Forbes' D'Vorkin: 'We're building a sustainable model for ad-supported journalism'
Forbes has hit plenty of digital milestones in the two years since Lewis D’Vorkin came on board as chief product officer, most recently passing 33 million unique monthly visitors. D’Vorkin has pioneered what he calls the “Forbes model for journalism in the digital age,” a model that involves building a publishing platform that supports multiple perspectives, from staff writers to external contributors and the community itself, across desktop, mobile, social – and, yes, print – platforms.
“We believe we are building a sustainable model for ad-supported journalism,” D’Vorkin said in a recent phone interview. Last week, I wrote about Forbes’ AdVoice program; here are excerpts from the rest of the interview.
On my recent characterization of Forbes as a content farm:
“We’re all about topic experts who are building their own individual brands around their expertise, their name and their knowledge. Within their expertise, they write what they want, when they want, and how they want. They are not assigned stories. We often make suggestions, but 90% of what they do is bringing their knowledge and expertise to a topic when they choose to do so.
“We vet these contributors very carefully – very much like [when] we hire a reporter. We check out their credentials, their work, we talk to people who know them. You can’t just be a Forbes contributor because you want to be. You have to be selected.
“Periodically, we’ll cull the 5% of contributors who [are underperforming] for one reason or another – quality, performance, frequency, consistency. We’ll end our relationship with them as contractually we are able to do.
“All of that is vastly different from what I understand a content farm to be, which is very SEO-driven, assignment-driven, post-driven, vs. building an audience around your brand.”
On whether Forbes is making a trade-off between quantity and quality:
“We are building new kinds of management, monitoring, processing and oversight systems that involve people and technology to help improve our quality. Our goal is to get better. Our goal is to produce quality content and the type of quantity and variety that is very attractive to a very voracious news consumer across the web.
“Just like we sometimes make mistakes when we hire reporters, we’ve made mistakes with contributors. We’ve had moments of stories from both staffers and contributors online that have not been the highest quality, but we learn from that.
“Traditional media has been doing what it’s done for 100 years. We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for two years. We’re very cognizant that we have to learn new ways.”
On the support mechanisms for contributors:
“How we work is very simple. We have product managers, editors and channel managers. For example, we have a San Francisco bureau chief and a channel manager who together run the technology vertical. They are directly responsible for every staff reporter and contributor. When a contributor comes aboard, they have to vet them.
“They have a producer as backup, who aids contributors with tools and training. We have webinars on headline writing, on libel and legal issues, on using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit. We go through these processes to train contributors and our staff, too.
“We have an audience development team that analyzes contributors’ traffic sources, their posts, and directs them to an ecosystem across the web that might be compatible to what their topic is. Every contributor has a personal dashboard that updates every 15 minutes. It tells them how many UVs and repeat visitors they have, and where the audience is coming from.
“There are different layers of management we’ve put into place to help them do their jobs, as well as all the SEO and SMO we’ve put in place.
“A contributor has one goal: to have his or her voice heard. They do not want to worry about technology and tools. We’ve built all this to aid them in getting great content out in a timely fashion.”
On where the Forbes brand fits into this “brandividual” model:
“We want to put our authoritative journalism at the center of a social media experience. If we have authoritative contributors, and they’re attracting news enthusiasts to the Forbes brand, where we have a forum for one-on-one exchange or a dialogue between a contributor and a staff reporter or an audience member and a staff writer, that’s all great for the Forbes brand. We’re extending our brand to a whole world out there that finds interest in any particular contributor or staff writer with an expertise.”
On whether Forbes is a digital-first publisher:
“No. The front door to our brand is the cover of the magazine. The cover of our magazine brings such authority every two weeks, and that transfers in many ways to the website. And the authority the website is bringing is now playing back to the magazine. They’re very much in sync, although they’re different.
“The magazine is a very lean-back experience. The web is fast and furious. It’s more about timely information. Those two things are playing very well together.”
On the sustainability of both print and online models:
“Our digital revenues in the first seven months are up 28%, and our magazine revenues are up 7% in that same timeframe. Both are doing well.”
[Note: D’Vorkin would not specify the split between online and print advertising revenues, but said “one doesn’t overwhelm the other in any fashion.”]
“Let’s be clear: Digital is a growth business. That is where the audience is going. No one in the world views the magazine business as the growth business it was 20 years ago. Our goal is to maintain a good, sustainable, profitable business knowing that digital is where all the growth is going to be. That’s no secret [for any publisher].
“We believe we are building a sustainable model for ad-supported journalism.”
On Forbes’ mobile strategy:
“Mobile is what I fixate on. Twenty-five percent of our audience comes from mobile, which has risen dramatically over the last 10 months from about 10%. There’s no question that our mobile traffic will continue to rise.
“We have a nice HTML site. We are currently working on a new photo gallery solution that will be optimized for mobile. We are working on new screens that will bring one more click, which is very important in mobile. We’re working with sales on new monetization opportunities.
“We built a great desktop experience, we’ve built a great Phase One mobile experience, and we now know we need to build Phase Two and Phase Three. We’re really focused on that.
“[We also want to] make it easier for people to publish on a smartphone. We have tools but they’re not perfect by any stretch.
“Mobile will change the game. Talk about sustainable journalism: The economics of journalism in print don’t work in a desktop environment, and they are even more difficult in mobile. We have built a sustainable model that will work across all of these platforms.”