Forbes Tries a Half-HuffPo

Forbes has a long history of being at the vanguard of the publishing world when it comes to the Web, rolling out Forbes.com in 1996, well before most magazines. Now, it’s in the midst of an even more radical shift, attempting to marry the best of the crowdsourced Internet publishing model with its professional content and premium brand. Doing so successfully will mean straddling the line between quantity and quality that has proven fiendishly difficult for many a publication.

It’s been 18 months since Forbes brought in Lewis D’Vorkin as its chief product officer after buying his upstart publication True/Slant. D’Vorkin is uniquely qualified to head this transition, as he’s got newsroom experience (executive editor at Forbes Magazine, Page One editor of the Wall Street Journal) and technological know-how (svp of programming at AOL).

D’Vorkin quickly proved he’s no tinkerer. Forbes.com would get more than a coat of fresh paint on his watch. Out the window went the top-down newsroom approach. Instead, D’Vorkin fully embraced the platform ideal. What if Forbes, with its storied history dating back to 1917, could have not just journalists, but also thousands of experts contributing high-quality content and driving traffic to the site via their own social footprints? A year and a half later, the site has about 100 staffers — a mix of reporters and editors — and a mini-militia of 900 outside contributors that Forbes deems experts in their fields.

This idea of a publisher leaning on contributors into its model is not unique to Forbes. But other digital publications — The Huffington Post and Mashable, for instance, employ a similar publishing strategies — do not have the “old media” legacy that Forbes has.

The metrics speak to a strategy that’s apparently working. According to ComScore, Forbes.com has grown from 9.3 million uniques per month in December 2010 to 12.2 million uniques in December 2011, and time spent on the site has jumped from 1.1 minutes to 4.4 minutes over the same time period. Highlighting the sharing model, D’Vorkin says traffic from social networks has jumped 17 fold in the past year, while portals have shrunk as a bulwark.

But for all these positive numbers, if good content isn’t there, people won’t come. Shifting to a broader content strategy has benefits (growth) but also negatives (diluted content). You sometimes can’t have your cake and eat it too. D’Vorkin recently blogged about the model, pointing to success stories among contributors like George Anders, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and Jim Henry, a freelance auto industry reporter. But with success comes duds. There is the perception out there that just about any Tom, Dick and Harry can slap up a Forbes blog. The model D’Vorkin’s embraced gives little separation between Cari Sommer, owner of a public relations consultancy, and Bruce Upbin, Forbes’ managing editor.

“They can maintain the brand, but the brand might not be the same,” said Preston Bealle, svp at digital ad buying shop Mediasmith. “What would happen if Saturday Night Live started running sketches submitted by anyone who thought he was funny?”

That’s critically important because Forbes commands a steep premium in digital ad rates. At a time when it seems like a race to the bottom for CPMs, Forbes leans on its business decision maker audience and white glove brand to charge top dollar.

The come-one, come-all publishing ethos extends to advertisers. Forbes runs what it calls AdVoice posts from brands like SAP and Dell. Like contributors and staffers, the brands use the same publishing tools and their content can live alongside a meticulously reported piece by a staff writer. In D’Vorkin’s view, it’s survival of the fittest. If the content is good, whether from a contributor like Sommer, a veteran Forbes writer or a corporation, it will bubble to the top.

“They are a property that is on the short list of considered partners,” said Dave Marsey, svp at Digitas. “The benefit of what Forbes is doing is suddenly you’ve moved Forbes from being a partner for filling cracks in content with ads to also a potential content partner.”

Forbes is certainly not above stunts to draw in traffic. It is a regular resource for all manner of “listicles” that are prime link bait. Still, the publisher claims its contributor force is chosen carefully. There are five to six Forbes staffers in charge of each of Forbes’ three verticals, investing/personal finance, technology and business. These editors recruit and vet potential contributors. D’Vorkin says they look for contributors with credentials that center on knowledge, experience, expertise and past writing. Once they’re approved, contributors are accorded pretty much the same rights as staffers. In fact, all contributors are given contracts, though contracts vary depending on the contributor, as does who gets paid and what. They self-publish to their own Forbes.com page without any editorial oversight, although D’Vorkin hastens to add that staffers monitor all posts and at times edit them prior to publishing.

One contributor said the platform works pretty well, although contributors could use more editorial direction. The company routinely sends out reminders to contributors about journalistic standards (no writing about products or services), as well as style guidelines.

“Overall, they’re going in the right direction,” the contributor said. “They have a lot of good writers on the contributor side.”

“The great thing about this model,” D’Vorkin said, “is when you have people part of a network they want other smart and talented people associated with them. A kind of, ‘If you like me, you might want to talk to him.’”