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.

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.

What Next? Chop Wood and Carry Water

The Candidate: What do we do now?

Yup, just like me.

After taking a day off from blogging yesterday—which seemed wrong, so very wrong—I felt the need to make a statement of some kind about my blogging plans. I just wasn’t sure what they were.

The feeling reminds me of one of my favorite movie moments, from the end of The Candidate. Having won election to the U. S. Senate, against all odds and only by contravening his most deeply held principles, Robert Redford looks at his campaign advisor in bewilderment and asks, “What do we do now?”

Less dramatically, and, I hope, in an ethically unblemished context, I found myself yesterday asking a similar question: What next?

In an idle moment, I considered several possible new objectives:

  1. Try to work a reference to fellow 1970’s-movies-alluder Rex Hammock into every post I write, thereby ensuring it gets at least one reader beyond my family members—assuming he meant what he said.
  2. Impress everyone with my keen insights into the state of new media today by secretly rewriting old blog posts by Paul Conley, substituting trendy terms for outdated ones, such as Twitter for AIM and Tumblr for MySpace. (But then I realized that I sort of already do that.)
  3. See if I can once again piss off Brian Clark with a mild, well-intentioned criticism of his excellent blog.

But while mulling over these tempting possibilities, I remembered something I was taught long ago by an English instructor at USC, Ken Hasegawa. To explain in whatever we were reading the surprisingly unexciting effects of a momentous epiphany on a character, he told us a Zen story: A student asks his master, “Before enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. What do I do after?” The master replies, “Chop wood and carry water.”

Although I haven’t achieved enlightenment by simply writing blog posts for 30 consecutive days, I think the advice applies. I’ll keep doing what I’ve done all along on this blog: covering with an analytical eye the intersection of new media with B2B publishing and communications.

The only difference, I hope, is that I’ll be chopping a lot more wood and carrying the water a lot farther.

30 Lessons from 30 Blog Posts in 30 Days

Twenty-nine days ago, I set out to write a post a day for this blog. Somehow, despite a couple of late nights, I managed to achieve my goal. Though no one’s going to hand me a blogger’s version of their badge, I feel something akin to the mixture of pride and relief all those successful NaNoWriMo writers must be experiencing today.

Sophie

My less-than-helpful blogging companion

In writing 30 posts, I more than doubled my previous most productive month, way back in October 2009, and far exceeded my usual average. Though I didn’t manage to limit myself to a half-hour of writing time per post, I’m certain I was more efficient than in the past, when I could linger over a single paragraph for several hours.

Moreover, I discovered that my writing was none the worse for the time limits and daily quota I imposed on myself. What I feared might turn out to be a month of sub-par blog posts ended up at least as good as my average work, and possibly better.

But aside from hitting an arbitrary target, have I really achieved anything?  Can I, or you, for that matter, learn anything from the experience?

I think so. In fact, if I set my mind to it, I can come up with 30 things I’ve learned from my month of daily blogging. It makes, admittedly, for a rather longish, slightly punch-drunk, tl;dr kind of list. But if I’ve gained nothing else from the experience, dear reader, I now have a new appreciation for the value of perseverance. Make it through the following list and you might feel it too.

  1. More content means more blog traffic. Yes, I know it’s obvious. But seeing is believing. November, not yet concluded, has already witnessed more visitors and page views than any previous month. I may have almost as many regular readers now as Rex Hammock.
  2. However, content without marketing is like a cart without a horse. No matter how good it is, content can’t go anywhere by itself. It needs to be marketed. When I tweeted about my content, it clearly got more page views than when I didn’t.
  3. There’s nothing like help from people in high places. By far the most visitors I got on any day this month was when The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal retweeted one of my posts.
  4. Writing every day makes you a better writer. To quote Jeff Goins quoting Frank Viola quoting T.S. Eliot, “Writing everyday is a way of keeping the engine running, and then something good may come out of it.” Whatever you may think of my writing here today, I can assure you that it’s improved from a month ago.
  5. Writing short is hard. If you’re Seth Godin, you can blow a reader’s mind with a three-sentence post. However, all but one of us aren’t Seth Godin, and it usually takes many more sentences to make our points convincingly. Aim for brevity; be satisfied with clarity.
  6. Scheduling a time to write is a good idea that rarely works in practice. I tried to follow Paul Conley’s advice, but reality kept intervening.
  7. Set strict rules for your writing. I couldn’t have written a post a day without the rules I set at the beginning. Arbitrary restrictions and goals spur creativity. That’s why good sonnets are easier to write than good free verse.
  8. Break your rules as often as necessary. To be honest, my rules were more honored in the breach than the observance. If I had followed them religiously, I would not have met my goal.
  9. Good comments beget good posts. The best comment I had this month essentially accused me—in a nice way—of idiocy. It led me to reconsider my ideas in another post that, if it didn’t rectify my errors, put nice polish on them.
  10. Write about other bloggers. Not only does it give you something to talk about, but it’s what the social web is all about. Share the links!
  11. Do Q & A interviews. Even better than writing about other bloggers is asking them to speak in their own words, as I did with Mark Schaefer.
  12. Encourage contributors. It would have broken my rules, but if you want to fill your blog with good content every day, well-chosen guest bloggers can be a big help.
  13. Get used to repeating yourself. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Most of us are driven by a few idées fixes. Repetition is a way of developing those ideas.
  14. Now and then, try something completely different. Such as saying the opposite of what you just suggested.
  15. Accept your imperfections. Perfection is something you work towards. Though you may never get there, the only way you can get closer is through your mistakes.
  16. Make bold statements. Your readers, too, will accept your imperfections. It’s all right if you don’t completely understand or believe what you’re saying. It’s a blog. You’re testing out an idea, not writing legislation.
  17. Don’t wait until after supper to start writing a post. Especially if you had a bit too much wine.
  18. On the other hand, consider writing your post the night before. No morning is so glorious to wake up to as the one when you’ve already written your post for the day.
  19. Keep your pets well fed. One of my cats prefers to eat small amounts of expensive canned food every half-hour or so. I can’t leave her food out, though, because my other cat will eat any amount of any food at any time. So my picky cat likes to remind me to feed her by standing on her hind legs and tapping me gently on the arm with her paw. Inevitably, she does so just as I am about to break through my hours-long writer’s block.
  20. Use an editorial calendar, but don’t make it a fetish. It can help to know days in advance what you’ll write about, but sometimes when you start on it, you realize it’s a terrible, boring subject. Always be prepared to change your topic at the last moment.
  21. Go on a Twitter diet. I don’t mean stay away from Twitter altogether. It can be a great source of inspiration. But it can also be an enormous time-suck. Limit your Twitter time strictly when you’re on deadline.
  22. Get personal. That’s the point of blogging, isn’t it? But if you’re the self-effacing type—shucks, no one cares about me—you have to keep reminding yourself of this obvious truism.
  23. Repurpose content with great care. If you think it’s easier than writing original blog content, you’re doing something wrong. Your blog is a different context and audience than whatever you originally wrote for. If you don’t adapt your content accordingly, it will fall flat.
  24. Don’t let the mechanics of blogging waylay you. Need to finish your post? Then this is not the time to worry about SEO, to rethink your site taxonomy, or to install that plug-in you’ve been researching for the past month.
  25. Artwork is nice but not essential. Yes, adding an eye-catching drawing or photograph probably does increase the page views your post gets. But don’t make yourself crazy trying to come up with something. Ultimately, the writing must stand on its own.  And if you can’t think of anything else, you can always use a photo of your cat.
  26. Split your posts up. If you tend to write long, consider whether you might better serve time-challenged readers by spreading it out in smaller chunks over two or three days.
  27. At a loss for words? Take a walk. If it worked for Dickens, why not you?
  28. When all else fails, quote somebody inspiring. Thank you, Mr. Perelman.
  29. Always Be Composing. If you’re serious about your writing, you should be thinking about it all the time. In everything you do throughout the day, you should be wondering, “Say, could I write about this?”
  30. If you’re going to write a numbers post, stick to single digits. Five lessons would have been so much easier.

-30-

“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}.