The next big thing in journalism

At BusinessWeek, we're engaging our readers in new ways. Here's what we've learned.

Print media are reeling. The pace of financial losses and massive layoffs is accelerating. Panic is setting in.

It's easy to blame the Web for this bleak picture. But the same disruptive technology that has caused such dismay in print is also ushering in the most creative period in the history of journalism.

If this were the Renaissance, the Web would be Florence, a place of amazing experimentation where all the old mediums – in this case, print, radio, and television – suddenly converge in one dynamic and democratic place. Yet, the multimedia dimensions of digital journalism are only part of the story. The most powerful attribute of this new journalism is how it directly engages our readers as active participants at every stage of content creation.

For the past year, this has become the passion and focus of BusinessWeek, where I serve as executive editor: It's to reinvent journalism as a process that involves the reader in the front end, to advocate story ideas; in the middle, to inform the reporting of a story; and in the end, to expand on the conversation a story creates. That latter conversation is not a letter-to-the-editor monologue, but rather a dialogue between the professional writers and the audience.

In the early 1960s, Tom Wolfe and other talented writers created the New Journalism. It cleverly deployed the techniques of great fiction to news and feature writing. Today's direct engagement with readers is the antithesis of Mr. Wolfe's self-centered narrative inventions. Call it the "New" New Journalism.

It fully embraces its readers, treats their opinions and beliefs with respect and dignity, and leverages the intelligence of the crowd to create a more valuable outcome for all. It recognizes that content is no longer king; Context is. In a world of commoditization, where too much news and opinion already chases too few eyeballs, this new loyalty-inducing journalism builds community and relationships.

But it's no cakewalk. For the past nine months, we've been aggressively promoting the smartest observations by readers on our stories, encouraging them to send us their story ideas, asking – through blogs – for their participation in stories in progress, inviting them to write guest columns, and urging our journalists to engage in direct conversations with users. In short, we're turning our readers into citizen editors.

All of these efforts culminated in a user-generated issue of BusinessWeek, "Trouble at the Office," which recently hit newsstands, as well as a major new online feature called the "Business Exchange" that debuts Monday. Business Exchange will allow users to create their own topics of interest; write headlines and blurbs to self-selected news and analysis from all over the Web; and, through their actions, decide which stories get placed on a "front page."

What have we learned? The "New" New Journalism takes work, a lot more work than traditional writing and editing.

"Trouble at the Office," for example, involved interactions with well over 10,000 readers. So it required twice the editorial workload of a conventional effort. Soliciting participation was hard; vetting and structuring it was even harder. And the usual give-and-take between a writer and an editor gets lengthened when working with amateurs.

Even though we spent four months on this user-generated issue, it was tough to get the flow going. Readers are busy people doing other things – that is, things other than reporting, thinking deeply about a narrow subject, and writing cogently about it. We should have started earlier and seeded discussions with our own provocative essays, podcasts, and videos to give people an idea of what we were looking for.

And there are limitations. In general, a reader's ability to offer a smart, impassioned response to a problem, especially about something as personal as their job and career, rarely translates into an ability to write a long-form piece. Remember: they're not pros. We had too many editors wanting to rewrite the voice out of the contributions. It's more important to preserve the readers' voice and the passion.

Participatory journalism also works best for subjects on which readers have authority. That is why the workplace was a fertile area of experimentation. Asking our readers to write on how to fix the subprime mess might not add much.

That said, I've been utterly transformed by embracing an intelligent and thoughtful audience. We've learned that they are passionate, willing to share valuable thoughts and insights, generous with their effort and time. What's more, engaging users in the reinvention of our craft has led to the discovery that our readers are exactly like us: They share a common goal to improve life, not merely bringing issues and situations to light, but sharing and working toward common solutions. That is the true essence of community.

John A. Byrne is executive editor at BusinessWeek.

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