Posting vs. Writing?

by Lewis DVorkin and Forbes, Inc.

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

Posting content for participatory consumers is much different than writing for traditional readers. That’s just as true for a large site like Forbes.com as it was for our small startup four years ago. At Forbes, reporters and contributors need to write for their audience, not their editors. They also need to “transact” with their readers, that is engage with them one-on-one. It’s not an easy transition for die hard journalists to make. In fact, it helps explain what The Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau chief said to me during my very first job interview: “We like to hire college graduates. We don’t have to break them of bad habits.”

A year into publishing on our platform, Anthony Kosner is ridding himself of some old beliefs. Anthony was a magazine designer for Time Inc., Conde Nast, McGraw Hill and others, then moved into content strategy and Web development. Anthony and I go way back. He was the art director of a magazine I co-founded in the early 90s (I can still remember the 3 am closes and Chinese food), and we’ve worked on other projects since. He now lives in Portland, Maine. When I first started T/S, he was quite candid with me: “I really don’t get where all this is going.” Anthony’s a smart, inquisitive guy with a deep lineage in the media business, so his skepticism did give me some pause.

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Posting content for participatory consumers is much different than writing for traditional readers. That’s just as true for a large site like Forbes.com as it was for our small startup four years ago. At Forbes, reporters and contributors need to write for their audience, not their editors. They also need to “transact” with their readers, that is engage with them one-on-one. It’s not an easy transition for die hard journalists to make. In fact, it helps explain what The Wall Street Journal’s Chicago bureau chief said to me during my very first job interview: “We like to hire college graduates. We don’t have to break them of bad habits.”

A year into publishing on our platform, Anthony Kosner is ridding himself of some old beliefs. Anthony was a magazine designer for Time Inc., Conde Nast, McGraw Hill and others, then moved into content strategy and Web development. Anthony and I go way back. He was the art director of a magazine I co-founded in the early 90s (I can still remember the 3 am closes and Chinese food), and we’ve worked on other projects since. He now lives in Portland, Maine. When I first started T/S, he was quite candid with me: “I really don’t get where all this is going.” Anthony’s a smart, inquisitive guy with a deep lineage in the media business, so his skepticism did give me some pause.

Today, Anthony is a believer in our evolving model for incentive-based, entrepreneurial journalism. He uses words like “machine” and “addictive” to describe our publishing platform. In an email exchange after our video interview, he said: “What is so gratifying about the Forbes platform is that it rewards the quality of your content. Quantity, timing, relevance and engagement with social media help to make the most of that quality, and in some ways constitute that quality. But it’s much more than a numbers game. On Forbes you don’t have to shout or canoodle to get heard. You just have to write great headlines that are supported by great stories that are about subjects that people actually care about.”

Our contributors, all hand-picked by our editors, need to have angles, or beats, that fall within one of our key topic channels. It’s largely their responsibility to attract and build an audience and engage with their community, or followers. I love to talk with contributors to see how they’re doing. Many are getting it, some remain a bit frustrated. Few have given up. Anthony writes about Web and app developers and the new products they bring to market. To be honest, I find it a little unfocused at times, but he’s certainly building an audience. Last month, he had more 400,000 unique visitors, up from the 40,000 he was struggling to maintain early on.

What clicked for Anthony? “At the highest level, I think I was bitten with the challenge and made a commitment to myself to do more and better. So that made me really look at which posts were getting the most attention and try to understand what had legs and why.” Anthony says that meant figuring out the intersection points of two dynamics: the news cycle and waves of social media.

Native digital journalists seem to instinctively get those connections. That’s not the case for many traditional reporters. If they do figure it out, there’s another hurdle to clear: self-promotion. In their mind, that’s a dirty job for PR people, not journalists. “You told me years ago,” Anthony said, “that this was all about personal branding, about becoming a content brand. I have always mistrusted outward attempts at branding. But I do realize how important it is to support the things you make with appropriately targeted marketing. Otherwise, what you are doing doesn’t really exist in any meaningful social way.”

As a group, many contributors are finding great success on the Forbes platform. Since last June, 55 writers who had already attracted 20,000 monthly unique visitors or more went on to at least double their audience, to as high as 600,000. Many did so, like Anthony, in a matter of months. A handful now periodically break the 1 million monthly reader mark.

Don’t get me wrong. Classic reporting skills are desperately needed as journalism moves into the digital age. As I’ve written here and here, good, old-fashioned fact-gathering, clear and strong writing and topic knowledge is vitally important to Forbes as we go about the business of combining our traditional media values with the dynamics of digital publishing. We’ve had our successes and our miscues. In building The New Newsroom, we continue to get better at educating staffers and contributors alike. We hold regular Webinars on headline writing, the law, social media, basic technology and entering the news cycle. It’s not uncommon for 70 to 100 people to participate in each session.

Many journalists are at a crossroads in their professional lives. The media’s woes have resulted in layoffs, furloughs and general newsroom belt tightening. Digital publishing and social media have unleashed far more competitive voices than traditional news organizations are accustomed to. Anthony, like others, has found a home on Forbes.com. ”For the past few years,” he said, “I have been researching what’s been happening in a bunch of corners of technology – web development, product design, mobile apps, content strategy, social media – and also several branches of scientific and social research. Suddenly I realized that at Forbes, I had a container for all of that information and an audience that was interested in many of the same things.”

I get what Anthony is saying. I’ve written much more under my own brand on Forbes.com than I ever did at True/Slant. For better or worse for my audience, I felt it important to share my nearly 40-year journey through the media landscape. Anthony says writing has increased his skills as a digital designer and developer. My posts have helped me better understand the challenges of moving a traditional media company into the future. It’s certainly made it easier for each of us to keep up with the conversation that propels us forward in one new exciting way after another.

Simply put, Forbes is about great journalists and all the people out there we can find who know the most about the topics that business news enthusiasts are interested in. It’s how we do journalism.
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