Eight Points of Clarity

by Lewis DVorkin and Forbes, Inc.

This chapter is a free excerpt from The Forbes Model For Journalism In The Digital Age.

The media landscape is packed with grand old brands, many fighting to reinvent their identity. Some are chasing bright, shiny objects; new technology tricks abound. Some are trying to mimic a competitor’s ideas (“it’s working for them, let’s make it work for us, too”). Still others are “Cool Chasers,” partygoers fawning over the sexy new “voice” of the Web or the It designer of the moment.

Everybody wants some cool. Who wouldn’t want a little Miles Davis or Keith Richards in their lives? Actually, I think the Forbes message is kind of cool. As the world puts more hope and faith in the spunk and nimbleness of entrepreneurial dreamers, Forbes is backing them all the way, just as it always has. My colleague, Tom Post, phrased it well: “Start with clarity, come up with cool,” he said. “If you don’t, you end up with new but incoherent.”

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The media landscape is packed with grand old brands, many fighting to reinvent their identity. Some are chasing bright, shiny objects; new technology tricks abound. Some are trying to mimic a competitor’s ideas (“it’s working for them, let’s make it work for us, too”). Still others are “Cool Chasers,” partygoers fawning over the sexy new “voice” of the Web or the It designer of the moment.

Everybody wants some cool. Who wouldn’t want a little Miles Davis or Keith Richards in their lives? Actually, I think the Forbes message is kind of cool. As the world puts more hope and faith in the spunk and nimbleness of entrepreneurial dreamers, Forbes is backing them all the way, just as it always has. My colleague, Tom Post, phrased it well: “Start with clarity, come up with cool,” he said. “If you don’t, you end up with new but incoherent.”

Eight points of clarity have driven our efforts to disrupt the media model for news.

1) Embrace The Content Continuum

At the core of social media, everyone is publishing and sharing content to form deeper relationships with people they know or to connect with those they would like to know. For Forbes, “everyone” means the three vital voices of the media business: journalists, the audience and marketers.

We give members of each group the opportunity to publish – or certainly to openly participate and co-mingle – in a credible business news environment. The key is transparency. Everyone’s role is clearly identified and labeled. To that end, we’ve supplemented our full-time staff of experienced reporters with a community of carefully selected qualified contributors (freelance journalists, authors, academics, topic experts and business leaders), each building an audience around their name and knowledge.

For readers and users, we’ve placed their comments into the natural flow of our Web site and magazine. We’ve enabled marketers to say what’s on their minds, too. Our evolving AdVoice platform gives them the same tools as our journalists and contributors to publish content on Forbes.com and the opportunity to do the same in print, in every case always prominently delineated. In the last two years, we’ve built a brand-building platform for journalists, participatory readers and marketers – all under the Forbes umbrella brand and our mission.

2) Recognize the Individual as a Brand: This trend actually began a century ago (William Randolph Hearst loved collecting celebrity journalists, including B.C. Forbes, our founder). In more modern times, national newspapers, broadcast television and cable turned many anchors (Walter Cronkite), reporters (Sam Donaldson) and columnists (Evans and Novak) into star brands. Each depended on a big media organization for distribution, marketing and so much more. The digital era and social media enable knowledgeable content creators to build audiences and followings on their own. Our full-time staffers now publish under their names, as do contributors, who remain independent operators. They all belong to a curated network of branded experts that naturally attracts other qualified writers who want to be part of a group that now totals 1,000.

3) Build a Labor Model for the Times

The economics of the digital era demand new, more efficient staffing models. The key is a scalable structure that enables qualified voices to provide quality content – and lots of it – to meet the demands of voracious business news consumers.
  • We’ve built a hybrid model that includes full-time editors and reporters and nearly 1,000 experienced contributors across our eight key verticals, all of whom increasingly play the role of content creator, producer and programming manager using a new set of tools we’re putting in their hands.
  • We’ve implemented The New Newsroom: a veteran staff of editors, hard-bitten reporters, tech-savvy digital journalists and our distributed workforce of qualified contributors. Without increasing the number of our salaried staff, we’ve added a producer desk to support our content creators and an audience development team to help market them across the digital world’s varied information ecosystems. They use our state-of-the-art publishing tools and data analytics to create, program and distribute high-quality content.
4) Reimagine Products from the Inside Out

We didn’t try to remake a Web site – or a magazine, for that matter – all at once. The time it takes to redesign, deploy technology, rethink the workflow, analyze staff requirements, and then put it all together will make a product outdated immediately upon completion – that is, if the weight of it all doesn’t come crashing down on you first (did I ever learn that during eight years at AOL). So, we found our strategic center and built out from there, one code release after another, one magazine template after another.

In a multi-platform, multi-device world, our goal is a fluid branded Forbes experience with consistent and continuous engagement across all our products. The starting point was our signature list, The Forbes 400. We built a scalable Web profile page that worked for each individual Rich List-er, combining real-time content, data and social connections (we later re-fashioned the page for companies, places, colleges and sports teams). The look and feel and functionality moved easily to the iPad. Simultaneously, we built a compatible multi-layered module-and-template system for Forbes 400 profiles in print.

5) Make Publishing and Programming Fast and Easy

The new economics of digital media necessitate the blurring of traditional roles and their functions. Today’s content creators must be writers, editors, producers and both photo and video editors, often performing all those tasks for one piece of content. That requires easy-to-use publishing tools for Web, tablet and mobile production. The trick to that: don’t build them all from scratch, but customize and streamline open source tools for the desired workflow.

We built tools that give journalists more creative freedom to program, curate and filter what’s on their pages, lessening the role of content algorithms. We found that site editors needed flexible tools, too. We gave them the ability to mix and match content types (posts, photos, videos, comments, tweets, etc.) and to create experiences that engage consumers with variety and depth.

6) Evangelize a Data Culture: In August 2010, we introduced Web screens with a public page-view counter Suddenly, everyone could see how many times a story had been viewed – the audience, all our authors, their colleagues and their friends. At first, staffers and contributors were uncomfortable. It was upsetting for them to see when their posts didn’t attract attention. Many lobbied for the counters to be removed. I’ve felt for quite awhile that real-time feedback would help journalists better serve their readers. “The data is to inform your journalism, not to rule it,” I would say. Then something fascinating began to occur: when the counter wasn’t working, publishing slowed to a trickle. The data feedback loop had become that important to our content creators. Today, the counter is working beautifully. Our staffers and contributors are building even bigger audiences. Each has an individualized real-time data dashboard.

7) Join and Engage the Community

The job of a journalist has changed. It’s no longer solely about reporting and writing or doing a video stand-up. The entrepreneurial journalist seeks out an audience, then understands it and engages with it. I call it “transactional” journalism. Today’s journalist needs to be part of the conversation in such a way that builds loyalty to their individual brand and knowledge. Journalists must work to encourage others to participate in the dialogue and share their content with others.

When staffers, contributors or AdVoice marketing partners publish with our tools, they can choose to simultaneously post their content to Facebook and Twitter (effectively marketing it). Their tweets can similarly be published on relevant Forbes.com channels.

Most important, content creators can manage their communities through our commenting tool. Each staffer and contributor can approve, or “Call Out,” user comments that further the conversation in productive ways. Their own comments on each others’ pages are automatically Called Out. Only Called Out comments appear on page load. All comments and the entire threaded conversation can be accessed by clicking the “All Comments” tab. The result is a rewarding discussion without the noise. I just love it when someone says to me, “The conversation on Forbes is so civil.” Our comment system is the reason why.

To me, this feature reflects our emphasis on the authenticity of our digital content. Sure, self-publishing is not always perfect. There are typos, misspellings and sentence fragments that we always do our best to correct quickly through close monitoring. But the information, tied to deep knowledge, context and passion, is what makes the posts and the conversation come alive. Updating, clarification and even correcting should be celebrated as a part of the story process itself. And it should be seen as the ultimate form of audience engagement. It’s great to see staffers and contributors engage in intense dialogue with the Forbes.com audience (check out a few such examples here and here).

8) Focus on The Message

For us, there is no better place to showcase our mission than on the cover of Forbes magazine. In the issues following our print re-architecture and redesign (which coincided with our site re-architecture, the release of iPad apps and later an upgraded mobile site), we have presented a strong, clear and consistent message: social media is about the individual. Our covers anoint individuals with impact: from Warren Buffett and Jay-Z, to Bernard Arnault, Bill Gates, Julian Assange, Arianna Huffington, Sean Parker, Sheldon Adelson, Clayton Christensen and so many others. We have unique access to the world’s most powerful players, and each fits with the clarity of the Forbes mission. Each has helped us retain focus in developing our other products.

Thinking and Acting Like a Startup

Forbes is disrupting traditional media, changing and growing in profound ways. We produce, present and pay for much of our content differently. We staff, distribute and market it differently. We put data at the core of everything we’re doing – to inform our journalism, not rule it. We listen. We engage. We digest it all. We learn. Then, we adapt and move forward. Digital media is organic, so we work hard to move through it in a methodical manner.

We’re approaching the journalistic world with an inquisitive eye and a startup mentality while remaining deeply committed to our traditional media values and standards. We’ve fast become a platform for content creators across The Content Continuum. When you keep adding talent who otherwise wouldn’t being working for you to a growing network of passionate readers, who knows where it can go.

To sum it up: disruption brings joys and challenges. It’s very rewarding to produce quality content that attracts a growing audience – and to do so efficiently. Technological innovation can be frustrating when you’re serving 1,000 content creators around the world and millions of participatory readers. It’s all part of navigating the intersection of the news business and the exploding world of social media. I’ve never paid more attention to all the feedback, both positive and negative. Never have I had the opportunity as I do now to monitor the analytics of every side of the news business in five-second intervals. Never have I been better prepared to do what I do. 
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