Interview: John Byrne

John Byrne has a long history in business journalism, including a turn as editor-in-chief at Fast Company, and, previously, 18 years as a writer with BusinessWeek. He spoke recently with PRWeek about the pace of the office due to the Wall Street crisis, BusinessWeek.com's online initiatives, and how he measures the success of the site.

John Byrne has a long history in business journalism, including a turn as editor-in-chief at Fast Company, and, previously, 18 years as a writer with BusinessWeek. He spoke recently with PRWeek about the pace of the office due to the Wall Street crisis, BusinessWeek.com's online initiatives, and how he measures the success of the site.

PRWeek: What has your job been like for the past month or so given all the turmoil on Wall Street?

John Byrne: It's been frantic. The news has been coming fast and furious and the need to get speedy analysis on all the developments on both the economy and the collapse of the financial markets has made everyone extremely busy, working really long hours. But it's been an exciting time to be in the news business. What every journalist yearns for is when the news is really important and it is being read by a lot of people. All of these developments in the world of business are creating record traffic for us as well. In September, we broke the 10 million-plus unique visitors number for the first time, 10.1 million. The reach of the Web site is now more than twice as large as the magazine's audience. We had one of our highest number of page views ever recorded for that month as well.

PRWeek: Since you work on both the Web site and the magazine, can you talk about how important the Web site is, particularly in this situation?

Byrne: Here we are in a world where you can get access to news and even analysis instantly. The whole concept of the weekly magazine is completely different. In the magazine, we're doing total original content, less related in many ways to news than had been the province of a newsweekly in the past. Online gives us the opportunity to compete almost like a newswire, or a broadcast, or a daily newspaper.

It's cool because it makes us totally and completely in the game. Where if you only had a weekly magazine, you're kind of on the sidelines; you're waiting to do the deeper, more analytical pieces. Now, they're done within hours online everywhere.

Another thing that online affords [us] is the ability to do video, audio, photography, to do more interactive features with your user, and also to create far deeper and more meaningful reader engagement, which has been the strategy for our online operation. Our goal is to have the business and financial Web site with the deepest and most meaningful engagement with its readers.

PRWeek: On your “What's your story idea?” blog, you give your readers the opportunity to suggest stories, and you act on them. Can you talk about where that idea came from and how successful it has been?

Byrne: This is one of several initiatives to encourage and create more reader engagement with the site.

The first we did was “In your face.” Three times a day, we feature a reader…on our homepage and a smart comment that they left on the site in relation to a story. After it stays on the homepage for part of the day, it moves inside on one of our channel homepages. At the end of the year, the 100 people who've made the smartest and most thoughtful comments that have been singled out will get t-shirts, [and] 12 will be invited into New York to dinner with me and my senior team.

Second step we made, on our homepage we have a section called “Dialogue with Readers” in which every day we're encouraging our writers and editors to get in the fray. [For] the discussions of the hottest on the Web among our readers, we have our writers and editors getting involved in those discussions [and] we highlight four of them a day.

The third initiative was the one you referred to –“What's your story idea” – which is a blog that I do myself in which we're asking our readers for story ideas and then picking one a week out to execute. When we run the story, we also run the picture of the reader with a bio, giving the reader complete credit for suggesting the idea.

The fourth thing we started doing was a guest columnist by a reader called “My Take” and it's a reader's take on a given issue. But we don't allow people to solicit us. We actually pick readers to do this on the basis on how smart and well-written their comments are on stories left on the site.

And then a fifth initiative is on stories that really attract a vibrant discussion, we're creating slide shows of readers 20 or 25 at a time and the comments that they're making.

Our summer double issue was our first user-generated issue ever. We asked readers what they wanted us to focus on. We chose six core topics after getting help from nearly 4,000 people and over the next four months we engaged readers in these topics online. In the magazine, we had 40 different readers with contributions, thousands online, and then we [had] ongoing discussions online.

Another thing we [launched] on September 8 was a product called “The Business Exchange” and this is a total reader engagement community product. [It allows] our users to create their own topics of interest. And then our search engines will crawl the Web for every news story, feature story, reference material, or blog post and put it into a separate Web site. The community's interaction with that content creates its own kind of front page. Also the members of any given community, their interaction is all visible. It's agnostic to brand, so any publication in the world will be in there, there's no preference given for BusinessWeek editorial at all.

PRWeek: How do you gauge the success of all of these reader engagement endeavors?

Byrne: Every month we're hitting new records on the number of people who are engaging with our journalism and contributing to it by leaving comments on the site. Last month alone the traffic to our reader comment pages has more than tripled from the year earlier.

Not only in traffic terms, it's inducing more loyalty to site. And it's creating a site that's much more of a destination and that is really the goal. The goal is to create a greater sense of community among BusinessWeek readers and users.

PRWeek: Is there some way in which PR folks should be engaging with you as well?

Byrne: The best way is to look at the site and notice that we basically have a beat structure that falls into channels – so there's a top news channel, a technology channel, [etc.]. Each of these channels essentially has an editor. That's the easiest point of contact to pitch a story.

Name: John Byrne
Title: Editor-in-chief, BusinessWeek.com; executive editor, BusinessWeek

Outlets: BusinessWeek.com and BusinessWeek

Preferred contact method: John_Byrne@businessweek.com

Web sites: www.Businessweek.com

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