What the Forbes model of contributed content means for journalism

Two years ago, Forbes.com was a news website like most others.

Today, it is less website, more operating system — an underlying layer of technology that hundreds of contributors use to publish independently.

Lewis DVorkin, who kickstarted the model at True/Slant and since 2010 has honed it for Forbes.com as chief product officer, calls it “incentive-based, entrepreneurial journalism.”

Much of the content on Forbes.com comes from its hundreds of contributors, who write as independent contractors.

“Entrepreneurial”? Each contributor flies solo with his own blog. He is responsible for conceiving and creating the content, ensuring its accuracy and building an engaged, loyal readership. Forbes provides the technology and compensates some of the contributors, but otherwise, like all entrepreneurs, contributors are left to sink or swim on their own.

Forbes is swimming. The Forbes.com audience doubled in the past year to 30 million monthly unique users, thanks in part to almost 100,000 posts created by nearly 1,000 authors.

Forbes may be on to something here. This new publishing model is grounded in some of the fundamental principles of the Web:

  • It embraces the most natural form of blogging — “the unedited voice of a person.”
  • It embodies David Weinberger’s famous model of the Web as a whole — small pieces, loosely joined — by coordinating many independent voices under the brand power, technology and financial resources of Forbes.
  • It taps the scaling power of technology platforms. A similar anyone-can-play approach helped the Huffington Post grow to among the most-trafficked news websites (though Forbes differs by paying some of their writers and being more selective of its contributors).

Forbes’ may not be the exact model for every site to follow. There are weaknesses (more on that later) along with its strengths. And in some ways it seems uniquely fitted to the Forbes ethos — entrepreneurial journalism for an entrepreneur-focused publication. But it is worth understanding.

Lewis DVorkin is the architect of Forbes’ content contributor model.

“The economics in journalism are broken, and there are lots of experimentations taking place,” DVorkin told me. “People do different things; this is our model. It’s obviously gaining traction with audience, it’s gaining traction with contributors. It’s working for us.”

Who writes and why?

Who are these people filling Forbes.com with content?

The short answer is, just about anyone who has something relevant to say and a reason to say it there.

Forbes.com contributors include professional journalists, some of whom turned to Forbes after they left or lost their full-time jobs in recent years. But there are many others from non-journalistic backgrounds: Business leaders, entrepreneurs, book authors, academics and other topic experts.

“And they’re all vetted by our editors and our staff,” DVorkin said. “We look at their experience, we look at their credentials and what they’ve done. And we turn many people away.”

Selected writers get at least one of a few rewards:

  • Money. Some contributors are paid monthly based on the size of the audience they attract (more on that later). Often these are professional journalists who write for a living. But not everyone who writes needs money.
  • Stability. Freelance writers may tire of having to constantly shop their latest work around to different editors. By working as a Forbes contributor, they know where their next paycheck is coming from. (They can still publish elsewhere, just not the same content they give to Forbes.)
  • Status. Some people may write for Forbes to build their own reputations. Simply by associating themselves with the Forbes brand, they benefit.
  • Attention. Many contributors don’t need a paycheck, because they use the audience and attention built through Forbes to make money in other ways, such as book sales, speaking appearances, or career advancement.

Some of the contributors are doing quite well. Fifty-five writers have more than doubled their audience since last June, DVorkin recently wrote, and “a handful” periodically draw more than 1 million readers a month.

What are the benefits to Forbes?

  • Content, at low or no cost, is the big one.
  • Flexibility, too. Each contributor is on a contract that can be terminated with 30 days’ notice, DVorkin said.
  • Scalability. The Forbes model can scale from 100 contributors, to 1,000, to 5,000 without breaking down.

What, exactly, do you reward?

When you practice incentive-based entrepreneurial journalism, you have to decide what to incent.

Stock market news and analysis site Seeking Alpha, which gets its content from contributors as well, pays them each a very straightforward $10 per thousand pageviews. You could also pay contributors based on the volume of productivity (per article, per word, etc.) or based on a subjective notion of quality.

Forbes has chosen to pay contributors based on unique visitors — specifically, loyal unique visitors. An author is paid a certain amount (which varies and DVorkin would not disclose, citing privacy of individuals’ contracts) for each first-time unique visitor, but 10 times more for each return visit from that person during the same month.

Why is that good? It’s an all-in-one incentive to write well, to write often, to distribute and promote content and to build community. You don’t get a large number of unique people to come, and then come back again, without doing all of that well.

It also lets each contributor choose the most appropriate way to build her audience. One contributor might write a few deeply researched pieces; another might hammer out a ton of quick, timely pieces. Both can succeed.

How do you organize it all?

There are no centralized editors assigning the Forbes.com stories. There’s not even an editor aware at any given time what all the contributors are working on. How do you keep that from becoming a tangled mess?

Forbes hires each contributor to write about a specific subject, and requires them to stay in their lanes, DVorkin said. And Forbes won’t take on a new contributor if her proposed subject area isn’t desirable (read: relevant and/or profitable), or if the contributor pool on that topic is already saturated.

Another strategy that keeps the site focused is applying “the Forbes prism” across every topic.

“The beautiful thing about Forbes is, you can put almost anything through a Forbes prism,” DVorkin said. “The Forbes prism is about free enterprise, entrepreneurship and smart investing. Most business stories, and dare I say many cultural events, you can put through that Forbes prism. Because it’s always, at the end, about money.”

The downsides

What the Forbes model gains in quantity, speed and flexibility, it loses in editing.

There is no traditional editing of contributors’ copy, at least not prior to publishing. If a story gets hot or makes the homepage, a producer will “check it more carefully,” DVorkin said.

Traditional-minded journalists probably think that sounds reckless. From the beginning, there were concerns that Forbes’ model might “lessen the quality of the content.” Just last week, a Forbes contributor stumbled by writing a controversial post, deleting it to post an apology, only to have a Forbes producer later restore his original text with the apology.

Sometimes contributors make mistakes acting on their own, like this column by contributor Eric Jackson that resulted in an apology and confusion over whether to delete the original post.

But DVorkin argues that overall Forbes’ model is better than the traditional newsroom one, where a reporter has editors and fact-checkers absorbing the responsibility for accuracy.

“It’s about accountability. It’s your brand, it’s your page, and you need to get it right. If you don’t, you won’t be able to build an audience,” DVorkin said. “I worked at Newsweek for five years. Reporters would write stories with a whole bunch of ‘tk’s so a fact checker could go do it. What kind of accountability is that? $100,000-a-year people depending on someone making $25,000 to get their story right.”

And while there’s no traditional fact-checking, there is a lot of after-the-fact checking. “The audience spots issues a lot,” DVorkin said. “The audience is as much your editor now as an editor is your editor.”

Conflicts of interest are another potential weakness in the model. Especially among unpaid contributors who are writing to promote themselves, their books or their businesses, you have to wonder how their “other motives” subtly frame their writing. (When they join, contributors are required to disclose to Forbes, in writing, any conflicts of interest.)

And for the working journalists out there, the success and potential spread of this model is both good and bad news. Good because a sustainable, scalable business model for journalism is needed. Bad because this is a tougher way to make a living.

It’s a nice income stream, and it may grow if you stick with it. But few of the paid Forbes.com contributors can make a living there alone, and of course as independent contractors they have no health or retirement benefits.

If this is the future, journalists may need to prepare for living every day like a hustle — leaning on their personal brands and piecing together a multi-stream income. But then again, we were never in it for the money.

Related: DVorkin talks with Forbes contributor Anthony Kosner about his experience

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  • http://twitter.com/MindaZetlin Minda Zetlin

    Unfortunately, Forbes and HuffPo are not the only ones. Many publications with legitimate print versions are going this way. Contributors seem to like it, readers seem to like it, and the site is making lots of money, so why not? The loss is to traditional journalism, and that’s sad. But the world is changing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jack-Vaughan/1651935613 Jack Vaughan

     Hurray KathyK, you nailed it. They are working on a content farm, kind of like Maggies’ Farm. Or Penny’s.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jack-Vaughan/1651935613 Jack Vaughan

    How is the new model different from the old model? Post this as background: “Conflicts of interest are another potential weakness in the model.
    Especially among unpaid contributors who are writing to promote
    themselves, their books or their businesses, you have to wonder how
    their “other motives” subtly frame their writing. (When they join,
    contributors are required to disclose to Forbes, in writing, any
    conflicts of interest.)”How is the new model different from the old model? You tell me.

  • Anonymous

    Enjoyed the behind-the-curtain look at Forbes.com.

    The beauty of today’s landscape is there’s room for all models and experimentation.

    Yes, some of the contributors on Forbes.com craft garbage, but one person’s garbage is another person’s treasure. It seems to me there’s a healthy Darwinian element to the product; i.e., does your content bring enough readers to justify your existence. If the answer proves no, Forbes pulls the trap door.

    Unlike Dan Tynan’s comment, I think readers deserve more credit for using the contributor bios to frame the posts with context.

    A couple years ago I moderated a panel at a Stanford journalism conference on the topic of “Earned Media Versus Owned Media.” One point that came out of the discussion- if the content is good (informative, fresh, a lesson, etc.), people don’t care for the most part where the content comes from or if the person producing it has an agenda.

    I suppose that can be a sobering thought for some journalists. 

  • Anonymous

    I can say that the direction has indeed changed and no, I was never compensated. I enjoyed my time initially, but got increasingly frustrated with the content. I agree with Kathy Keating in her assessment and I’ll just leave it at that. 

    I thank Forbes for the opportunity and it did increase my visibility. But I miss the old content model.

  • http://esarcasm.com dantynan

    I think the author here went a little too easy on Forbes and its new model. For one thing, it’s not that new (see Huffington Post, 2006 to 2011.) For another thing, it leads to self aggrandizing people who can now use the Forbes brand to promote their own narrow agendas.

    Like this guy:  http://blogs.forbes.com/ryanholiday/

    A PR flack for Tucker Max and American Apparel who, not at all coincidentally, writes posts for Forbes defending Tucker Max and American Apparel. Yes, he discloses his associations on his contributor page and occasionally adjacent to his posts. But to 98.2 percent of the Web reading public, he’s a “Forbes journalist.” It’s tarnishing a once respected brand, as well as some genuinely good journos who blog alongside these a**clowns. Sad, really.

  • http://twitter.com/KathyKeatingPR KathyKeatingPR

    Good points. Well researched. Unfortunately, the Forbes.com site has become a content farm littered with quasi marketing collateral and so-called “advice” from experts who are simply angling to get themselves or their clients in the media. The cache of the former Forbes brand still works with some who don’t know better but by and large the entire site is junk now.