Forbes' well-manicured content farm

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Can a premium publisher be a content farm? The evolving Forbes publishing model would indicate that the answer is yes. The more important question is, can it succeed as one?

Forbes has famously (among media watchers at least) and dramatically transitioned its online business model over the past two-plus years, or since the publisher acquired True/Slant and made Lewis Dvorkin its chief product officer.

The metamorphosis has been chronicled in great detail by Dvorkin himself, who not only is pioneering what he sees as a new digital publishing model, but is also creating an entirely new lexicon for journalism, with terms such as “branded content creators”  and “content engine” and “transactions” and “activity streams” at the core.

Dvorkin proudly notes that Forbes churns out 450 posts a day and has 1,000 contributors, up from 440 in February 2011. If you tally the website’s index of “most popular” contributors – a list that spans 246 pages – the total pushes past 2,200.

This growing stable of contributors includes Forbes staffers, paid freelancers, unpaid subject matter experts and even advertisers (who through Forbes’ AdVoice program pay for the privilege to post alongside other editorial content).

  

This quasi-crowdsourcing strategy has had the intended positive effect on traffic. A Forbes spokesperson told PBS MediaShift’s Dorian Benkoil that digital revenues were up 26% year over year for the first half of 2012. Unique visitors have increased from 23 million in October 2011 to 31.5 million in July, according to Forbes’ internal metrics.

Sure sounds like a content farm model to me: pump out huge volumes of content, optimize it all for search, and monetize the page views.


Update: Lewis D'Vorkin responds


Certainly, the contributors are more knowledgeable than some of the untrained hacks who write for Demand Media or assemble stories for Journatic. And the quality of Forbes’ posts is better than “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” (see below). But how much better? Increasingly, Forbes readers will come across posts like “How To Stay Healthy” (1: Eat properly) or “How To Nail A Radio Interview” (1: Be Fun!) – the business equivalent of making a PB&J sandwich.

Dvorkin claims that all contributors are “vetted by editorial staff to make sure they are reliable and accurate.” But once they’re on board, contributors are responsible for policing their own posts – a policy that can lead to some embarrassing content, such as a sexist post for which contributor Eric Jackson had to apologize, or the musings of self-appointed media manipulator Ryan Holliday who, in his own words, “uses the media to make people do or think things they otherwise would not.”

  

Dvorkin likely views these occasional indiscretions as the price of growing the business. He puts responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual contributors, telling Poynter

“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.”

Dvorkin also claims, however, that quality remains an important component of the Forbes model. “We're always about producing quality content. That's the thing I pay most attention to,” Dvorkin told Benkoil.

This is where the disconnect lies. There’s no way to pay close attention to 1,000 contributors delivering 450 posts a day. And there’s no way to maintain the same level of quality when you open up your publishing model to outside contributors – even if they’re MBAs, professors, CEOs and other wicked smart businesspeople.

Readers are taking notice. From one commenter on Poynter:

Unfortunately, the Forbes.com site has become a content farm littered with quasi marketing collateral and so-called "advice" from experts who are simply angling to get themselves or their clients in the media. The cache of the former Forbes brand still works with some who don't know better but by and large the entire site is junk now.

The last line is an overstatement, but also a potential warning sign. The unanswered questions, for Forbes and other general-interest news or business publishers, revolve around the sustainability of this new publishing model. Will the audience stay loyal to the brand? Does increasing quantity compensate for decreasing quality? Is a broad collection of independent voices more valuable than a consistent editorial voice? And, back to the original: Can a premium publisher succeed as a content farm? Media companies working through their own digital transitions will be watching Forbes closely for the answer.

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