Adam Tinworth: Journalism in a Period of Continuous Change

Adam Tinworth

Adam Tinworth

If I were asked to name one active blogger that every B2B journalist should follow, I would probably suggest Adam Tinworth. For more than eight years, the British trade press editor has blogged about journalism, social media, and much more on One Man and His Blog. His insights there are based on a combination of his ongoing and enthusiastic experimentation with new-media platforms and his practical experience as an editor and blog evangelist for the UK branch of Reed Business Information (RBI).

Though he frequently attends and covers new-media events like Le Web, which he’s liveblogging about this week, Tinworth is no armchair pundit. What makes his blog so compelling is the fact that he is, in many respects, a typical working journalist sharing his experiences in the exciting but often confusing and disruptive world of new media.

As he mentions in the following interview, conducted by e-mail over the weekend, Tinworth has a new career disruption to deal with. He learned last week that he will “most likely” be leaving RBI as part of a staff reduction. Though no doubt disconcerting, it is the kind of change that will surely lead to rewarding new experiences both for him and his readers.

What was the pivotal moment that shaped how you view the post-print era?

The single most important moment happened in late 2001, when I first encountered a site called Livejournal. I was freelancing for an American games company to top up my rather meager journalistic income from my full-time job, and some people I was collaborating with on a project invited me to join the early blog/journaling site. I remember typing my first post, pressing publish, and seeing my words right there on the web, with the ability for people to leave comments underneath. This was not only easier than our publishing CMS at work (where the same process would have taken hours, not seconds) but more functional—because there were comments, something most content management systems still lack.

It was a life transforming moment—I’d been involved with online communities for four or five years at this point, but they’d seemed “other”—completely detached from what I did in my day job. And now anyone with access to the internet had more powerful publishing tools than I had in work. This would change everything—the speed of the news cycles, the nature of our competitors, how news was delivered. It was a moment that defined the next decade of my working life.

Indeed, if I have any regret as I leave RBI, it’s that the average WordPress user still has more publishing power at their fingertips than the average journalist within one of our teams.

In the past decade, what in your mind were the most important new-media issues?

I still think that the most important issue is acknowledging and enjoying that you’re publishing into a more crowded, noisy, dynamic, and swashbuckling public sphere than ever before. We used to call it “blogging,” but it’s become a bit more complex than that now. The world has changed and  seeing people clinging defiantly to journalistic structures that were products of the print process—the inverted pyramid news story, and the 1000 word plus feature—as the only methods of journalistic expression is a melancholy call-back to King Canute.

The forms of journalism I find most exciting these days are those that are done in cooperation with their audience. Jon Ostrower mixing his own passion for the latest news in aircraft development with the knowledge, skill and research of his readers, for example. Or Tony Collins hitting the point where he had more leads from his blog readers than he had time to follow up. That’s journalism done in recognition that we no longer have exclusive access to the tools of publication. Instead, what we have is time and skills, to find out stuff that wouldn’t otherwise come to light, and to become a unique voice of investigation and research amongst the experts and enthusiasts publishing on any topic.

Pretty much everything I’ve done in the last decade has been exploring that idea in some sense or another. We’ve invented the single most efficient and accessible information distribution system mankind has ever come up with. It was bound to transform every information business—and journalism is an information business—utterly.

What do you think are the most pressing new-media issues facing journalists today?

Business models is, sadly, the obvious one. The old “journalism is a great way to sell advertising” model is in pieces online, and there still aren’t enough experiments that result in hard data about what journalism is actually good at achieving that makes money. I think RBI’s “funnel” model, which brings readers through social media, free-to-air news, registration-dependent services, and paid-for service is a good one that seems to work, but even there there’s plenty of work left to do to figure out what types of journalism (and content) most reliably support the underlying business model.

I have a habit of being disparaging about “serving some Platonic ideal of journalism.” Journalism has almost always been a commercial pursuit, and the trick has always been in balancing commercial imperative with journalistic ethics. Both sides of those equations are vital, and you need to find a way to balance them. The whole phone-hacking scandal is an example of the balance going wrong one way; every noble journalism endeavor that goes bust is the other.

The second issue is the competition for attention. I know precious few journalists still who have really got their head around this concept. They still create arbitrary lines in their heads between professional journalism and the rest of the content on the web, and don’t really think of the mass of blogs, forums, social networks, video and other forms of content as competition. But it is. And often, it’s winning the battle for attention.

The third is probably the need to accept we’re in a period of continuous change. This isn’t like the shift from hot metal to desktop publishing, where there were stable “before” and “after” states, but, instead, a world of information exchange where the rules, mechanism, and tools of publishing develop month by month. The rapid growth of mobile in the last 18 months to two years is just the latest example of that, and I think we can all name publishers who are ahead of—and others who are well behind—the curve.

In the early days of OM&HB you wrote “readership in itself is not something that I’m over concerned with. This blog is for me, not for you gentle reader.” Has that view of your blog changed? How?

Yes and no. It’s still my playground—where I experiment in public. And that experimentation and learning is more important to me than building a huge audience. But for the last five years I’ve been conscious of how important it is in communicating with my RBI colleagues, and I’ve often used it quite deliberately as a tool to stir up conversations within the business.

And also, with an eye to the future, I’ve been aware that it’s become a major source of my reputation outside the company. The sort of work I’ve done isn’t obvious to the outside world. You see the reaction, not necessarily the catalyst. And I enjoy thinking in public, and getting my peers and contemporaries to join in a conversation and refine those ideas.

Given recent events, it’s going to be one of my strongest marketing tools as I figure out what’s next for my career after my stint in RBI—and that’s a conversation I’ll probably end up having in public, too.

I wish I still used phrases like “gentle reader,” though.

Adam Tinworth is one of eight new-media thought leaders profiled in the forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. More of my interview with him will be has been published soon on the ASBPE National Blog.

There Are Two Sides to Every Editorial Wall

In an article today on MediaShift, Dorian Benkoil makes a good case for why reporters and editors should be more involved in the business side of publishing. My only complaint is with what seems to be his guiding premise: that the fault is all theirs. And not only that—their refusal to sully their hands in the business side is contributing to the decline of the entire industry:

“For too long, reporters and editors have been unaware, even hostile to the business sides of their organizations. Those attitudes have helped push the news industry into its current dire state.”

As I’ve suggested before, the purpose of the editorial wall isn’t just to keep the business side out of editorial. It’s also to keep editorial out of the business side. Benkoil seems to recognize this when he writes (emphasis mine), “Can you name another business in which the people who make the key product are allowed, even encouraged, to be ignorant of how they make money?” But for the most part, he seems to feel that editors are the chief culprits in their own shackling.

Many editors I know have at some point or another made an effort to get involved in the business side. Most of the time, they’ve been shot down, patronized, and kicked back over the wall. Can you blame them for deciding not to get involved in business?

I applaud Benkoil’s exhortation to editors to tear down the wall. But, please Dorian, can you yell at those on the other side of it too?

Paul Conley: Has the Content Marketing Dream Become a Nightmare?

Paul Conley

Paul Conley

In the trade magazine business, not generally known for early adoption of new-media developments, Paul Conley is something of an anomaly. He is, as he puts it, “hypersensitive to how new technology opens up opportunities in old worlds.” He was among the first in the trade press to recognize the significance of social media. And though he is now beginning to question its potential, he was an early advocate for content marketing as a promising new career path for journalists.

As early as 1996, not long after the birth of the World Wide Web, he founded a business-to-business internet news service. Though that effort failed, it provided the foundation for a subsequent career in new media, beginning with CNN’s web unit, CNNfn, and then key roles with Primedia, Bloomberg, and About.com. Conley is best known, however, for his subsequent work, starting in 2004, as a consultant and blogger. Throughout the last decade, his blog was required reading for anyone concerned about the future of trade publishing, and has made him, as he puts it, “weirdly famous in some cool media niches.”

In 2008, Conley’s focus began to shift from traditional trade journalism to content marketing, which at one point he described as “the most exciting part of the B2B world today.” By last year, he said, his working life was “consumed” by content marketing.

In a recent interview, however, Conley told me that he has begun to worry about the viability of content marketing. While “the biggest opportunities in B2B media are clearly in content marketing,” challenges to its potential as a new outlet for journalism are growing rapidly:

Much of my business in the past few years has involved helping non-publishers enter content marketing. And my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of these companies don’t have a culture that is open to journalism. These companies don’t have the stomach for news and the confrontations it can promote. They panic when someone complains. They’re afraid of controversy.

Journalists by the hundreds—both newcomers and legacy—are being recruited for these jobs. But once they get there, they find that their skills and their mindset are not appreciated.

Though he once hoped that content marketing “could be a new form of journalism,” and that it would both employ journalists and serve readers well, he’s less sanguine now. With a few exceptions, such as CMO.com, he says, “content marketing has turned out to be nothing more than a slightly cooler, slightly hipper form of marcomm and advertising.”

It doesn’t help, Conley adds, that traditional publishers are also entering into content marketing.

What they’re selling in the market is the ability to co-opt their journalists! Legacy publishers are telling advertisers that journalists will create content marketing for them. And the journalists who balk at this find themselves facing an enormous amount of hostility from their bosses.

This situation is rapidly turning into a nightmare in B2B. Marketers claim to be journalists. Journalists are hired as marketers. Publishers sell the use of their editorial staff to the same companies that buy advertising. Readers can’t tell if they reading editorial content or vendor content or vendor content that’s written by editors and then published by a magazine brand or editorial content written by editors but published by vendors or vendor content written by vendors but edited by editors and then published by a magazine brand as a column. There are some verticals in B2B now that are completely polluted by this crap.

Conley does not seem to have given up all hope for content marketing as a robust alternative to traditional journalism. But, he says, “finding a way to navigate this new world will be the biggest challenge for B2B journalists and readers for the foreseeable future.”


Paul Conley is one of eight new-media thought leaders profiled in the forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. More of my interview with him, in which he describes the ethical challenges facing B2B publishing, will be has been published soon on the ASBPE National Blog.

“Content Is Power”: Q & A with Mark W. Schaefer

Mark W. Schaefer

Mark W. Schaefer

A couple of years ago when I started B2B Memes it was my plan to focus exclusively on trade publishing. But as I looked around the blogosphere/Twitterverse, it didn’t take long to realize that the most enthusiastic and informed discussions about B2B communications involved not publishing, but marketing.

For me, a journalist, this came as a jolt.

In more than 20 years as a B2B editor, I worked frequently with both public relations and marketing people. Though I liked and respected most of them, the alliance was always uneasy. Our goals were fundamentally different. To put it hyperbolically, I was looking for truth, they were looking for sales.

As I familiarized myself with B2B marketing blogs, though, I realized that while these goals may never fully align, in the social-media era they are coming closer together. For me, no one better epitomizes this trend than Mark Schaefer.

The reasons why might not be immediately obvious. Though he majored in journalism in college, he has built his career around marketing, and that remains his focus. But on Twitter and his blog he ranges far more widely than what we usually think of as marketing.

Even when he wasn’t yet the expert on social media that he is now (see his excellent primer, The Tao of Twitter, for example), his dispassionate looks at new-media platorms and personalities were both entertaining and informative. He sees his subjects with a wonderfully journalistic eye.

I don’t buy everything he says—such as his position on ghost-written blogs—but I always admire the way he argues his case and the respectful and constructive way he engages those who disagree with him. Journalists and marketers alike have much to learn from him.

For that reason, I’m including a profile of him my forthcoming ebook, the New-Media Survival Guide: For Journalists and Other Print-Era Refugees.  In preparing the profile, I recently conducted the following email interview with him. I offer it here with his permission.

What’s the most important message you have for people regarding social media?

Use your head. For a company, it should not be about “the conversation” or the hype. At the end of the day, it’s about the money, about creating shareholder value, as all marketing and customer efforts should be. Don’t act on an emotion of fear of being left behind. Learn enough about this new channel to ask the hard questions and integrate with your strategy as appropriate. Of course there are many uses and strategies for the social web, but at least with the businesses I work with, that is the biggest piece of advice I can give them.

What was the key pivot point, the moment of revelation for you, in your understanding of social media?

I was trying to figure out Twitter several years ago and noticed a trending topic of “new name for swine flu.” When I clicked, I saw a stream of hilarious ideas from around the world like “hamthrax and “the aporkalypse.” It was funny, but I also realized I was witnessing a real-time, global brain-storming session. Wow. That could not have happened just a few years ago. Think of the implications!

What’s the key issue motivating you now, the thing you most want to do or change?

I am in a fortunate position where I have had a foot in both marketing worlds, traditional and digital. Through my classes (I teach at Rutgers) and speeches, I help people connect the dots and that is very rewarding.

You were a journalism major. After graduation, did you go into journalism first, or directly into marketing? Why did you end up in marketing?

Journalism is my first love but I was increasingly interested in business. So I got into PR for awhile and then migrated to sales and then marketing. Marketing is the front line of value-creation. I love that!

In the minds of most people, journalism and marketing were once diametrically opposed. Has that changed in the social media era?

That is a complicated question, and an excellent one! Ultimately, journalism is the quest for truth. Marketing is the quest for “my truth” or a product’s “truth” that will resonate with consumers. For both areas, content is power on the social web and to the extent we can create it and move it virally through a network, we will be successful. So both fields are absolutely in the content creation business these days. Although the goals are still not the same, I think they are getting closer because for a brand to have integrity and be successful, it can’t be spinning the truth around any more. There are a million watchdogs out there now and they can all expose you. The deer have guns.

I was working with some marketers for a hotel chain and we were discussing negative hotel reviews they had received on a consumer website. “We don’t mind them,” they told me. “It makes us more real.” Interesting. Truth as a marketing strategy.

What do you think of the prospects for young journalists today? Will new media lead to brighter or bleaker career options?

I often speak at universities and journalism schools and I am struck that almost everywhere, enrollment is up!

Where are these folks getting jobs? New media. The hunger for content is nearly insatiable. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but my journalism education was the best possible preparation for new-media marketing.

I’m relieved to say that my questions were intelligent enough to prompt some further thoughts from Mark. You can find them—and much else of value—on his blog, {grow}.

Collaboration vs. Control: Six New-Media Principles, No. 2

In yesterday’s post, I described new media’s foundation in conversation, the preference for dialogue over monologue. Today’s principle is closely related. Conversations are only truly conversational when they are collaborative. If anyone controls the conversation, it ceases to be one.

But for traditional journalists and marketers alike, the notion of giving up editorial control can be challenging. Many print veterans, for instance, have difficulty accepting the idea that good editorial content can be provided by readers volunteering their work. As one prominent B2B publisher put it earlier this year,  “people who write for free will give you exactly what you pay for in the long run.” (Ironically, he made this statement in a presentation he was giving for free.)

Behind this perspective is a bias to professionalism. In this view, journalism is a complex product that can only be produced by trained career journalists who are paid for their work. It’s their job to write, the readers’ to read, and the advertisers’ to pay for it all.

But in the social media era, roles and responsibilities are not so clear-cut. When journalism’s role is seen as enabling conversation in a community, the journalist’s voice is no longer privileged. Others may speak with as much or more authority and insight, and without needing payment to do so.

The print veteran’s tendency to discount contributions from users is amplified by the form of those contributions. In keeping with the nature of online media, they tend to be decidedly unprofessional: incomplete, unpolished, and personal—in other words, conversational.

To survive in the new-media era, journalists must not simply accept user-generated content, but enable it; they must aim to collaborate in the conversation, not to control it.

Tomorrow: The personal vs. the corporate.