Many print publication editors are now setting their sights on the new media promised land. BusinessWeek has been a respected print publication for a number of years. I confess that I didn't read it regularly when in print alone.
John Byrne is both executive editor of Business Week and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. I met him when he took the helm of Fast Company magazine. About one year later, John wrote a very moving eulogy for his father; that's when he hit a home run with the magazine's readers -- he made a personal connection. If we're used to personal touches with blogs today, that was still quite new three years ago. John later shared his ideas on taking that publication to the next level at the Wharton Leadership Forum.
He is now taking BusinessWeek.com to new territory. How have you made the transition to the publication's online presence as a specific destination for readers, a complement to the magazine?
John: We’ve had an online presence since 1994 and over the past 13 years we’ve built a strong and loyal following for the website. The site has allowed us to more than double the audience for Business Week analysis and insight. The key is that it has allowed what was once a weekly brand to go 24/7.
One of my constant frustrations as a newsweekly journalist was that I could only write on a weekly basis and when you report and craft a story you tend not to follow it. That’s no longer true. We put up strong pieces of analytical journalism—from thought pieces to videos—off the most important breaking business stories daily. And when we’re able to follow the key stories on a regular basis.
Do you find that your readers still subscribe to the print edition?
John: Absolutely. The magazine’s readership—at about 4.7 million--is the highest it has been in ten years. Our renewal rates are at near-record levels. Our newsstand sales are very strong. So we have seen no migration of print readers to online. Instead, the web has allowed us to introduce Business Week journalism to a far broader range of readers around the world.
Of the nearly 12 million person audience for Business Week (not including all our foreign-language editions or our weekly television program), the largest percentage—roughly 38%--get their Business Week via online alone. About 31% read us online and in print. The remaining 31% consume Business Week in its traditional magazine format.
Online gives us incredible reach: A quarter of all the users of BW.com are from outside the U.S. And not surprisingly, the online-only audience tends to be younger, more educated, and more diverse.
In other words, how different is your online edition from the magazine?
John: Of course, we put the entire contents of each week’s magazine online. But the days when the web was merely the publication of the magazine were over back in the mid-1990s. Every day, there are as many as 30 original pieces of journalism put online, from analytical stories and breaking news to columns and videos. Last year, more than half the work of our magazine journalists never appeared in the magazine. It was online exclusively.
We literally have dozens of online columnists, from executive coach Marshall Goldsmith and Harvard prof and former Medtronic CEO Bill George to Silicon Valley journalist Sarah Lacy and former New York Times columnist Bill Holstein. Every month, more than one million people download our podcasts. We have more than 2,000 videos on the site. And we have 16 ongoing blogs that specialize on everything from management to green business. You can read the Jack and Suzy Welch column in the magazine every week, but on our site you can see them discuss the subtleties of their answers and their differences of opinion on them in video every week, or listen to them via podcast.
We’re offering regular interactive case studies and mini-lectures on leadership, strategy, corporate governance in a multimedia classroom on our new managing channel.
But the coolest part of the web is how it completely changes the essential journalistic experience. Traditional journalism is a lecture. It’s a bright and thoughtful person translating the world for you, much like a teacher does in a classroom.
Online journalism is a conversation and a dialogue. Nearly 10,000 readers engage in that conversation with us online every month—with about 8,000 writing in their reactions to our stories and another couple of thousands responding with written opinions on the blog posts of our journalists. The feedback is fast and furious—which is why I so love the web. You get to see exactly what people are thinking immediately. And in certain key areas, we have a very vibrant community of users, especially in the area of graduate business school education. Indeed, we won a prestigious National Magazine Award earlier this year for that interactive community.
Everyone is after the same attention pool, which keeps shrinking. Online is fast becoming a very competitive business model -- how do you keep the value from turning into commodity?
John: That’s certainly true for everyone. But the truth is there are very few outlets for original analytical business journalism. At best, you’re looking at a handful of real competitors that include The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, especially on the web. As more newspapers reduce their staffs to deal with shrinking revenues, there is in fact less competition—not more—for the core of what we do. That said, this is a very fast-moving arena, and we need to innovate on a regular basis. We’ve done that consistently, whether in being among the first to put up blogs, podcasts, and videos or in building out the social networking pieces of the site. And we’ll continue to do that. We have some very big and important surprises to unveil in the near future, in fact.
How do you keep things relevant and sustainable at your publication? What is your definition of success?
John: By having an extremely talented and experienced staff of journalists who are very plugged into the world of business. We do great journalism that informs and inspires business professionals. We help our readers stay competitive. We help them play the game of business better and smarter. And in a world of information overload and unreliable voices, we offer readers an intelligent filter. On one level Business Week is a personal consultant to every thinking person in business: we tell you what you need to know and why it matters. That’s very valuable today. We succeed by making a meaningful difference in the professional lives of our readers.
What is your strategy for inviting blog contributors? What about freelance contributors just online?
John: All of our bloggers are on staff, all 42 of them. We do use a fair bit of freelance online. If someone has something interesting to say and can speak with credibility and authority on a subject, they can just ping me.
Do popularity and voice play a larger role in your selection than your publications' focus?
John: Popularity would certainly be less important than an original, authoritative and provocative voice. Of course, we want to write about topics and people that matter. So by necessity, we’re always exercising judgment about what to do and when to do it.
Where do you draw inspiration? Do you read other online publications? Which ones? How are you influenced by them?
John: I have to admit that I am a very competitive person. I respect and admire our competition. I learn from them. I’m more often inspired by people and things outside the competitive set. I read many online sites and I’m on a constant web crawl for new ideas. I really like the sites of The Washington Post, the redesigned Newsweek site, and Slate.
Do you feel threatened by the idea of user created media? How is what you do different from user created content? Is there still a place for traditional editors in the 21st century?
John: I love the idea of user-generated media because as I said before the web is not a lecture. What user-generated content does is allow us to capture the discussion around the journalism which created the conversation in the first place. Sometimes, there’s more value in that dialogue than there is in the original piece of information that fueled it. That’s a beautiful thing.
But make no mistake, user-generated content is not journalism. It’s not well-reported storytelling or analysis by very intelligent people who know where the value-added is because of their deep knowledge and sourcing. And that’s why there will always be a place for smart journalists and editors. There is an authority and a credibility there that user-generated content often lacks. There are values and standards behind a brand like Business Week that lends credibility to it.
Any aha moments you'd like to share?
John: For years, my colleagues on the print side always saw online as more ephemeral and somehow less satisfying. You wrote something. It goes up on the website for a day or two and then disappears. That view is changing. The aha for me is that the most permanent and influential of all journalism today is, in fact, digital. Unlike the journalism in a magazine or newspaper that gets thrown away, digital journalism is a permanent searchable record. You can access it anywhere around the globe at anytime, whether you are at home or work, in an airport lounge in Warsaw or a cafe in Bangalore. Unlike print, it doesn’t disappear with the garbage. You can’t line a bird cage with it. Instead, digital journalism lives on forever.
More people can read and be influenced by it over far longer periods of time, however perishable any given story might be. That’s very powerful and very rewarding for people who see journalism as their life’s work.
And the other aha is just how much damn fun this is. The boundaries of print are well-defined and quite limiting. Your space is finite. You put words and photos on a piece of paper. That’s not true on the web. We haven’t even begun to realize the promise of digital journalism. Multi-media storytelling, which is the unique merging of text, photos, audio, video and interactive graphics all in one, will deeply change journalism and make it more compelling and more influential than it has ever been. I just feel lucky to be in this part of the game.
Thank you, John. I really love the insight you shared with us on the potential of digital. The long tail of online content is much longer and enduring than that of print. I wonder what my readers would like to add to your comments and observations from their own experience.