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John A. Byrne

When it Comes to Social Networks, Don't Be Scared to Make Mistakes

John A. Byrne emedia and Technology - 03/31/2009-14:19 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: For an article in the April issue of FOLIO:, we asked John Byrne, the editor of, and Athena Von Oech, vice president of community management at Ning, for their Dos and Don’ts to driving growth of a social network. Here are Byrne’s, unedited:


1. Be open to (and act on) readers’ story ideas. At BusinessWeek, we’re trying to treat our readers as partners and not just as an audience for what we’re doing. Case in point: our What’s Your Story Idea? initiative, where we invite readers to pitch us on ideas and trends that they’re seeing in their communities and industries but not seeing reported. We assign at least one reader-suggested story idea per week to a reporter, resulting in pieces such as a look at how congressional lawmakers have fallen victim to the same devastating portfolio performance as their constituents or another piece on shareholder value. This process gives readers a stake in your journalism and brings them into the process.

2. Collaborate with readers on reporting. A number of BusinessWeek reporters, through blogging and their interactions on Twitter, Facebook, Ning and other sites, reach out to the public for feedback and ideas in the course of reporting a story. We’re also taking questions from our readers that we then pose to top execs in our "Five Questions For…" franchise. Reader questions and executives’ answers, in a video Q&A, are posted and promoted on our site and beyond. Senior Writer Steve Baker (@stevebaker) has been a pioneer among journalists, not just our journalists, in using Twitter in creative ways to inform his reporting, even going so far as tweeting his topic sentences and asking his tweeps to fill in the rest.
3. Create a dialogue with readers. Once a story is published, don’t let your reporters walk away—that’s when the conversation begins! BusinessWeek’s journalists interact with readers of their blogs and stories by participating in the conversation in the comments and being open and available for feedback on their pieces. This not only gives life to what was once a static story, but for a reporter, the two-way discussion serves as a great focus group and inspiration that will also help them stay on top of their beats and find out what readers really want to hear about.
4. Blog with heart and smarts. Don’t make your reporters maintain blogs if they don’t have time or interest to maintain them. Blogging is a conversation, not just a dumping ground for unused material for a story or a one-way broadcast. And of course, you have to have something to say and be engaged in what you hear back. We help our journalists who blog by giving them feedback on the quality of what they’re posting, and the quantity of blog posts and replies to comments. That data helps us identify which blogs may have outlived their original intent, and which bloggers may be better used in a different platform.
5. Tap into readers’ passions and communities. Last fall I challenged each of our online editors to come up with some fresh ideas that might help them better engage their respective audiences. We’re currently looking at how we can replicate the success of our business schools’ community, for example, to tap into other communities of avid enthusiasts interested in subjects such as cars, investing or cutting-edge technology.

1. Don’t assume you know more than your readers. At BW, our community includes CEOs, entrepreneurs, analysts and other thought leaders. We’d be crazy if we didn’t try to tap into their expertise in a meaningful way. That’s why we recently invited 10 of them to join us for dinner on the 50th floor of the McGraw-Hill building in New York. Our European editor even took to lunch in London the person we chose as our No. 1 reader of the year.
2. Don’t assume you can get it for free. We’re not trying to be Tom Sawyer, letting our readers do the work for us, and we’re certainly not looking for free content. We’re trying to make our process of journalism smarter, sharper, more relevant and meaningful—which will create stickiness, loyalty and mutual respect between ourselves and the broader BusinessWeek community.
3. Don’t assume your staff gets it. Change is scary, particularly change as disruptive as what the Internet has done to old models of journalism. And in times like these, where revered media brands are folding and journalists are worried about their jobs, it’s crucial that we help our staff understand not only the changes but the opportunities that fresh thinking about how and what we do can only make them better journalists—and help our readers feel a stake in our success. Part of that gets down to training and providing resources; communication and support; and encouraging our employees to expand their digital skills and their mindset about what their job entails.
4. Don’t be scared to make mistakes. The artist Mike Monteiro has a saying: “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.” Nobody’s going to fault you for trying—in fact, it’s the trying and the openness to new ideas that’s the engaging part. We’re all figuring this out together, in partnership with our employees, our readers and our advertisers and beyond. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough to do new things.
5. Don’t pretend that everything is going well. It’s inevitable that things you try don’t perform up to expectations. If you believe in community, you should hold yourself responsible to that community. Be transparent and open with your partners about what has worked and what hasn’t. When we first launched What’s Your Story Idea?, for instance, we failed to deliver as many reader-suggested articles as we had hoped. We were quick to admit our disappointment and fix it.