They don’t make bylines like they used to. In July, I read a story on Forbes.com by someone named Rick Ungar. I found the story through Facebook—someone had shared it on my feed. Like most news articles on Facebook, it displayed just a picture, a short-source URL (Forbes.com in this case), and a headline: “Hobby Lobby Invested In Numerous Abortion And Contraception Products While Claiming Religious Objection.” I hadn’t read Forbes in a while, but I trusted its reporting, and the headline sounded like straight-ahead news, so I clicked.
“In what just may be the most stunning example of hypocrisy in my lifetime . . . .”
Just 14 words in and I knew something was off. It went on, “Mother Jones has uncovered . . . .” As the writer’s indignation piled up, it became clear: Ungar wasn’t on Forbes’ staff. He was an opinion writer irked by something he had read.
In the Forbes vernacular, Ungar is a “contributor.” Next to the headline was a picture of Ungar with the pithy line, “I write from the left on politics and policy,” followed by a disclaimer: “Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.” But that didn’t keep Salon from linking to an Ungar post with this line: “At Forbes, Rick Ungar reports . . . .” You can find plenty of sites that cloak Ungar in the gravitas of Forbes’ 97-year-old journalistic reputation. A post of Ungar’s about the Affordable Care Act, in which he refers to some Republican-appointed federal appeals court judges as “lunatics,” even shows up in Google News.
Ungar is one of 1,400 contributors at Forbes.com. The concept of stuffing a website with free content started with new-media outlets like The Huffington Post. Now, journalism institutions that built their names on reporting and editorial scrutiny are loading up on content that requires minimal editing or compensation to the people who produce it—in some cases, none at all.
125 editorial staff
250‑300 posts per day
The appeal is clear: For very little money, a publication can have broader and more voluminous coverage than its paid staff can provide—and the desperately needed advertising revenue that comes with it. Contributors can bring expertise that staff lack, and you never know, one of them could turn out to be a star.
Contributors can also build a new audience and create a sense of community that keeps readers coming back. Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-media sites now serve that function, and media companies long to make something similar happen on their own sites.
Forbes has been the mainstream media pioneer for this model. But others are plunging in. Entertainment Weekly has The Community, a beta site where television fans write episode recaps and discuss the industry. Condé Nast Traveler relaunched its website in mid-August with just over a dozen contributors and plans to add more. The Dallas Morning News and a venerable congressional-news publication, The Hill, went live this spring with networks of bloggers writing on all manner of subjects.
Some publications actually have more outside contributors than paid staff. Forbes, for example, has 125 editorial staff and 1,400 contributors. That’s a gamble. Posts like Ungar’s can dilute a publication’s brand when readers come looking for the kind of journalism they’re used to Forbes producing. And in the absence of editing, anything can happen, from flagrant conflicts of interest to fabrication, plagiarism, and outright libel. If the amount of contributed content outpaces a publisher’s ability to comb through it, the audience is likely to edit it for them in the comment section and elsewhere. The internet can be both self-correcting and unforgiving. But that’s never kept unscrupulous writers from trying to sneak one by.
“All it takes is one, two, three questionable things,” said Bob Cusack, editor of The Hill. “If you don’t have a system [for oversight], then people—not all people, but some people—are gonna try to take advantage of it.” The contributor model offers publishers a path toward broader coverage and more revenue, so long as it doesn’t blow up in their face first.
Around 250 to 300 stories go up on the forbes site each day. Forbes Media spokeswoman Mia Carbonell wouldn’t tell me what proportion comes from contributors. But my own spot survey of 24 hours worth of posts found around 80 percent coming from contributors. Forbes says nearly 500 of the site’s contributors are paid, and that about one-third are freelance journalists. That leaves most contributors coming from non-journalistic backgrounds and getting paid nothing at all. No matter their background or compensation, all contributors can publish their own work without so much as a cursory edit.
This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR with the headline, "Byline, anyone?"