Interview: BusinessWeek's John Byrne on the Present & Future of Journalism


Social Nerdia - John A. ByrneJohn A. Byrne is the executive editor and editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.com. Byrne previously launched the magazine’s ground-breaking rankings of business schools, best and worst corporate boards, and most generous philanthropists. He is also the author of eight books, including The New York Times best-seller "Jack: Straight from the Gut", with former General Electric Chief Executive Jack Welch.

John was extremely gracious to provide us with his thoughts, which he wrote mid-flight from his BlackBerry. His insights about social media, online collaboration, business writing, and the future of journalism will certainly encourage and inspire you.


Please subscribe to the "Cover Stories" podcast and send John a message on Twitter. You can also join Business Exchange and add us to your network while you're at it.

1. The BusinessExchange has grown to be a major part of BusinessWeek.com. What has been the secret to its success?

The Exchange is unique. No one does what we're doing in our business category or outside it. I think that's one major reason for its success to date. The other is that it meets the information needs of a business professional who wants to stay on top of his or her industry, company or discipline. Today the amount of news and information available on the Web is overwhelming. The Exchange allows you to quickly and easily get your arms around the most useful information you need, whether it's on your company, your competitors, or aspect of your job. If you're in human resources, for example, it will bring to you the latest news, feature stories and blog posts on stock option programs, human resource best practices, or the administration of benefits. And it will do this through intelligent human filtering so that a community of smart people in the topic will help us determine what the most valuable information is. That saves you time and gets you to the most important content you need to know to be the smartest person in the room.
2. You’re one of the big contributors on BusinessExchange. How important do you think it is for business executives to connect, share, and collaborate with others online?

The social media piece of the Exchange allows you to become "known" in a micro-community of people keenly interested in and knowledgeable about a specific topic. Think of it this way: Years ago, if you were a smart, ambitious professional you distinguished yourself by having something worthwhile to say about your business or profession. You sought opportunities to be a panelist at an industry or professional trade association. You tried to give a speech at the local Chamber of Commerce. You wrote a bylined article for a trade journal. Today, your active participation in social media can convey similar status and prestige. It can lift you out from being among tens of thousands in a field to being among a few. You can establish yourself as a leading thinker and practitioner by becoming a leader of a subject and helping shape the content and discussion of that topic. And in the process of doing that, you'll meet others and network those relationships into a more promising professional future.

3. You’re a Twitter user and I’ve noticed that you often ask your followers for input. Do you enjoy tweeting or is it more of a means to an end?

I greatly enjoy Twitter. It's a technology that permits more immediate and spontaneous communication with people. And for us, it's a great way to collaborate with others and gain deeper and more meaningful engagement with readers on everything we do. There's nothing that is more important to a media brand today than engagement. We're all trying to achieve relationships with our users to induce loyalty, to increase repeat visits, and to encourage valuable editorial contributions from readers. Twitter is an essential tool to make that happen. What's more, Twitter can easily be integrated into your work day. It doesn't take much more than 30 seconds to knock out a tweet. So it's not a time suck. That's why we now have more than 50 editors and writers on Twitter seeking story ideas, sourcing suggestions, and advice on all kinds of editorial decisions from what our lead online story should be to what music to play on our podcasts.

Lately, some news organizations have banned or heavily restricted the use of Twitter by reporters. That is a big mistake. Besides the advantage to engagement, Twitter is another tool to make newsgathering more effective. Journalists are smart enough to know what to say and what not to say. I trust our people to use good judgment on this and I haven’t been disappointed.

4. Articles/posts on BusinessWeek.com allow readers to share via email, digg, and LinkedIn, but not Twitter. This is also the case on other major news web sites. Do you think Twitter is not yet taken as seriously as other “tools”?

socialnerdia - businessexchangeActually, we're the first major media brand to fully integrate Twitter into a core product--the Business Exchange. We even reinvented our reader comment tool in the Business Exchange to allow every comment to be simultaneously posted to a person's Twitter stream as well as on our site. So If you have a perspective on a story you've read in the Business Exchange, you can provide it and your comment automatically becomes a tweet. If you add a story to a topic and want everyone to know why you're recommending that article, your reason will appear both on the story link in the BX as well as your Twitter stream. That's not all. In every topic we have -- and there are now nearly 1,500 topics ranging from commercial space travel to Starbucks and YouTube -- we are monitoring Twitter for every tweet pertaining to our topics. Those tweets immediately show up in each BX topic so that a user can see in real time what people are thinking and saying on that very subject. I like to think of this as part of our inside-out approach to covering a subject. We're bringing inside everything we can about a given topic--every news and feature story, every blog post, some reference materials and even tweets. And we're sending out insights and perspectives on that content via Twitter. It's very cool and exciting.

5. How do you prepare for the BusinessWeek “Cover Stories” podcast and how does recording it compare to authoring a story?

I love doing the weekly cover podcast. It's one of the highlights of my work week. First off, it's an opportunity to showcase our very best work and one or more of the incredibly talented journalists we have on staff. Secondly, it's a chance to give the audience a lot more insight into how and why journalists do what they do. So we often discuss where ideas come from, how stories are sourced, what editors cut and left on the floor. The goal of every cover podcast--and we've had more than ten million downloads of these--is to create a lively and compelling conversation. I want it to be informal and candid, a conversation you would want to hear if a couple of people were having a great discussion at a bar and you happened to be sitting nearby and it caught your ear. To prep for these podcasts, I'll read the story and often competing pieces from other publications. The writer often suggests some questions for me to ask, but I like to throw curve balls so I often do things that surprise the writer I interview. I'll do other independent research--my own reporting--to sometimes make it more interesting.

whatafriendsworth_cover_businessweekLast week, for instance, senior writer Steve Baker wrote our cover on what a social media friend might be worth. So I used a website that purported to put a value on your Twitter profile and compared my value to Steve's and other high profile Twitterati. It helped make for a very lively conversation. Music informs every aspect of my life and that's true of every podcast I do. I became a journalist because I wanted to be a rock critic and started as one for my college weekly. I never lost my love for music so that's an important part of our weekly podcast. And lately, I've been enlisting my Twitter followers for best song suggestions. I often get dozens of superb ideas and almost always use one now suggested by a Twitter follower. It's been a lot of fun for everyone. There isn't much in common between reporting and writing a story and producing this podcast. The real work of a serious journalist is difficult. It's having an original idea or point of view, reporting the heck out of it and then using your critical thinking skills to reach a valid conclusion about the information you've gathered. Then, it comes down to crafting a well-written story that is a compelling read. The podcast takes allows me to take advantage of all that hard work done by somebody else.

6. You helped Jack Welch write “Jack: Straight from the Gut”. What was it like to work with one of the most respected businessmen of all time?

socialnerdia-jackJack and I spent more than 1,000 hours together working on that book. I like to think of the experience as my PhD in business. I learned an incredible amount from Jack. It was torture at times because Jack is extremely demanding and yet it was also one of the most enjoyable and exhilarating projects I ever worked on. A collaboration like that really gives you an appreciation for how much you don't know when you report and write as a journalist. You're often scratching on the outside for every piece of information you can get your hands on. What you write then is merely your perception of reality. But it's not reality at all. Being on the inside of a place as complicated as GE and at the side of its legendary chairman and CEO showed me first hand how difficult it is to get close to the truth of what is really occurring. It's pretty easy as a journalist with limited access to misinterpret the information you gather and to make some embarrassing conclusions as a result.

7. Do you read in your spare time and if so, what are you reading right now?

Social Nerdia - Jim CollinsI'm constantly reading for fun and for the job. The last two books recently read by me were Jim Collins' newest title, "How the Mighty Fall," which we excerpted as a BusinessWeek cover, and "Dean and Me: A Love Story" by Jerry Lewis. I've been an admirer of Jim's ever since the publication of "Built to Last" and it has always been a goal of mine to work with him on something important. "How the Mighty Fall" is Jim's first new book in eight years. It's a timely work examining the decline of once successful institutions. I felt flattered that Jim wanted to work with me to help get it launched. Jim and I collaborated closely together on the excerpt, the cover podcast, a live interview event before nearly 300 people, and a private dinner with 50 guests at which there was another Q&A. We had a spectacular time together and gave Jim's new and important work a very good sendoff. The Jerry Lewis book was read just for its entertainment value because I'm a long-time fan of Jerry's and of Dean Martin. But the book was also insightful for Jerry's perspective on what made Martin and Lewis amazing creative collaborators. In their day, they created magic on stage--and then sadly they were no more. I devoured the book. I'm now reading the single-volume biography of Winston Churchill by Martin Gilbert. Jim Collins and I are big Churchill fans. How could you not be? But Jim's inspirational mention of Churchill put me in the mood to read yet another biography of the man.

socialnerdia_newspaperkindles8. Do you think eBook readers like Amazon’s Kindle will be able to change our reading habits, and transform the book/magazine/newspaper industries?

I think Kindle is already changing the habits of book readers. I'm far less optimistic that it's in any way a solution to the publishing industry's current struggle. Remember: what newspapers and magazines are going through right now is a business model problem, not a readership problem. At BusinessWeek, for example, our journalism has never been read by greater numbers of people in the world. We now have 4.7 million readers of our global print edition and 11 million monthly readers online. That's three times as many readers as we had before the Internet. Renewal rates remain very high, and our online audience continues to grow month after month. Advertising, which provides the financial underpinning for the great journalism we do, is declining in print and also migrating online. So far, online advertising has not been able to offset the decline in print. That's the problem we all face. Kindle isn't a solution for that dilemma.

9. Technology has allowed anyone to communicate with the whole world. What effect has citizen journalism had on major publications and the mainstream media?

Citizen journalism has awakened many of us in the profession to new ways of thinking and doing. By and large, journalism has been a product handed down by reporters to unknown readers. What journalism must become is a process that engages those readers at every level from idea generation to source development. The story that gets produced from those collaborative efforts isn't an end product. It's the start of a rich and deep conversation between the readers and the journalist. The new end product of this more transparent and more collaborative effort is journalism that is vastly improved because it should get you closer to that elusive reality I spoke about earlier. So citizen journalism, I think, can help change professional journalism for the better. It is not a viable replacement for professional journalism. What experienced reporters and writers do every day cannot be done by citizen journalists or bloggers.

10.  What advice would you give to journalism and business students graduating in the current economic climate?

This is a tough job market for any college graduate, let alone journalism or business majors. But when there is radical upheaval and change, there is great opportunity If you want a typical mainstream career in journalism right now, you're going to have to fight for it. But if you're open to how the world has changed and how digital media has allowed unprecedented opportunity for new born-to-the-web enterprises, you can now start, run and own a journalistic enterprise. That was never possible before without large amounts of capital. It's a different mindset for sure, but I envy the young people who are graduating now. Some of them will be creating the new Huffington Post or Slate or TechCrunch. Whatever your dream, don't settle. You may need to postpone it. You may need to do something you couldn't imagine yourself doing. But if you keep your eye on the prize you want and work hard enough to get it, you will achieve your dream. You have to want it badly enough. You've got to believe.

Copyright © Esteban Contreras. All rights reserved.