of our journalism. We don’t do this with every story, of course. But I think that as much as 80 percent of what journalists do can be open sourced and should be for the purposes of engagement and collaboration.
We use our 28 blogs and more than 60 Twitter accounts to achieve this dialogue with our readers. My two favorite examples involve senior writer Steve Baker. He wrote one of the very first articles in the mainstream media on Twitter. But rather than writing that story and delivering it as a finished product to our readers, he engaged the audience in a novel and creative process. He tweeted the topic sentences of his story and asked his followers to tweet back the sentences they thought would logically follow his.
Steve used his blog to report on the back-and-forth of this process to make it accessible to a broader audience who could participate via Twitter or Blogspotting, Steve’s blog on our site.
The result of all this was a much better story on Twitter based on engaging his audience in the reporting of the story. The most successful story on our site in recent years was Steve and Heather Green’s cover article “How Social Media Will Change Your Business.”
Even though it was published in February of 2008, it remains one of the three or five most read
every month. Why? Because Steve and Heather asked for and got heavy audience collaboration on the story.
First off, they used their blog to tell readers they were updating an earlier cover story on blogs and business. They asked readers to tell us how social media had altered what they had written a few years earlier on blogs. We then republished the story with hyperlinks that included those user ideas. Ultimately, all those exchanges with readers informed the reporting and the writing of the new cover. It also seeded a far larger audience for that story than would have been possible.
And then there is the end process where we’re trying to encourage users to offer their experiences and opinions on our stories. We highlight several readers and their insights on our homepage every day. We collect all of those perspectives with reader photos in an area called “In Your Face.” Last year, we awarded the top 100 reader contributors with t-shirts that read “I Got In Your Face at BusinessWeek.com.
We treated our top ten online readers to a dinner with the editors here. Our European channel editor took our reader of the year out to lunch in London because he couldn’t make the event in New York. On a weekly basis, we invite our readers to be guest columnists in a feature we call “MyTake.” And another initiative dubbed “Dialogue With Readers” on our homepage highlights writer and editor responses to reader comments.
That involvement by a journalist is important to shape the conversation about that intellectual camp fire. It keeps the conversation at a higher level and it demonstrates our commitment to engagement. On especially hot topics where lots of readers are weighing in on a subject, we’ll do slideshows featuring pictures of readers and their differing perspectives.
All of these efforts are guided by our community editor Shirley Brady who I hired little more than a year ago. She’s done a terrific job in harnessing community on the site. There’s more, much more, but I hope this gives you some sense of the picture we’re creating on our core site.
Then we have the Business Exchange, which is our one-year-old Web 2.0 platform for community engagement. This is where users create their own business topics, write abstracts for them, and then we crawl the web for every piece of news, analysis and blog posts on the topic. A community of people form around the topic and its interaction with the content prioritizes the content into a front page of the most active stories and blog posts.
We now have some 1,600 topics ranging from social networking to commercial space travel. It’s users, not editors, who create the topics to follow, and it’s the community that gathers around a topic that determines the prominence of specific stories and blog posts in that topic.
No preference is given to BusinessWeek journalism. Instead, you get the best worldwide coverage of a topic from sources as diverse as the Times of India, The Guardian of London, The New York Times, Wired, The Economist, Silicon Alley Insider, and TechCrunch. You can follow the activity of other members in each topic community, seeing what stories individual users have read, saved, added or commented on. There’s nothing like it in or outside our category on the web.
You’re very active on Twitter. Often your updates involve what the decision-making process is in the newsroom for what will appear on the web site. Why did you decide to make that part of your web/Twitter strategy for BusinessWeek?
Again, my use of Twitter is to more deeply engage our audience. It’s essential that you not stay in one place and wait for your audience to come to you. Instead, on the web you have to go where the audience is. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are three places we use to help transform journalism from a product to a process and make that engagement a central part of the experience.
With Twitter, I’m trying to bring the newsroom outside and invite the outside into our editorial operations. That’s why I’ll tell readers what important stories we’re chasing down, what the lead story the following morning will be, and I’ll invite people in to participate in some key editorial decisions. Sometimes, when I come out of our afternoon news meeting, we’ll be undecided about which story to lead with the next day. I’ll often ask on Twitter which one it should be.
Before I go into our podcast studio to record my weekly podcast on the magazine’s cover story, I usually ask people for song suggestions to open and close the podcast. It’s a fun part of what I do and people seem to get a kick out of it. I get dozens and dozens of ideas for the ideal song every week. Just as important, I want our brand to be personal, not some static and sterile logo, so I share bits and pieces of myself with followers who can gain a sense of who I am and what I bring to the party.
We now have more than 60 BusinessWeek writers and editors on Twitter, and many of them use the micro-blogging service to ask readers their advice when they report their stories. Our Washington bureau chief actually covered President Obama’s inauguration via Twitter. All of this activity is in the service of our engagement strategy.
Do you measure BW.com’s success: in ad dollars, eyeballs, or what? What are your key metrics and how are they tracked?
I’m focused on a number of metrics. Monthly uniques, page views, and advertising revenue are all on my radar screen. But I’m most keenly interested in our very own reader engagement index because it holds us accountable to our goal of having the business site with the deepest and most meaningful engagement.
Here’s how it works: Every month, we measure our output to the world in stories and blog posts against the world’s input to us in comments, perspectives and insights from readers. When we started this initiative about 18 months ago, we received about 16 or 17 contributions from users for every story or blog post we published. We’ve just about doubled that and are now up to 34 or so. I’d like us to get to 100 to one which is doable with a few design and technology changes.