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The Web Will Kill and Save Journalism

NEW YORK -- Experts at the Mediabistro Circus yesterday predicted that the business of publishing will change fundamentally and showed how it's already changed a great deal.

Times have been tough since at least 2000 for traditional publications as readers moved to the Web, according to John Byrne, executive editor of BusinessWeek.com, and now is no time to stand on industry tradition.

"We are in world of hurt," he said. "But as bad as the past few years have been, the next few will be more gruesome."

"Media properties are in a death spiral," he added.

The decline is visible. He said that empires fall in five stages:

Stage one is hubris born of success, which leads directly to stage two, the undisciplined pursuit of more.

"Media companies made acquisitions and started new things whether they made sense or not. One case in point might be the acquisition of the Boston Globe by The New York Times," he said.

Foolish growth leads to denial that there's a problem. "People who speak truth to power are put down as not being a team player or not being an optimist."

Once reality sets in, companies enter the "grasping for salvation" stage. "Media isn't in a recession; it's in an advanced stage of depression," he said.

He added that a general decline in readership has been aggravated recently by the collapse in advertising, creating depression-like conditions within media while the rest of the economy merely goes through a recession.

The final stage is the stage that GM has just reached, characterized by "capitulation to irrelevancy or death."

What to do

Companies must change and Byrne was in a position to offer advice. The online version of BusinessWeek is doing well. "Companies need a deep and intimate engagement with their readership. Many companies preach this but in fact there is little actual engagement."

He added that Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) makes this vital as all searches ignore site brands. He added that over half of BusinessWeek.com's traffic comes from Google.

He said that advertisers don't need media properties. "We've all been so thoroughly cookied to death -- why would anyone go to BusinessWeek.com at a $40 CPM if they can get the same audience on Facebook at a $0.10 CPM? Many won't want to do what I suggested," he warned.

The challenge for BusinessWeek.com's is to enable its editorial staff of 220 to compete with The Wall Street Journal's staff of 2,800 across several brands. "They cover everything that moves. We play the engagement game," he said.

"Digital technology allows us to collaborate with our audience at every step from idea to story to aftermath," he said.

Aftermath? Journalism doesn't have an aftermath. "Stories are like a campfire around which we gather people for a conversation," Byrne said.

Be careful about how you measure engagement, he added. Measuring engagement by time spent on the site prejudices the number in favor of video and also those stories whose readers have walked away from their computer.

He said that he tracks the volume of text published in response to a story and is aiming for a 100:1 ratio but that the current rate of over 30:1 is nevertheless impressive.

"If you cannot prove to advertisers that users are meaningfully engaged on the site, you won't be able to sell at a good CPM," he warned.

(Next page: Building the campfire