Transforming Journalism into an “Intellectual Campfire”: My Interview with BusinessWeek’s John Byrne



I’ve been following BusinessWeek’s John Byrne since I first got hooked on BW and the Cover Stories podcast in college. John continues to teach me something fresh about the digital space everyday as he updates his Twitter feed and Facebook status with information on what’s happening in editorial meetings, uses his What’s Your Story Idea? blog to inspire or round out BusinessWeek stories with the perspective of average readers and finds time to share his playlist of classics and podcast intro tunes on Blip.FM (where his DJ name is JohnnyB by the way).

He was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his life and work in digital and I thought I would share them here. He discusses everything from shifting journalism and BusinessWeek from “a product writers hand over to readers” to an “intellectual campfire,” what it would have been like if he had grown up with social media, the liberating nature of a 140 character limit and some of his favorite sites on the Web. Enjoy and drop a comment with your thoughts.

AM: Describe yourself for readers (in 140 characters or less, of course):

John: I’m curious about the world and people in it, passionate about work, music, food & life, fascinated by the power of great ideas.

AM: When you wake up in the morning, what are the first three tabs you open on the Web?

John: because I need to insure the site looks good and smart.
The New York Times to get my fix of the general news and their take on business.
TweetDeck to see what my friends, colleagues, and other people involved in new and old media are doing.

AM: How do you stay current? What sites, papers, magazines, blogs and podcasts are you pretty loyal to?

John: I have to read the competition daily to stay on top of what’s important in the world of business. I used to do that by reading in print The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Economist, Fortune, and Forbes.

More often than not, I’ll now visit their Web sites and surf through lots of other sources. Truth is, I find the collaborative filtering of media via Twitter a new way to sort through things. It was through Twitter that I found the superb article on in The New Republic and James Warren on the current struggles of old media in The Atlantic. And it’s also how I have discovered my favorite blogs like Jeff Jarvis’ BuzzMachine.

AM: How do you think your life and work would be different if you’d started out as a digital kid and grown up with Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogging, etc. as kids are today?

John: It’s true that I’m a digital immigrant and not a digital native. But I feel entirely comfortable in the digital space. I podcast. I blog. I tweet and I Blip. I’m on Facebook and LinkedIn. I spend a lot of time on the Web.

Yet I fell in love with journalism at the age of 15 when I worked as an office boy for The Morning Call in Paterson, N.J. One of my jobs was to send back copies of the newspaper to readers who often wanted an issue for a wedding announcement or an obituary. I’d sit in the morgue on a stack of dusty newspapers and read the yellow, brittle pages of past issues bound in large black volumes: Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic, Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the election of John F. Kennedy. From this small room, I discovered and traveled the world and its history. I fell in love with journalism and that affair never ended.

What I love most about the Web is that it provides access to the world’s information in seconds from anywhere. You don’t have to sit in a newspaper morgue or a library to get information you need or want. And despite the disruptive nature of the technology to print, it is the most creative space ever devised for journalism. And it has allowed BusinessWeek to have an audience of readers that is three times larger than it otherwise would be if we were only a magazine.

AM: What’s the best thing about NOT having grown up online?

John: I don’t take digital for granted. I grew up in front of a black and white television, watching Abbott and Costello, Walter Cronkite, and Soupy Sales. So I still have this gee whiz fascination about how technology can transform what we do and, more importantly how we can creatively use it to transform our worlds.

AM: How do you interact with your own kids on social networks? Are they super connected in the same places you are? Do they accept your Facebook friend requests or put you on limited profile?

John: I actually think, or like to think, I’m more hip to social media than they are. My son follows my tweets. My two daughters don’t. I haven’t friended them on Facebook because I want to respect their privacy. So we don’t really use social media to keep in touch. It’s more email and telephone.

One thing they all do that drives me crazy is text messaging. I can never figure that out.

AM: How do you interact with your employees, contributors and readers online?

John: Through my blog, What’s Your Story Idea?, and through Twitter. Increasingly, we’re using Twitter rather than email to communicate with each other. It’s simply easier to use, and the character limit is pleasantly liberating. That sounds like a contradiction so let we explain. Brevity allows you to communicate more in less time. That’s one of the reasons I really enjoy Twitter.

AM: What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen a brand or organization do online recently?

John: The New York Times consistently surprises me with new innovative digital ideas. Check out these roll-over pictures here.

And I think it was a brilliant for Slate and Flickr to partner up to take pictures of the recession. Wish I thought of that idea.

AM: One of the coolest things I saw on the Web this year was how BW began sourcing ideas, quotes and new perspectives for stories directly from real readers on the Web. Actually, you started this a few years back with the Blogs Will Change Your Business Issue. How has the process of opening the magazine up in that way affected sales, the editorial process and BW in general?

John: It’s affected everything we do. Our sales reps are in the marketplace talking about user engagement and why it’s so crucial to make meaningful connections with users. If they’re deeply engaged with your journalism, odds are they will be deeply engaged with the advertising, too. We’re still learning how to do this and how it can be used to not only build community but also vastly improve the great business journalism we do.

We’re doing nothing less than transforming what journalism is–attempting to change our craft from a product writers hand over to readers to a process that involves and engages users at every stage, from story idea generation and reporting to thinking of the story as an intellectual campfire around which you gather people and where the journalism comes alive through conversation.

I recently visited the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London and met with its community editor. She uses a wonderful metaphor to describe this post-publication role of the journalist. The writer is essentially a parent, she says, giving birth to a story that is a child. You wouldn’t abandon your child after birth, and journalists shouldn’t abandon their stories and the readers who consume them. Journalists have to get actively involved in the discussions their stories create. And like caring for children, they need to nurture and cultivate those conversations with readers.

Most of all, it’s just fun. This week before going into the studio to record my weekly podcast on our magazine’s cover story, I asked all my Tweeps to suggest songs that captured the turmoil in the stock market. One of the trademarks of my podcast is the song choice. Within an hour, I had about 50 great suggestions from Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” to AC\DC’s “Highway to Hell.” I picked the Bruce song, in part, because three followers recommended it and because I think it was just perfect for our cover on how bad the market crash has been these past 17 months.

AM: What’s next for you and BW online? Any cool new features, podcasts, etc we should be looking forward to?

John: I think Twitter is going to become even more critical to our engagement efforts. Already, we have more than 40 writers and editors on Twitter. We’re using it for everything from crowdsourcing key editorial projects and stories to reaching out for advice from users.

We’ve also integrated Twitter into our site for a collaborative project with users on Obama’s economic stimulus measures. It was a very effective way to quickly gather smart stimulus ideas from people for Obama. Twitter itself is a powerful medium for collaboration and communication.

Only two weeks ago, an article on social media became the most-read story of the day due to Twitter. About 30 percent of the traffic to that one article came from Twitter, with just 8 percent from Google.

AM: Leave us with some cool links to check out (top five random picks):

John: FiveThirtyEight for political polls. at NPR for a highly creative series on the lives of ordinary people.
Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist for her witty prose and sensible advice.
Nieman Journalism Lab for intelligent analysis on the crisis in journalism.
Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic blog because he’s so damn smart and entertaining.

-Amanda Mooney


5 Responses to “Transforming Journalism into an “Intellectual Campfire”: My Interview with BusinessWeek’s John Byrne”

  1. John Byrne put my blog in his list of five blogs?? I’m so excited! I have emailed this link to my mom. Finally, she will think my blog matters :)


  2. Ololo! I like what is written here!!

  3. Vеll, not perfесt post, but I liked it аnd thаt is the mаin thing. ;)
    I am Voli Dublino

  4. 4 RaiulBaztepo

    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo

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