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So What Do You Do, John Byrne, Editor-in-Chief, BusinessWeek.com?

He's been passionate about journalism since he got his start as a paper boy

By David Hirschman - August 20, 2008
Despite the fact that his family was solidly working-class, John Byrne says that there were always copies of BusinessWeek in the house while he was growing up, sparking a deep interest in business journalism -- and in exposing the mechanisms of corporate power. Having worked for much of his career at BusinessWeek, he also has served as editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he helped right its ship and engineer the magazine's sale to Mansueto Ventures. He also has written or co-written eight business books, including the autobiography of former GE CEO Jack Welch. Today he helms BusinessWeek's Web site, which launched the BusinessWeek Arcade in the spring, and is set to transform yet again. Here we catch up with him about his career path and BusinessWeek.com's bold new networking/aggregation product, the Business Exchange, set to debut September 3.


Name: John Byrne
Position: Editor-in-chief, BusinessWeek.com
Resume: Started out as a paper boy, and worked at newspapers all through college and grad school, including the Columbia Missourian. Worked as part of a journalism fellowship program as a Washington reporter for the Yakima Herald-Republican (Wash.) and the Corpus Christi Times (Texas). Took a job with Fairchild trade publications' internal news service in Washington, covering retail legislation, regulatory agencies, and the DOJ (among other things), and then was eventually promoted to London bureau chief. Returned a couple of years later to New York to work at Forbes as a general assignment staff writer for the next four. Moved to BusinessWeek and stayed for a 17-year stint, largely as a writer, logging 57 cover stories in that period. Left to become EIC of Fast Company for about three years and then returned to BusinessWeek in 2005 and served as executive editor before taking over the Web site last year.
Birthdate: January 17, 1953
Hometown: Paterson, New Jersey
Education: William Paterson College of New Jersey for undergrad, University of Missouri for grad school
First section of the Sunday Times: Sunday Styles
Favorite TV show: Doesn't watch TV, though the Sopranos used to be his favorite.
Guilty pleasures: Key passions include the Yankees, Frank Sinatra (and music in general) and canoeing
Last book read: The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick


What got you on the business journalism track originally?
[Starting in college] I kind of knew I wanted to get into business journalism for competitive and ambitious reasons, and for reasons that most journalists get into this field -- because they think they can reform or get things done for the better. Everyone wanted to write about politics, and because I knew that's where the crowd was, I didn't want to go where the crowd was. The second reason was that when I sat back and looked at what was really going on, I really felt that the people who have the most influence in the way we live and what we do are people in business -- not people in politics. These are the people who determine whether we have meaningful employment and how productive we are as human beings, and how well we live. I felt while I was growing up that it was a less examined part of our society.

"We try to create a relationship, not a transaction, with a reader that is all built around community."

Having been a print guy during most of your career, what was it like to take over BusinessWeek's site at such a key moment in the history of publishing?
I had been involved early on [in the development of the BusinessWeek site], and at Fast Company we had a group blog where I was among the biggest bloggers there, but still [when I was offered the job] I considered myself a print guy. But everyone I talked to about it said "This is an inflection point. This is an incredible opportunity for you. You can't turn this down." And I have been utterly transformed.

What do you see as some of the major challenges for online news brands today?
It's not, as some people say it is, "online vs. print," because the contrasts are actually more insidious and dangerous than that. The more threatening contrast is between aggregation and original content -- because aggregation is something that's cheap. You don't have to pay writers and editors to do it; you can do it automatically, and basically Yahoo, AOL and MSN [as well as Google News] have already won on aggregation. If you look at the reader research, you'll find that readers prefer getting their news and analysis from multiple sources instead of one. The average reader of BusinessWeek content gets news from 20 other brands (includes radio and TV, online and print) on a regular basis. Aggregation just plays to their needs and their wants.

The other level is search vs. community. Search is essentially a transaction: it allows someone to go directly to content which is brand-agnostic. You go and get what you want, period -- you don't care where it exists, as long as you get it. What we do is that we try to create a relationship, not a transaction, with a reader that is all built around community. So the way search has undermined our business on some level is that it's antithetical to what we are, breaking up this relationship.

How is behavioral targeting affecting brands like BusinessWeek that produce original content?
When I look ahead, I see behavioral targeting becoming much more effective and much more in use. What that essentially does is devalue your brand. Every brand in journalism is based on a simple value proposition: we create terrific content and terrific journalism that your demographic wants to read. So, as an advertiser, you come here next to our quality, premium, well-lit environment and you'll benefit. And in a world where people weren't cookie-ed to death, that worked very nicely. But now advertisers know so much information about people, so what you can do is get the same demographic at a lower CPM at a different site, because that demographic moves all over the place on the Internet -- so, rather than paying a $60 CPM on your site, let's go to Facebook and pay 50 cents for that same CPM. That erodes the value proposition that was at the heart of the economic model of journalism.

I think the only way you can fight that is to create relationships with readers that induce the kind of loyalty that matters to both the reader and the advertiser. Because if I can prove to you as an advertiser that my readers are unusually engaged in my site, you can probably then guess that they are going to be engaged in your advertising in a way that they won't be elsewhere.

Your recent column in Mediaweek seemed to tout a model that's not dissimilar to citizen journalism, with people commenting on articles and also adding their own content. This concept has been tried a bit in local and national news, but very little in business journalism so far (which requires more in terms of getting access). How do you think this can work?
I'm not a total believer in citizen journalism. But I am a believer that journalism is no longer a product -- in fact it's a process. [It's about ] involving your readers in the process, in the beginning and the middle and the end. Generally, as journalists we haven't paid very much attention to our readers over time. It's as if we write out tablets and hand them down. And sometimes we even turn away -- we get letters from people we don't answer; we don't return phone calls. Part of the excuse is that we're too busy, but that's our audience and that's who we're writing for. So what I think online enables you to do is tell your audience, 'Tell us what stories you want us to do.' They should feel involved and they should know why an idea is good or why it's bad. And that shouldn't be just a suggestion box -- it should be a conversation. It's embracing the readership and making them part of the process of journalism, as opposed to us producing the product and turning our heads away -- and through that involvement enriching the story and making it a real, live, growing thing.

"It's not just doing what the aggregators do; it's taking the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies and putting them together in a unique way to change the game."

You've talked a bit about how aggregation is hurting traditional journalism, but you're also about to launch a new networking/aggregation product. It seems strange to resent the aggregators but want to get on the boat at the same time. What's it all about and how will it work?
We have to have that weapon in our arsenal in order to compete and gain scale. But it's not just doing what [the aggregators] do; it's taking the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies and putting them together in a unique way to change the game.

What this product does is that it allows us to have tens of thousands of unique Web sites, ultimately, all under the BusinessWeek banner, on very narrow, important topics to business people.

We allow the users to create topics such as "Boeing 787," or "stock options," or "unfair dismissals," or "iPhone," or "Steve Jobs" -- the narrower, the better. And then they essentially write a Wikipedia entry and push a button, and within seconds that topic is created, meaning a Web site is created where there is a newsfeed that immediately populates with stories on the topic from everywhere. It's completely agnostic, meaning there's no preference given to BusinessWeek stories at all. It will be from newspapers in India, China, Europe, Latin America, and magazines from all over the world too.

So say you create a page -- all the stories in the world from several thousand publications will be populated. Then there's another place where all of the blog posts on that topic will be populated. Then there's another tab where reference materials like white papers, academic papers, position statements, and Wall Street reports will be populated. What happens is that the interaction between that content and the community determines and creates a front page. By the nature of the community's interaction with the content, we are creating a hierarchy of the most useful stories.

The five most active contributors in any given topic have their pictures seen along with their name, and title and their contributions. Network-wide the 10 most active contributors are acknowledged. You have the option of seeing what everyone else in the system is doing -- what they're adding and what they're sharing. And you have a profile -- one click and your LinkedIn profile is imported into our product automatically. So the social media part of this is the community interaction with the content that allows a hierarchy to be created so that it's more useful than any typical search -- and then the ability to see who is in the network and read about them...

A key piece... is the role of our edit staff and external bloggers in curating topics. We've signed up people like John Battelle and Henry Blodget... and the BusinessWeek edit team will curate more than 200 initial topics alone...

There will be a lot of other bells and whistles to the project, obviously, but that's essentially it. It's called the Business Exchange. It's big and it's different, and we think this can get us to scale in a way that we can grow.

Is part of the point of these micro-sites to drive traffic back to the main BusinessWeek site?
It'll be completely integrated in the core site, but most people are going to find it through search. [We won't favor our own content, though] because we want people to know it's all about them. We will curate a few hundred of them -- meaning every editor and writer on our staff will essentially adopt a couple or more online topics, and refresh them, dialogue with readers and interact with them, based on their experience. We think that a lot of our users will take over the rest of the topics.

If you're in mobile marketing and you work for Nokia, and you want to get to know your colleagues in Siemens and Motorola and Cisco, and you want to keep completely on top of your field, you can imagine that you'd come once a day or a couple of times a week to see what the community deems to be the most important news on that topic. The audience -- which is most keenly interested in that one topic, and is probably working in that field too -- will help guide you.

So it's kind of like a social network where each topic is kind of a profile?
I think it's sort of a stealth social network, emphasizing the contact of the people inside of it. Flickr is a stealth social network [like this], where people think they are coming to post their photos and share their photos when in fact a lot of social activity is going on around the photos. So if you go to these topic sites, you'll find all the other people interested in them -- the competitors, the suppliers, the employers, the investors and the analysts -- and we think there's value in that. But basically you go there for the content.

We actually also think it's a great reporting tool, because if you're covering a beat there's far too much content chasing far too few brains and eyeballs. This is a way to really stay on top.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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