Apocalypse 35: Full Circle at Forbes

By , 24 August, 2010, 11 Comments

As you probably know by now, Forbes has bought and decided to shutter blogging portal True/Slant, and to bring its erstwhile chief Lew Dvorkin in as its new chief. What you may not know is that Dvorkin–whom I wrote about last year–was an ex-Forbesian, who left the magazine for a start-up, and then for AOL, specifically because he wanted to get deep into the web and digital marketing, and left AOL, he told me, because it didn’t have “the DNA for content-creation.” At thetime, he was trying to explain True/Slant to me as pure content informed by branding savvy, but the combination will be just as relevant at Forbes. Former co-workers there tell me the change is all about helping Forbes play digital catch-up, and the test is maintaining its reporting DNA in the process.

Personally, I think it’s a shame T/S was shuttered so soon. There were a number of writers there who could have been assets to Forbes, and its Real Clear Politics subsidiary had they not been fired first.

The thing that makes me saddest to be sure is that Bill Baldwin is (as of today) out of the top slot. In my time as a staffer there (1 year), I interacted with Bill on professional matters, sure, but what I remember most is that I saw him at the office gym almost daily, usually very late in the evening. That is a testament to how long and hard he worked. He is a meticulous editor, tough but fair-minded. His hand on Forbes stories–and he read and commented on EVERY one–will be sorely missed. He is staying on as a contributor, though, and I’m thrilled about that, because his editors column for the magazine is usually hilarious, and we can always use more hilarity.

As for Dvorkin’s new mission: I enjoyed T/S, and you can see some of its better elements already reflected in the blogs Dvorkin has set up for Forbes writers. But staffers I’ve talked to still expect him to need a trained editor, rather than a businessperson, to handle the mechanics of the magazine. No word yet on who that could be. So, overall, too soon to tell.

UPDATED, August 30th: Some interesting questions raised in the comments about whether the data-driven and individualist model at T/S will lead to popularity being prized over news. Steve McNally [one of the new Forbesians from the T/S merger] responds: “Regarding the home page and what’s popular, it’s important to note the the focus of the home page is driven by editors. Everything in “In The News” and “Picks,” e.g., is selected by people. People making editorial decisions also run several other sections of the blogs network. Our plans are to expand this. Being data-driven is no longer optional, IMO. Being *purely* data driven doesn’t allow for quality editors making editorial decisions, and that doesn’t best serve our writers or other participants. Getting information into the hands of Editors and creators means they can decide if and how to use that info. Measuring what works and doesn’t from those decisions can help inform the next set of decisions. Finding good ways to balance the community’s want for dynamic streams of info and the belief that our editorial guidance and curation adds value is an ongoing process. Optimally, we’ll provide plenty of opportunities for both. And we’ll have the intel to back up which is working better, for whom, and how.”

UPDATED, September 1st: Steve McNally explains ‘working better’: ‘”Better” is relative and contextual. For a reader / a “formerly known as audience” member, it can mean being presented with stories interesting and relevant to them. We’ll know if this is true via click through rates, time-on-site, comments left, etc. For an author or editor, “better” can mean pingbacks, shares, pageviews, repeat vistors. For a publisher, “better” can mean ads served and clicked through, registrations driven, inbound links from high-ranking sources. Data regarding all these things are available to us as publishers. Making it available – and easily-digestible, synthesizable, usable – by authors, editors and community members allows them to make decisions based on it, too.’

Personally, I still have questions about how this will work, and in particular what kind of content this attention to data supports. But I agree that there’s no way to go backwards and abandon data now.

11 Responses {+}
  • bjkeefe

    I have to laugh at how similar the look is on Forbes after having been a fan of T/S. Maybe it’s just me, but I think this makes Dvorkin look even skeevier than he has made himself look in the way he handled the shuttering of T/S. Maybe it’s just symbolic, but to me it’s just another suggestion about him using everyone else solely to advance his own career.

  • Laurie

    Maha, what do you think about the possibility of Bloomberg approaching Baldwin? I’ve heard rumors, though it doesn’t seem like the best fit for either party.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @bj I think the design is significant: the T/S layout was very much in sync with what T/S was about, which was the marketing of individual writers as brands of one. That’s something that really stuck out when I spoke to Dvorkin. And I think–from what staffers tell me–that his vision for Forbes is similar–freelance brands of one and a smaller full time staff. As much as I fear the economic implications of that model for those of us in the field, I think that’s probably the right model for magazine style writing. None of this is incompatible with what you suggest, though: Dvorkin sees himself as the biggest brand of one. That’s self-interest, sure, but it’s not inconsistent with his journalistic views.

    @Laurie, I could see it working on some levels. Bloomberg is rigorous and data-oriented. It is a reporter’s organization, and Bill is a reporter’s editor in many ways. On the other hand, he is a man with strongly held views, and a mostly US focus. Bloomberg is newsy and very global. So could go any number of ways.

  • bjkeefe

    Among the things I didn’t like about the T/S layout (and now the Forbes layout) as far as the “brand of one” idea goes is that it’s dynamically unstable: if you get a bit of popularity, and/or you post (blab) a lot, or you write listicles and other clickbait posts, you’re much more likely to be a front-pager under Dvorkin’s scheme. And then of course once you’re on the front page, you tend to stay there, because people click those links, post comments, email and link to those posts, etc. Even if most of the response is negative, you’re still Teh Buzz, if you see what I’m saying.

    This encourages a certain kind of writing. Not to say it’s all bad, but much of it is. I always think the proverbial wisdom of the herd is overrated, and I think that especially in the context of a serious writing/news site, there should be consideration given to Editor’s Picks or something of that nature.

    (Actually, another look at blog.forbes.com suggests there is a bit of this. But if my memory of T/S is correct, there wasn’t.)

    P.S. As a member of the succinctness-challenged community, I would like to request two things for this site: a preview mode and a larger commenting box.

    P.P.S. Don’t say that this tiny box was designed just to ward off my people!

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    @bj Good points. I’d agree that this is one of the tensions to resolve when migrating this format to a magazine with a commitment to news. I think it’s one of the things that Dvorkin is going to need a deputy for, to push things to the front on the basis of news.

    But even when a site does that, you will still find that people tend to follow individual writers and that as writers, magazine reporters have to have a style and the ability to put themselves in their work that newspaper writers don’t need and aren’t encouraged to cultivate.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    As for the comment box, the concern is noted. Added to my list of things to play with. Watch this space.

  • Steve McNally

    Thanks, Maha –

    I’m the former CTO of True/Slant and am currently working with Lewis and Forbes to continue building the New Newsroom.

    “Branded Experts” / “Brands of one” are a prime driver of our work – thanks for getting that so well so early on –

    I, too, wish the True/Slant experiment would have continued: we had significant successes, and I feel there’s value in continuing that experimentation under a non-Forbes-branded outlet. We’re a small team, though, and our focus and attention is rightfully on building Forbes. I’m gratified and excited by the progress we’ve made since the acquisition in June.

    @bjkeefe – Regarding the home page and what’s popular, it’s important to note the the focus of the home page is driven by editors. Everything in “In The News” and “Picks,” e.g., is selected by people.

    People making editorial decisions also run several other sections of the blogs network. Our plans are to expand this.

    Being data-driven is no longer optional, IMO. Being *purely* data driven doesn’t allow for quality editors making editorial decisions, and that doesn’t best serve our writers or other participants.

    Getting information into the hands of Editors and creators means they can decide if and how to use that info. Measuring what works and doesn’t from those decisions can help inform the next set of decisions.

    Finding good ways to balance the community’s want for dynamic streams of info
    and the belief that our editorial guidance and curation adds value is an ongoing process. Optimally, we’ll provide plenty of opportunities for both. And we’ll have the intel to back up which is working better, for whom, and how.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    Thanks for the comments, Steve. I would agree that it’s an ongoing process to find the balance and that we have to be wary of erring too drastically in either direction.

    One question: how would you define ‘working better’?

  • Steve McNally

    One question: how would you define ‘working better’?

    Thanks, Maha –

    “Better” is relative and contextual.

    For a reader / a “formerly known as audience” member, it can mean being presented with stories interesting and relevant to them.

    We’ll know if this is true via click through rates, time-on-site, comments left, etc.

    For an author or editor, “better” can mean pingbacks, shares, pageviews, repeat vistors.

    For a publisher, “better” can mean ads served and clicked through, registrations driven, inbound links from high-ranking sources.

    Data regarding all these things are available to us as publishers. Making it available – and easily-digestible, synthesizable, usable – by authors, editors and community members allows them to make decisions based on it, too.

  • Maha Rafi Atal

    `Thanks, Steve, for the explanation. I’ve updated above.

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