The Success of Forbes.com's New Publishing Model: Checking in With Leadership Editor Fred Allen
The growing number of online news sources has re-shaped traditional print publications and how news is gathered and published. One venerable business magazine, Forbes, has created a highly successful online version, Forbes.com, which includes articles from outside contributors in hundreds of business specialties. Over the last two years, the online magazine has totally changed how it sources its content, the role of contributors, and the interplay between the print and online staff.
Frederick E. Allen is the Leadership editor of Forbes.com, the online counterpart to the 95-year-old Forbes magazine. He first spoke with the Bloom Group two years ago, when the company had just begun to change its news-gathering processes. In this followup interview, he discusses the success of the new direction, how Forbes has used social media to dramatically increase traffic, and the impact it’s had on the magazine, web site and people.
Fred Allen of Forbes
A New Direction for Publishing
Bloom Group: Fred, it’s good to talk with you again. Tell us, what has changed in the way forbes.com publishes over the past two years?
Fred Allen: We were in a very tough period about 2½ years ago. We had gone through three rounds of layoffs in 2009 and early 2010; then in the middle of 2010 Lewis DVorkin came in. First as a consultant, then with the utterly new title of Chief Product Officer, he replaced, in effect, both the editor of the magazine and the editor of the website and really changed the way we do things.
It’s been difficult for people to adjust to all the technological change. But companies really need to change the way they do things, and in a way it’s been easier for us because being in traditional journalism publishing we really had no choice.
The recession hit and that was very painful; but we were also going through a sort of a permanent paradigm shift in how journalism works and can work. That’s because the Internet changed how news is created and disseminated, and how a news organization can generate revenue.
We had to do things differently, and Lewis DVorkin (right) really saw the way to do it differently. We moved from having a traditional newsroom that reported and created news stories to this much broader model of having a blog-based platform. We still have a core of staff reporters who are top-notch traditional professional journalists; but we also have brought the very best outside contributors into the fold.
Our strategy was to recruit and work with the very best possible people. Forbes would be a valuable platform for them, and we could give them presence and visibility. In turn, they could broaden our voice and our coverage in the best way possible, despite all the limitations and pressures on any journalistic organization at that point in time.
Around August of 2010, Lewis had developed a WordPress-based platform that moved us away from the traditional model of articles going through our copy department. That old way was as constricting as print typesetting had once been. Now we have moved to self-publishing with fantastically powerful and versatile tools that make it very easy to just write something and publish it or to put images into it, to link to other things, to embed videos, to have an effect on how the page is designed, to have control over where else it appears on Forbes.com.
Forbes’ Outside Contributors
Bloom Group: How do you recruit good outside contributors?
Allen: We began the WordPress platform with staffers, and then a few months later began recruiting contributors to work this way, too. One of our regular leadership columnists, Robert Sher (full disclosure: Rob is a Bloom Group client), started with us by doing traditional solicited articles and one-offs. We soon realized that he wrote very well and knew what he was talking about.
Rob understands how to put together a piece that will work online for an audience that needs something that is sharp and fresh; gets right to the point; and is provocative and very timely but also very solid and substantial. He gets all of that. We can open up the platform to him, set him loose, and watch carefully. That’s what we’ve done.
I now have something like 150 leadership contributors, and all of Forbes.com has about 900 contributors. We’re not recruiting them as actively as we were because we’ve reached such a good number of them.
Bloom Group: I remember when we last spoke two years ago that none of your contributors was able to publish directly.
Allen: Back then we had a few blogs with multiple contributors, and we would review the posts. There had actually been a time before I joined, when people running Forbes.com were against the whole idea of blogs. Things have changed greatly since then.
Bloom Group: A former colleague, Chunka Mui, is among your leadership contributors. I enjoy reading him because he always has something interesting to say. How do people like Chunka come to you?
Allen: They come all different ways. An editor’s job has always been to get writers and stories by every way possible. It’s funny, I always found in my career as an editor that people outside of journalism and editing would say, “How do you get all your great story ideas?” and people inside would say “How do you get your writers?” That’s the real question because in the hands of a great writer any story will be interesting and compelling, and surprising and illuminating. But if you have a bad writer, it doesn’t matter what the story is, it will be dead.
It’s always clear what the big stories are. Today a huge story is all the layoffs at Hewlett Packard. What does it mean? What is the future of that company? The Facebook IPO has been such huge news. What’s going on at JP Morgan Chase, the big losses and how Jamie Dimon is handling it… it’s not hard to identify the big leadership stories. The problem is always finding the best people to write about them.
One great thing about this model of having outside contributors is that you can get so many kinds of specialties. You can draw on expertise that you couldn’t get in the biggest newsroom we could build. Our contributors are top experts in their very specific fields. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun finding great people. At this point a lot of them are recommended by people who are already contributors. They not only know their fields but also really know our platform.
Bloom Group: What does this mean for staff reporters? Will there always be a place for them?
Allen: There will always be staff reporters. They are very great people who are really professional journalists. And also, of course, we’re still putting out Forbes magazine and that’s as big a deal for us as it ever was. Our staff reporters for Forbes.com are also reporters for Forbes Magazine, which is essentially a staff-written magazine. That adds to their job security, which is not at all in question.
What we’ve also done is built up a core support staff. We have channel editors, like me – for leadership, business, lifestyle, tech, investing and other areas. We also have people we call producers, who are there to help the contributors and channel editors and to deal with the technical ends of things.
Bloom Group: So you’ve found that not only do you have a lot of contributors now with different specialties, but also many good writers who otherwise could never write for a publication such as Forbes because they couldn’t elbow their way into a print edition?
Allen: Yes, it’s letting a lot of very valuable voices get out there and get heard. For instance, I was just looking at a post by a contributor who is an expert in workplace design. It was a post she put up this morning about the difficulties of trying to balance the need for open space, communication and commonality in a workplace with the need for privacy, quiet and being able to reflect. That’s hugely important, and back when Forbes was only a magazine we could not have had a staff writer who just wrote about the shape of the workplace.
Bloom Group: In the early days of blogging there was a lot of complaining from professional reporters that the business was being dumbed down, that now anyone could be a writer; and that’s true. Plenty of bad blog posts are posted every day. But it seems you have found a way to channel some of the best writers through an organization that knows how to publish. So you have a win-win where hundreds of good writers have an enviable platform to publish on and Forbes has a huge pool of talented people working for it.
Allen: It’s certainly true that anybody with a pair of pajamas could be a blogger. We’re growing by creating this one destination for business journalism. Many sites attract a lot of contributors. We attract only really great people and bring them together in this one place. I think it’s really been strengthening Forbes, which is already a very strong brand, and strengthening the brands of the individual contributors as well.
We find that our individual contributors, as their traffic grows and grows, learn to do it better. They’re creating more of an ecosystem that attracts more people to Forbes.com who discover them; the whole thing is kind of working.
Building Readership Through Social Media and Search Engines
Bloom Group: How do you use social media to increase the number of times your content is viewed?
Allen: We have staff people who just deal with optimizing social media – the launching pad for so many articles now – to reach an audience. For example, they make sure searches work as well as possible because so much of how people get to things is through searches.
The importance of social media was driven home to me when one of our regular contributors, Nick Morgan, began a Facebook page with some friends where he’ll ask a weekly question and invite answers. One of his first questions was, “Which blogs and websites do you look at, at least once a day, and go to see what you really need to know and find what you’re looking for?" What surprised me was how many people said, “There aren’t any that I go to right now. What I do is go to Facebook and LinkedIn and I see what people are talking about, and what they’re pointing me to. That’s how I know what to read.”
So we find with our leadership contributors, sometimes an article will take off and get hundreds of thousands of views, which is stunning. And sometimes this surge in readership takes place weeks or months after the article first appeared; generally that’s happening because people have started latching onto it and passing it around in social media. This is especially true with our leadership content on LinkedIn.
The world has been changing very much, not just in how news organizations work but in how communication works and how people get at stuff and how you get the word out. We focus very hard on staying on top of that.
Our very sharp, direct clear headlines help readers know immediately what an article is about. This does two things: It gets them to click on it, and it works better in Google because it will be about what people are searching for and looking for.
Keywords are mostly in the headline at this point. Keywords and metatext used to be big things five or 10 years ago; they are not anymore. Our platform on which we write and publish does some wonderful things. For example, as you write it suggests images, which we have already paid for. You can just click on one and put it right into your post and write a caption for it.
Our platform also suggests what are called tags, which are sort of keywords that it just comes up with as you type -- for example, when it sees a name of a famous person. A lot of it is just headline writing, which to some extent is an art. It doesn’t come down to a cold science. There’s a little bit of alchemy in all of this.
I myself have written posts that I might have thought had an equal chance of doing well. One might get a few hundred views and the other might get more than 100,000. To some extent you can’t completely tell.
Bloom Group: How do you decide which are topics that people might be interested to learn about?
Allen: We look at what’s trending on social media and what people are looking for. In leadership, for instance, LinkedIn is especially valuable; because leadership is so much about work, career and so on.
It’s all happened very fast and it’s still developing and changing, and we’re learning it as we go, on the fly. Once we learn something it starts to change again. LinkedIn hasn’t been around that long, and at first we felt it would be valuable just for career advice such as getting a promotion or raise. But we’ve discovered that it’s also very valuable for disseminating stories. We had a piece a week or two ago from a contributor (Adam Hartung) that had more than 300,000 hits, and LinkedIn was a big part of it. It was about all the turmoil among certain very prominent CEOs right now, five CEOs who should have been fired a long time ago. That took off on LinkedIn, Reddit and other places too — one or two I’d never even heard of.
We also look at what’s in the news and what kind of practical advice people want right now. When something is starting to work on social media, there are things we can do to push it a little, to tweet a thing out more. We have people who are just doing that.
And then there are certain rules of thumb regarding what works. As the women’s magazines have known since time immemorial, if you start with a number it works like magic. I just put up an article this morning that was a one-off contributed piece; the author’s title was ”How to Temper Your Temper,” but she included 10 steps, so I made it “10 Steps to Temper Your Temper.” I bet it might do a little better because of that. Collecting things into a coherent group that identifies them, makes sense of them and rationalizes them is very powerful.
Metrics: Unique Visitors, Page Views and Others
Bloom Group: How are you measuring success?
Allen: In the first instance, by unique visitors per month. Early last year our site was getting about 15 million unique viewers each month; early this year it’s already doubled, with about 30 million. That’s a doubling of the number of unique visitors in one year. Before we started expanding the platform it really wasn’t growing much, and it really has now. The Leadership channel is up to something like 3.5 million unique views a month, and several times that in page views.
Bloom Group: Are page views still regarded as important too?
Allen: Absolutely. It all has to do with how you get your revenue and how you sell ads and that’s not my part of the business. From the editorial angle — outside of making sure there’s enough stuff out there for the ads they’re selling — we’re somewhat interested in page views but more interested in unique visitors and repeat visitors. Repeat visitors are a big thing; we want people to keep coming back. That’s something that’s been growing too.
Bloom Group: Are there other things that you measure that are important, such as comments or shares?
Allen: Comments are very important. We very much encourage everyone to be involved in commenting, and we give our contributors control over it so that they can choose which comments are visible with the post without clicking through to see all comments. They can delete or mark as spam comments that are really bad, or abusive. They can call out and respond to comments that are really worth highlighting.
This is very important to us because viewers want to be involved in and feel a part of a site they visit; they don’t want to just be an outside audience peering through a window, the way they were with old-fashioned journalism. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have shown us that people want to be in there and be part of it. That’s very important to us and we’ve done all we can to make that as powerful and versatile as possible.
Allen: The dialogue is good for contributors because they can see when their traffic is growing. When they have a big hit, they can see the response that they get and enter into a dialogue. It’s kind of thrilling when you write something and suddenly you’re communicating with all sorts of people about it. You do have to get a little bit of a thick skin because whenever you write anything provocative, you’re going to have some people saying you’re a moron and an idiot, and you don’t understand anything at all. I get that when I post. I’ve gotten used to it and found ways to deflect this. Sometimes I just say, “You’re right and I’m glad you added that point.”
Bloom Group: Is there any other metric you watch, such as how much something is shared?
Allen: The top of every post shows how many views it has; so we always know how much a piece is getting around. Every contributor’s profile page shows the type of traffic they’ve been getting. At first people were scared to death of that because it is public. But it has been rewarding because in general people’s traffic has grown. Each article also includes buttons for sharing on Facebook and LinkedIn and those buttons say how many times it’s been shared. Sometimes a post doesn’t do that well but other times you see that it’s taking off and it’s exciting. We like having all of that transparent; it’s ultimately very encouraging all around.
Bloom Group: Are most of the metrics that you use visible to everyone?
Allen: I don’t think site-wide metrics are, but those about a post, yes. People want transparency online, just like they want to be able to communicate. They want to know what they’re looking at and what’s going on with it. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
How the Writing Process Has Changed
Bloom Group: How are these changes making an impact on the writing process?
Allen: Well somebody might write several articles on a subject within a day, as the news develops. That wouldn’t have happened until fairly recently. It used to be that newspapers came out once a day and that’s how you got the news. Now a newspaper is considered yesterday’s news, although I still wouldn’t want to live without one.
But there’s immediacy now, where something happens and instantly you’re writing about it. I had an experience with this a month or two ago when the guy at Goldman Sachs [Greg Smith] wrote the op-ed page article in the New York Times about why he was quitting. I woke up at 7 in the morning and checked my email before I was even aware of the story, and somebody had already emailed, “Boy, is this a leadership story!” I knew he was right, and that I had to write about this.
So a few minutes later I had read the Goldman Sachs article; by 8:00 -- I guess in the shower -- I sort of figured out what I wanted to write, and by 8:45 I had an article published on Forbes.com, which gave us an early, instant shot. It was like going back to the old front page breaking news thing, the “extra, extra” of newspapers a century ago. But now you do this over and over, all day, every day. There’s no limit to how often you can publish and how timely you can be, and how many different points of view you collect. Journalism becomes much more flexible, resilient and adaptive and you find more ways of doing things.
Sometimes you feel you don’t have a chance to really go into depth and get a bigger picture but that’s one big reason to keep the magazine. Forbes magazine is doing something valuable and irreplaceable that’s not going to go away: real in-depth profiles of great characters and bigger pictures about what’s going on.
How the Culture Has Changed
Bloom Group: Has all of this changed the culture inside Forbes over the last two years?
Allen: Well there once was some friction between the magazine and the website. The website thought the magazine was a lot of old fogies, and the magazine people thought the website was a lot of ignorant upstarts. That’s an exaggeration but it was a little bit like that. Before Lewis DVorkin came in we were leaning towards complete integration. Everybody would really do both things equally, and there were five managing editors who handled both the magazine and the website. That was a little bit utopian and chaotic. Lewis realized that you’ve got to have people who are really focusing on either the magazine or the website.
I do much, much more online than for the magazine, but we are all working together very cooperatively now and we’ve got the right kind of support and alignment. We’ve got a terrific core of producers and audience development people, front-page people who are sort of watching what’s going on minute by minute on the site and coordinating everything.
We’ve got the channel editors like me, the staff reporters and then the whole world of outside contributors. It’s working well. There is a little give and take sometimes, especially if a big magazine project takes energy away from reporters and online editors want more of their time, but I think the mood and morale, and cooperation inside the organization, are the best they’ve ever been.
Bloom Group: Do you credit that to DVorkin’s leadership?
Allen: I think so. I think also when he came in and was changing things so dramatically there were some people who didn’t like the idea at all, and they chose to leave or to change. I think the fact that it seems to be working now makes a big difference. Exciting new things are happening and we’re not just fighting old losing battles like we had been doing. There’s been much less coming and going recently. There’s also been hiring, and beefing up where we need it.
What the Future Holds
Bloom Group: Where do you see Forbes and Forbes.com going?
Allen: In the long-term it’s hard to know because this world changes so fast. But I think we are building the magazine and the website as a brand, and a presence and a source of information, and a community more than ever before.
We’re doing some consolidating online. Having really built up such a base of contributors in the last couple of years, and having doubled our unique views in the last year, right now we are pulling back and looking at other ways of growing. We’re pushing ahead on what we’ve been doing well.
We are also building up our video component, which received less attention when we were first building out the blogging platform. We’ve recently greatly improved our mobile presence and we’re working on iPad stuff. There’s no huge new step in a whole new direction, like we did when Lewis came in. Now we’re working on getting that as right as possible, and watching it grow.