Forbes Media agreed on Friday to sell a majority stake in itself to a consortium of Hong Kong investors, concluding a 9-month sales process.
The sale comes at the culmination of no small amount of change and soul-searching for Forbes, which has converted its distinct offline brand of C-suite-targeted journalism to a growing unpaid online contributor-based operation. Forbes used to call itself “the Capitalist Tool”; today it’s a “media startup founded in 1917.”
The terms were not disclosed, but the transaction values Forbes Media at $475 million, according to the New York Times. Family scion Steve Forbes, who turned 67 today, will remain the chairman and editor-in-chief.
“Instead of putting our heads in the sand and hoping the Web would go away, the way that silent movie stars hoped that ‘Talkies’ would go away, we’ve embraced the new media,” Steve Forbes said. Towards that end, its BrandVoice platform — which has been equally hailed and vilified — allows consultants, brands and advertisers to publish their own articles directly onto Forbes.com.
Forbes talked to Digiday about the company’s shifting editorial strategy, the future of its magazine, and whether the Forbes brand can survive the shift to digital.
Forbes Magazine was once known as the “capitalist bible.” Forbes today is a platform that lets non-journalists and even brands write under the Forbes mantle. It’s good for traffic, but doesn’t it dilute the brand and hurt content quality?
We’ve recognized that content can be created not just from those that practice journalism, but also a wide variety of other people. Instead of diluting the brand, we think this approach enhances it. The brand really hasn’t changed since my grandfather’s day. One of the things that companies should always ask themselves in this tumultuous time of the Web is, “what is your purpose? ” If you ask yourself that question, you won’t get held up on the fact that the tools to achieve it may change, but the goals themselves don’t.
Does the sell mean you don’t have to worry about — or chase — traffic as much?
We think this enhances the possibilities going ahead, because we will have more capital to make more moves. The Web has smashed all the boundaries of traditional media. Everyone is scrambling. We think the possibilities are very real in media, but what we did today also lets us do brand extensions to areas like tech, real-estate, and financial services. We can now accelerate that momentum. Just pining for the good old days is not the way to move ahead in the new days.
The digital side is clearly doing well enough, but ad revenue is down on the print side. What’s the future of Forbes Magazine? Will it exist in print in 10 years?
We think that there is a future in print. Obviously the momentum is with the Web, but in the last four years working with the Web has enhanced the content of the magazine. The content there is stronger than ever before. Obviously print revenues are under pressure, but the desire for people to use print is still there. We don’t think of it as either/or. One enhances the other, and one gives credibility to the other.
What does it mean that Forbes sold its stake to a non-publisher?
You see it in business history all the time: Sometimes outsiders see opportunities that incumbents don’t. We see it in media, too. Oftentimes people focus on the trees instead of the forest, or changing forest, or the opportunity to create a new forest. When we first announced this [sale] process [last year], a lot of people still referred to us as “Forbes Magazine.” They still saw us through the lens of the previous 96 years. Those who weren’t encumbered by that thinking saw an opportunity to create something vibrant. The way you make things happen is not by following the crowd.
So what are they buying: Forbes the media company, Forbes the brand, or something else?
They’re buying into a media operation that has real momentum, as well as the brand extensions into new areas. It’s the whole package.
There were reports that sale negotiations were held up by your desire to stay in control and continue to have a hand in the company. You got your wish. How important is it for you to be involved in the Future of Forbes?
We didn’t want to just become a division on a checklist of many other divisions. We wanted to work with people who saw the unique opportunities here. Several of the bidders made it clear that they wanted the family to remain involved because they realized that was part and parcel of the brand. The family remains, the management remains, and the current headquarters remains. That’s about as good of an outcome as you can hope for.
Where does Forbes go in five years? 10 years?
If I had a crystal ball to see into the future like that I’d be one of our “world’s richest” lists.