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.

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