Bloomberg Businessweek editor: Bold storytelling builds audience loyalty in era of "passive content"


Joel Weber: "The demand on us is, we have to make our content better than ever.”

By NICO GOUS


Stories are what makes us human. When journalists tell stories, they are simply following a ritual passed down through human history.


“We’ve been sitting around campfires for millennia, telling stories,” Joel Weber, Bloomberg Businessweek editor, told Tsinghua University students on Oct. 18. “Your ability to tell a story was what drew people back to the campfire every night. If you couldn’t tell a good story, there was another campfire that someone was going to find instead.”

Joel Weber: "Part of stories is how you amplify the lowest low and the highest high.”

During a workshop with students from the Global Business Journalism program, Schwarzman College and the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication, Weber said Bloomberg Businessweek is fighting for audience attention today against books, streaming, podcasts and other entertainment. His biggest challenge, he said, is drawing people away from “passive content,” where audiences simply sit back, press play and enjoy.


“Fundamentally, that is the shift that we’re facing in content,” Weber said. “And it’s a consumer preference shift. So the demand on us is, we have to make our content better than ever.”


Advertising has also transformed the business model for media publications. The World Advertising and Research Center (WARC) expects advertisers will spend $618.7 billion in 2019 worldwide. YouTube and Google, owned by Alphabet, and Facebook will take in more than one in every two dollars spent on advertising, WARC said in May. This has changed the relationship between publications and its audiences.


“In many ways, I don’t want to deal with advertisers anymore. I’d rather have a paywall and interact directly with customers who would like to read our content,” Weber said. “Once you start interacting with an audience in a way you haven’t before, it changes the game.”


A relentless diet of scandal stories tires audiences, Weber said. That is why Businessweek also covers people trying to solve problems. To do that, Weber wants all Bloomberg Businessweek stories to tick one or more of these boxes:


  • Strategy stories: How businesses are winning and losing in real time;

  • Stories connecting the dots about what is happening in the news;

  • How to get better at business, build better businesses or a better world; or

  • Surprise and delight. Or shock and awe.


Weber asked students to compare the storytelling of a classic Coke commercial from 1979 and a 7 Up commercial from 1981. The audience agreed the Coke commercial featuring football Hall of Famer “Mean Joe” Greene was more compelling than boxer Sugar Ray Leonard’s soda ad. Why? The Coke commercial told a story featuring change.


“There was a before state and an after state. Coke was the catalyst for that change … There is no change in the 7 Up commercial,” Weber said. “Stories are the emotional response to [a series of events] on a timeline … Part of stories is how you amplify the lowest low and the highest high.”


Weber has been the top editor of the venerable 90-year-old magazine for two years. He worked at ESPN and Men’s Health before joining Bloomberg in 2012. Bloomberg has owned Businessweek for 10 years.