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.

A Boring But Mandatory Redesign Announcement

In my years as a magazine editor, one of the most irksome tasks was writing an editorial announcing a redesign of the publication. Sadly, there’s nothing fresh or original about saying your redesign is fresh and original. Would you deliberately aim for a dated and derivative look? Read one such announcement — “reader-friendly, modern, airy, blah blah blah” — and you’ve read them all.

The previous design of

The old look

So, you might ask, why am I writing this? Mostly because my few but faithful readers may be curious as to why I redesigned the blog. So for the rest of you, my apologies as I leap into a boring but mandatory explanation of this redesign.

Before yesterday, this blog used the Atahualpa WordPress theme. Though its default design is overly busy for my taste, its many options allow CSS wizards to  transform it dramatically.  Unfortunately, my CSS skills are limited, and after months of tweaking and prodding, I failed to come up with a satisfactory look.

When I saw the new default WordPress Twenty Eleven theme, released earlier this month, I was smitten. Its ample white space and emphasis on readability were just what I was looking for. But it was the default theme, for God’s sake. I couldn’t use that! But after a few days of trying to imitate it with Atahualpa, I put aside my blog snobbery and chose Twenty Eleven.

Modifications were still necessary, of course. If anything, the theme is almost too clean. In particular, the default version doesn’t allow for sidebars on individual posts. Though it’s a nice look that favors ease of reading, it doesn’t provide enough context for people who land directly on a post without going through the front page—as most readers do. This and the fact that I wanted to adjust the size of the header image have led me to use a child theme, the safest way to modify default themes. In my case, I started with Chris Aprea’s mod that simply adds the sidebar to posts. I then made my changes to the header image dimensions in the child theme.

For the rest of my customizations, I relied on plug-ins:

  • Blog Copyright by BTE to add a copyright statement to the footer. (I may yet switch to a creative commons license, but the traditional publisher in me still resists.)
  • The Really Simple Twitter Feed Widget to show my recent tweets in the sidebar. I like the minimalist look of this widget much better than the gaudy excess of the official Twitter widget used in the previous design.
  • The Subscribe/Connect/Follow widget to add links for RSS, e-mail subscriptions, and my various social-media identities.
  • Sharedaddy to allow readers to share B2B Memes stories more easily. (Really, I should have added this feature long ago.)
  • The Yet Another Related Posts plugin, to suggest stories similar to the current one. Again, this feature was overdue.

One more change I may yet tackle is converting my commenting system to Disqus. But for the moment, I’m going to let this redesign sink in.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably interested in this sort of thing. Why not share your reactions, positive or negative, in the comments? I’d love to know what you think.