Earlier this year Kevin Gentzel, the chief revenue officer of Forbes, took a look at what the chief marketing officers in the Forbes CMO Network were doing with their companies. He realized they were becoming content creators — and that this had big implications for his magazine and other traditional media.
Gentzel said this underscored the massive shift that was taking place in media and publishing.
“It was almost a monologue that existed in media up until five or six years ago,” Gentzel said. Now, after helping make some major changes at Forbes, he says his organization is “embracing that and not running from it.”
Gentzel said his realization led him and his Forbes colleagues to start paying close attention to True/Slant, a website Forbes alum Lewis DVorkin started that featured “entrepreneurial journalism,” in which writers received part of the ad revenue their pages produced. It also offered a product called “AdSlant,” which offered marketers a paid blogging platform.
In a much talked about purchase, Forbes bought out True/Slant earlier this year. DVorkin, whose journalistic pedigree includes the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, the New York Times, AOL and TMZ, re-joined Forbes as chief product officer, responsible for all editorial areas of the company including the print publications and Forbes.com.
Advoice Crossing the Line?
Now Forbes has an offering called Advoice, which, like AdSlant, offers paid blog space to advertisers. “In this case the marketer or advertiser is part of the Forbes environment, the news environment,” DVorkin told Ad Age. “Marketers need to reach the audience. This is where publishing is headed.”
Some marketers praised the idea, but many journalists did not. Mathew Ingram of GigaOm questioned whether Forbes was selling its journalistic soul.
Advertorials — special advertising sections in print publications that evoke an editorial tone and design — remain a source of controversy, said Rick Edmonds, the Poynter Institute’s media business analyst and leader of news transformation. Reporters, he said, don’t want readers to confuse objective reporting with advertising.
“As a reader of [Forbes.com] I would have a reasonable comfort level if it’s labeled as advertising but not so much if it isn’t,” he said. He also noted that many blogs and websites currently fail to disclose when content is sponsored or produced in exchange for free products.
Gentzel said advertisers will hold no sway over Forbes’ writers. And if the Advoice bloggers need coaching or help, assistance would come from the business, not editorial, side.
“We are not out to ever try to confuse a reader or user,” Gentzel said. “It’s the exact opposite of that. This will only work — and will work — by the clear and transparent labeling of the voices. The last thing we’d ever do is confuse a reader about what they’re reading.”
DVorkin has written that Forbes wants to provide opportunities for the voices of content creators, the audience and marketers to all engage in print and online.
“The bold steps that Forbes is taking to evolve its products will help lead journalism to its future,” he wrote. “Our goal is clear: to put news and the journalist at the center of social media. If we can accomplish that, we will go a long way to providing our audiences with the information they want — and enabling the three vital voices of the media business to be active participants in the larger conversation.”
Gentzel said that while there’s no firm launch date, the “larger conversation” could start very soon.
“As a content creator who’s listening to marketing partners, we think marketing partners can provide amazing expertise to our readers and users,” Gentzel said.
Tempest Over Obama Critique
At the same time Forbes is pursuing its new Advoice product and strategy, it’s also investing heavily in social media. DVorkin has said this is part of a process of “opening up” Forbes.
Active Twitter accounts include
ForbesLife and ForbesAsia. Reporters and editors regularly interact with readers online. In August Forbes.com launched new blogs written by both staffers and outside contributors. (Disclosure: I offered to become a blogger for Forbes and sometimes pitch stories about clients to Forbes.) In September, a new web platform for the Forbes 400 debuted, letting readers “follow” the richest Americans, receive email alerts and converse about them.
“I’ve been impressed with their aggressive rethinking of what qualifies as content,” said consultant and CNN veteran David Clinch, president of Clinch Media Consultancy. He’s helping Forbes utilize high definition Skype cameras to conduct instant video interviews with newsmakers and contributors. “They have moved far beyond just the idea of an article and a picture and byline and moved to real-time content, and they’ve done a good job of coordinating that and getting writers and contributors familiar with social media.”
Bloggers write what they like, even criticizing Forbes itself. Dinesh D’Souza’s Sept. 27 cover story opened with the unattributed statement that “Barack Obama is the most anti-business president in a generation, perhaps in American history.” The former Reagan policy analyst’s essay suggests that people should examine the views of Obama’s Kenyan father to understand the president’s “hostility to private enterprise.”
In response, Forbes’ Craig Silver wrote: “I hope that the powers that be at Forbes will see that promoting such offal can’t help but damage the brand, keeping serious journalists from wanting to appear in our pages and maybe even advertisers.” Columnist Shikha Dalmia, a senior analyst at Reason Foundation, described D’Souza’s story as a pathetic rant of unsubstantiated ideological accusations.
Dalmia told PBS MediaShift that Forbes insiders responded positively to her comments. “On the whole, I think they were fair in how they handled my response,” she wrote in an email. “[They] didn’t try and water it down or in any way soften my criticism of D’Souza or Forbes, which is unusual to say the least.”
The Poynter Institute’s Edmonds said such public disagreements can be healthy. “I’m a bit more disturbed by publications taking the party line or essentially sticking to a business agenda,” he said.
While several journalists, including editors Paul Maidment and Carl Lavin have indeed left, others have recently jumped to Forbes Media. They include AOL DailyFinance.com media reporter Jeff Bercovici, who covered Dalmia and Silver’s criticisms of the controversial cover. (His article noted that DVorkin encouraged public conflict at True/Slant, where Bercovici was a paid contributor.)
Other recent additions include Kashmir Hill, an editor at the irreverent online legal blog Above the Law, Huffington Post world editor Nicholas Sabloff, and Halah Touryalai, who covered Wall Street for Registered Rep. Former staffer Zack O’Malley Greenburg returned after taking time off to write a book about rapper and businessman Jay-Z.
Long-time Forbes reader Michael Shmarak, a principal with Sidney Maxwell Public Relations, says Forbes’ re-do “is like putting some Dolce & Gabanna clothes in a closet full of Brooks Brothers power suits.
“Forbes now has to treat itself just like many of the companies it has covered,” he said. “All of these policies won’t mean anything unless the staff believes in it, and readers embrace the change.”
Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.