No Swimsuit Issue, But 'Forbes' Still Has A Buxom Model

Don’t worry,” I said to my wife on September 11, 2001, “the number of people willing to blow themselves up in service of Allah is extremely limited.”

Also, I said the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles would win 13 games. Also, I said O.J. was guilty. (half credit)

The point is, even the most careful and perspicacious pundit will occasionally make mistakes. The trick is not always being right; the trick is not being wrong out loud. In that respect I have been extremely fortunate. I have a genius for being arrogant, obtuse and colossally incorrect, mainly in the privacy of my own home.

Dodging all those bullets over time, however, leaves a fellow with a bit of survivors’ guilt. Why should I be spared the humiliation of having my dead certainty thrown back in my face when poor George Will has been making a fool of himself week after week for decades?

Uncanny luck leads to hubris, and we can’t have that. Therefore, I feel obliged to call the world’s attention to some news out of Forbes magazine:

It’s doing well. Very well.

That’s remarkable for two reasons; 

1)     The magazine industry in general is circling the drain. In 2009, BusinessWeek was sold to Bloomberg for loose change. In January, Newsweek went online only -- on the way to going to a farm to play with U.S. News. In the past decade, Time has laid off more than 70 million editorial staffers. Play is gone. Domino is gone. Gourmet is gone. Vibe is gone. Metropolitan Home is gone. Spin is gone. 

2)      I was sure Forbes would fail.

No, I never publicly denounced Forbes Media as quixotic and self-deluding when two-and-a-half years ago it adopted its hybrid editorial platform, combining bona fide journalists and a large pool of experts to produce the content on Forbes.com. But that’s what I was thinking.

Although I somehow didn’t devote a column or broadcast to the manifest ludicrousness of the effort, it was obvious to me that the non-writer contributors would turn out unreadable, self-serving gobbledygook devoted mainly to “leveraging ROI going forward.” And for those who can construct a coherent essay with a beginning and middle and an end, who among them wants to be just one of 1000 other commentators? Duh. The concept was obviously preposterous.

And that made me sad, because Forbes has a magnificent legacy of bright writing and a definable point of view. How pitiful to see it try to hold onto life by channeling the Huffington Post. It was sure to be an embarrassing spectacle.

Except that it hasn’t turned out that way.

Since adopting the new model, Forbes has seen a 67% increase in unique monthly visitors. In January, according to comScore, it attracted 16 million uniques -- up 26% year-to-year. Measured by trailing 12 months, digital ad revenue is up 18% since the relaunch and in 2012 Forbes had its biggest digital growth since 2006.

Now, obviously, these are carefully chosen results -- no doubt the result of some fancy cherry-picking. But never mind that. Here are the words that matter:

“Up” and “increase” and “growth.” Oh -- and according to Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Levien: “The company is profitable, nicely profitable and has been increasingly profitable for the past 3 years.”

A profitable magazine with a growing audience. A growing, engaged audience. If you click on Forbes.com, you’ll see a (nearly) real-time meter of all news posts, the tally of comments and the tally of shares. The “shares” is a big number -- because, as it turns out, readers care about more than elegant prose and artfully constructed narratives.

“The thought that those who can inform are only journalists is kind of narrow, bordering on…whatever,” says Lewis D’Vorkin, chief product officer.

Permit me to translate: “whatever” means “arrogant, obtuse and colossally incorrect.” In a brief conversation, D’Vorkin did not trouble himself to feign patience for the conclusions I formerly concluded.

“You have your standards, and the audience has its standards,” he accurately observed. “There are different measures of quality in print and digital. The quality standards in digital are timeliness, relevance, knowledge , expertise, context. Notice I didn’t say ‘a perfectly written story.’ Whether the first paragraph should be the fifth…is important to a generation that you and I came from in this business, but not necessarily to a reader online looking for information.”

I maintain, in public and on the record, that the old days were better. Forbes readers were well served by skeptical, inquisitive journalists at arm’s length from the subject and trained to spin it out with lucidity and drama. The mass media/mass advertising symbiosis, God bless it, underwrote a fantastic 300 years of reporting.

Alas, the media economy no longer supports that editorial model -- at least not to the scale it once did. No doubt cobblers made better shoes before the Industrial Revolution than factories did afterwards, but whining didn’t get the cobblerati anywhere. And, by the way, shoes got plentiful and affordable. So not only isn’t there anything immutable about any given business model, the change brought on by revolution giveth even as it taketh away.

In the case of Forbes, it giveth hundreds of voices -- who hitherto had no access to an audience -- cultivating significant followings and in some cases making some decent coin. Compensated chiefly for return traffic, some contributors are, in their spare time, hovering in the vicinity of six figures, D’Vorkin says.  

“This is important,” he concludes. “This is an effort to build a sustainable model for journalism, because journalism is important. And it’s important that it survives.”

There’s one other detail one might characterize as important. Forbes magazine itself -- that thing they print on paper -- seems to be seeing growth both  in ad pages and newsstand sales. That’s a fact that rocks my world, as miracles are wont to do. So, what the hell -- let me further go on the record: The 2013 Philadelphia Eagles will win 13 games. No, 14 games. Fifteen.

Whatever.

Tags: magazines
Recommend (12) Print RSS
6 comments about "No Swimsuit Issue, But 'Forbes' Still Has A Buxom Model ".
  1. Jonathan Hall from American Pop , February 25, 2013 at 11:26 a.m.
    True that shoes were probably better made when they were made by hand before the Industrial Revolution, but the flip side is that poor people went shoeless because they were relatively expensive for a necessity. Kids could still work without shoes. People don't invest hours to reading the news from a primary source anymore. They read a little here a little there, they don't even trust a single source like they used to. I think it's still flipping around and the Forbes and Huffington Posts of the world are succeeding from equal parts luck and vision.
  2. Judith Harrison-Warner from NACD , February 25, 2013 at 12:25 p.m.
    "In the past decade, Time has laid off more than 70 million editorial staffers." 70 million? Can this be true?
  3. John Andrews from The Katadhin Company , February 25, 2013 at 12:27 p.m.
    Everything you need to know about the remainder of the print industry you can see on an average business trip. A plethora of WSJ and USA Today copies languish on the counters of hotels nationwide accounting for at least 150% of the reported circulation numbers. Additionally, the evening flight first class cabins are littered with newspapers being consumed with day old news. Probably the same decision makers making the print purchase decisions. Related? Nah, couldn't be. #printcliff
  4. Ken Smikle from Target Market News , February 25, 2013 at 12:59 p.m.
    Since this column is an inventory of missteps on your part, I'm not quite sure how to tell you this, but Vibe magazine is NOT gone. Were you wrong on purpose, Bob?
  5. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing , February 25, 2013 at 1:57 p.m.
    Yes Forbes has taken the same business model as Mashable. It is not aiming to reach the Business Brains. Mashable is the People Magazine of Social Media. Most articles trying to prove Social Media success stories have no supporting data. But the Social Media Smart People aren't reading Mashable. But Joe Coffee Shop Owner and Jane Lawyer or Johnny Realtor is. The Business Brains reads the Economist, Fortune, Business Week/Bloomberg, they don't even read the Wall Street Journal as much because it was hijacked as a mouth piece for Rupert Murdoch and trickle down economics. And now Forbes discovered they can be the people magazine of Business. That Joe, Jane and Johnny are actually interested in business news as long as it doesn't get too technical, too factual, or too detailed. And that was a smart move on their part. All those editors and commentators probably don't read Forbes. But they are smarter than the folks who do and can write in a way that reaches the average person out there.
  6. Steve Wellman from USA TODAY , February 25, 2013 at 5:41 p.m.
    They must be doing something right. I follow a lot of news feeds on Twitter (including Ad Age, Mashable) and find myself clicking on their Tweeted stories more often. #credible #accessible #relevant