The Opportunities and Challenges of B2B: Q&A with Paul Conley

For trade press journalists, Paul Conley has long been both inspiring and controversial. Since the debut of his blog in 2004, he has been a tireless advocate for new media and the importance of digital training. Though his intolerance for journalists who resist new media alienated some editors, others have cheered his battles against unethical editorial practices by major trade publishers.

In the following interview with John Bethune, publisher of B2B Memes [], Conley recalls the mentor to whom he credits his new-media success, and describes his frustration with the ethical challenges that continue to dog trade publishing.

How did you come to develop your view of the post-print era? Was there some eye-opening or transformative experience? Or just a gradual understanding?

When I was very young man in college, I met a television executive. He was enormously successful and remarkably bright in the sort of dogged and cunning way that I admire. Here was a guy who had been a railroad hobo in his teen years, then joined the Army in WWII, and later made a fortune.

I asked him the secret of his success, and he told me. After the war he became interested in technology, reading science and mechanical magazines at the local library. But he recognized that he had no aptitude for tech. So instead he looked for new technologies that he liked and then looked for unusual ways they might change the world.

He settled on two technologies and two approaches to gaining from them.

One was television, which he thought could change journalism. So he enrolled at the University of Missouri’s journalism school, studied the craft, and became one of the first TV journalists.

The second was air conditioning, which he thought would change where people were willing to live. So he borrowed money from everyone he knew and bought cheap land in the downtown area of the tiny, too-hot-for-anyone community of Phoenix, Arizona.

Because of his influence, I’ve been sort of hypersensitive to how new technology opens up opportunities in old worlds.

So it was almost inevitable that years later, when I was working for a daily B2B newspaper that was delivered–often days late–to readers around the globe, I would see opportunity when the Internet arrived.

So I did what my old mentor would have done: I started thinking about what the Internet would do to other parts of my life. In particular, I started wondering what Internet journalism might look like. Eventually I started a little Internet news services of my own. It failed, but I parlayed that into job a few years later at CNN’s fledgling Web unit.

In the past decade, what have you felt was the most important new-media issue?

Ethics. It’s been very discouraging over the past decade to see the Web used as an excuse for unethical behavior in business journalism. Publishing-company executives have claimed that the “Web is the Wild West,” and that anything goes. Traditional journalists argued that the Web wasn’t real journalism, so what happened there didn’t matter.

What we’ve wound up with is a mess–product placement, selective facts, doublespeak and bias,  privacy violations, ads within stories, plagiarism disguised as aggregation, publishers investing in companies their staff write about, and so on.

What issues are most important now for people in media? 

Ethics and professionalism are still important to me, as I suspect they are to many of us in the business. But I recognize that it’s particularly difficult at this point in journalism’s history–particularly in B2B journalism–to preserve our integrity. Here’s an example. I did a quality audit recently for a B2B publisher.  I found that among the company’s problems were that one-quarter of their brands were engaged in unethical behavior (selling coverage, selling text within stories, etc.) and that it was having an obvious, pervasive, negative effect on the senior editors. Those editors hated their jobs. And as a result, they didn’t work particularly hard at them.

But as I talked about this issue throughout the company, I found that most members of management fell into one of two camps. There were an astonishing number of managers who had no idea what I was talking about. They had never heard of the ASBPE or American Business Media ethics guidelines. These folks tended to be newer managers. The second group of more seasoned managers understood the ethical issues—but they just didn’t care anymore.

You can read more from Paul Conley’s interview on B2B Memes, where he discusses the potential and challenges to content marketing as a career path for business journalists.

Is Your Job the Enemy of Your Career?

“ ‘I don’t know that there will be jobs. There will be careers,’ said Charles Whitaker, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, which teaches more about the business side of media than in the past. ‘We’re telling students they need to be much more entrepreneurial about their careers.’ ” — The Baltimore Sun, March 31, 2009

I was privileged to participate in an ASBPE webinar last week with editorial consultant and ASBPE Lifetime Achievement Award winner Howard Rauch. Our topic was the impact of digital media on editorial jobs and careers. I took the big-picture approach, looking at how to manage your career in the social-media era, while Howard offered a close-up, quantitative view of how digital media is adding to editorial workloads.

One thing we did not have the chance to address was the relationship between a job and a career. I suspect most editors tend to equate the two, not intellectually so much as practically. If you have a job, that is, doing it — whether badly or well — tends to constitute your entire effort to build your career. For most of us, it’s only when you don’t have a job that you start to think intensely about career-building.

When jobs weren’t so hard to find, and weren’t changing so rapidly, this blind spot wasn’t a big issue. But these days, if you don’t think explicitly and consistently about your career while still employed, you’re heading for trouble. Don’t let your job be the enemy of your career.

So if you’re currently employed, ask yourself who’s in control: you or your job? The fact is, before you can master your career, you have to master your job. To put your job in the proper perspective, and to give your career its due, I suggest the following three tactics:

Triage, baby, triage. Frankly, most of what you do in your job doesn’t matter.That may sound harsh, but for most editors, busywork is a major job component. Add to that the ill-advised projects and misguided digital initiatives that tend to increase in scope and number as advertising declines, and you may find that a majority of your time is spent on fruitless tasks.

Even in the best situations, the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, tells us that 80% of your achievement as an editor will come from 20% of your work. By prioritizing — triaging, really — you can focus your best efforts on the parts of your job that matter most. Both your employer and your career will benefit.

Nurture your inner freelancer. Chances are, at some point in the past you were a freelancer, and you found out just how hard it is to make a living that way. So when you got your job, you may well have said good riddance to your freelancing ways.

Bad move. I don’t so much mean that you should keep taking freelance assignments — although if you can, more power to you. More important is the freelancing attitude. If you think of your job as a long-haul freelance gig, you’ll have more control over both it and the direction of your career. As Seth Godin has pointed out, all of us are already self-employed. We just need to start acting like it.

Be a blockhead: write for free. It’s one thing to freelance when you’re getting paid. But why would you do it for free? In effect, you’re extending your working day by many hours for no monetary return. As Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” But sometimes, being a blockhead pays off in other ways.

Don’t get me wrong: at some point, you have to be paid in cold, hard cash for your writing and editing work. But there are other reasons than money to write, such as building your reputation, developing new contacts, and sharpening your skills. Your job often provides too small a canvas to allow you to show what you can do and to make the most of your talents and interests. So offer to write a guest post on one of your favorite blogs (such as the ASBPE National Blog, of course), or create and write for your own blog — or better yet, both. Who knows? At some point your unpaid sideline may turn into a whole new career.

As professor Whitaker suggests, the day may come when there are no more jobs, only careers. If you have a job now, great. But your job is fickle. Don’t let it distract you from developing something you can count on: your career.

By John Bethune

John Bethune is an editorial consultant and the publisher of the B2B Memes website, which focuses on how new and social media are transforming the B2B publishing business. Previously he was vice president for content at Canon Communications, where he oversaw both print and online publications. John’s ASBPE involvement includes ethics committee membership and Azbee Awards judging. You can reach him at john [dot] bethune [at] or follow him on Twitter at @johnbethune.