Is Forbes the model for a digital-first media entity?

By now, we have some pretty good examples of what a digital-native media entity looks like: it looks a lot like The Huffington Post (s aol) or BuzzFeed or Vox, with a relentless focus on the dynamics of the real-time web and the way that content lives online — and the power of the social web and what Om has called the democratization of distribution. But how do traditional media entities get from here to there? That’s a question we don’t have a lot of answers for yet. But the reinvention of Forbes magazine could hold some clues as to what that future looks like, and how “old media” outlets might be able to get there by taking advantage of those same principles.
Forbes has been busy transforming and disrupting itself since Lewis DVorkin took over as chief product officer of the magazine after it acquired his media startup True/Slant in 2010. That venture, which Forbes invested in, was an attempt to create a digital-native media player, one that took the lessons of blogging — which pioneering blogger Dave Winer has defined as the “unedited voice of person” — and applied them to business and political analysis. By acquiring the startup, Forbes essentially hired DVorkin to integrate that vision into the magazine, which he has been doing for the past two years.

Lesson one: Open up as much as possible

In an interview with Jeff Sonderman at Poynter, DVorkin doesn’t say that what Forbes is doing is the answer to the problems of the entire media industry — just that it seems to be working for the magazine, and that others have to find their own path:

The economics in journalism are broken, and there are lots of experimentations taking place. People do different things; this is our model. It’s obviously gaining traction with audience, it’s gaining traction with contributors. It’s working for us.

In a nutshell, Forbes has taken the lessons from a Huffington Post or True/Slant model — and possibly even a Demand Media (s dmnd) model — and applied them to what used to be a fairly traditional business magazine. In the same way that Huffington Post grew both its audience and its contributor base by allowing almost anyone to write a blog, often for free, Forbes has also expanded the range of contributors a hundred-fold to about 1,000. Some get nothing in return except some promotional value, while others are compensated based on the traffic their posts get (although DVorkin doesn’t say exactly what that works out to).

As Sonderman notes in his post, this approach is very much a double-edged sword, something the Huffington Post has also discovered on more than one occasion. If you have a massive contributor base that is very lightly edited — and in some cases not edited at all — you run the risk of someone writing a post that gets attention for all the wrong reasons. In one recent example, Eric Jackson wrote a post that was widely criticized for being sexist and inflammatory, and in another case a contributor wrote a post about racism that was slammed for being ignorant and tasteless.
If traffic is the most important measure of success, of course, this kind of response doesn’t look like a problem at all: if you simply want as many clicks as possible, it doesn’t really matter whether you write a post about how people hate Jews (as Business Insider recently did, to much criticism) or about some other topic, so long as it gets people riled up. But to its credit, Forbes has been trying to do something a bit different, which is to look at engagement instead of just raw traffic — so it compensates some of its writers based on the number of repeat unique visitors they get, which are arguably the closest thing to loyal readers.

Give writers tools, and make them connect with readers

Forbes has done two other things that are crucial for a successful digital-native media company, things more mainstream media outlets should consider emulating: One is to give all of its core contributors, both staff writers and outsiders, the tools to measure the effect they are having — something DVorkin has described in a number of posts. This isn’t to encourage trolling or link-baiting (although it probably does to some extent) but to connect writers to the “people formerly known as the audience,” as Jay Rosen likes to call them. It’s something Gawker Media also does, with large screens visible to everyone that track readers and engagement on stories.
The second thing that Forbes does is require its writers to engage with readers — something that many traditional media outlets are not particularly good at doing. Not only are they expected to respond in the comments, and to update their posts when there is an important response (as Jackson did) but they are also expected to highlight comments that add value to a post by promoting them to a spot in the sidebar of the page, which Forbes refers to as “called out” comments. All of these efforts are designed to increase the relationship between writers and readers, says DVorkin:

It’s about accountability. It’s your brand, it’s your page, and you need to get it right. If you don’t, you won’t be able to build an audience.

Since Forbes is a privately-held entity, it’s difficult to know how its ongoing transformation has affected the bottom line, although DVorkin has said that advertisers and marketers — who are also given their own blogs and webpages where they can engage with readers — have been responding positively to the changes. The blurring of the line between promotional content and “journalism” on the site has been a subject of concern for some, but DVorkin argues that those lines have been blurring anyway, and as long as contributors disclose their potential conflicts then readers are not any worse off.
Is Forbes a model for other traditional media players to follow? It’s certainly one of the models worth looking at. For all its flaws, it is at least trying to find a path towards digital-media success that doesn’t simply involve throwing up a paywall — and that takes advantage of the distributed and networked nature of social media and the web. Short of blowing everything up and starting from scratch, that’s probably not a bad place to be.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Hans Gerwitz