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.