Can newsrooms boost traffic without spoiling their brand?

The search for a perfect contributor model

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

Forbes
125 editorial staff
1,400 contributors
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.

The company didn’t adopt this model heedlessly. Lewis D’Vorkin, Forbes Media’s chief product officer, has written prolifically and unapologetically about the reinvention of Forbes.com in the face of declining ad revenue. (D’Vorkin and Mike Perlis, president and ceo, declined to be interviewed for this article.) D’Vorkin stresses Forbes’ dedication to transparency in this strategy. Contributors are labeled as such, and articles written by advertisers get a red “BrandVoice” stamp: “A bright shiny line between journalist and marketer for all to see,” D’Vorkin wrote in The Path Forward for the News Business, one of two ebooks he’s written about the Forbes model.

Scientific American
54 editorial staff
60 contributors
6‑10 posts per day

But transparency is one thing; a lack of editorial oversight is something else. In March, a Fortune piece said Forbes.com was one of several outlets that “published articles by authors who were allegedly paid to promote the stocks they were writing about.” And last year, Forbes apologized to Irish president Michael D. Higgins after freelance journalist David Monagan mistakenly called Higgins an “acknowledged homosexual” in a post on Forbes.com.

Monagan took to the Irish Independent a few days later to apologize for his “whopper” and resign publicly from Forbes’ contributor stable. He also let loose on Forbes as a publishing model that allows hundreds of writers to click “post” without any of the review that professional journalists receive.  “The crux of the issue is that there is no editing almost ever,” Monagan told me, in reference to Forbes. “You know, the fantastic hit machine.”

D’Vorkin acknowledges that some of Forbes’ contributors have missed the mark. But he doesn’t doubt the model. And from a financial perspective, he probably shouldn’t. Last November, Forbes Media asked Deutsche Bank to shop the company around, hoping it would sell for $400 million, according to a New York Times report at the time. Three months later, the search for a buyer was “running into trouble,” with three potential foreign buyers backing off, according to Bloomberg News. On July 18, however, Forbes Media announced that a Hong Kong-based media investment firm called Integrated Whale (dibs on the band name) had bought a majority stake. The New York Times cited a source valuing the deal at $475 million.

The Dallas Morning News
331 editorial staff*
59 contributors
2‑5 posts per day

Analysts differ on the implications. Some discount the sale as a foreign buyer making a trophy purchase. But “the writing is on the wall,” according to Ed Sussman, who launched a similar contributor network at FastCompany.com in 2008 and is now ceo of a content-management system called Buzzr.

“I think reader and contributor networks are just going to expand, spurred on by this Forbes sale,” said Sussman.

As the mainstream media embraces cheap content, the search is on for the sweet spot—a model that generates plenty of content with strong, independent voices, yet provides enough editorial oversight to ensure that the brand remains unsullied. The Hill, with an editorial staff of 45, has recruited more than 200 contributors to bring “expertise” from across the political spectrum to politics and policy. The section launched in late May and generates between five and eight posts per day. Contributors are paid (but The Hill won’t say how much). One editor oversees the 200 writers in the network, and gives a light edit to the incoming copy.

And because The Hill, given its subject matter, vets contributors for potential conflicts, much of the editor’s work takes place before one word is typed. The editor uses public records and asks writers whether they have clients working on bills discussed in their pieces, or whether their firms are working on similar issues. A disclaimer runs at the top of every piece: “The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.”

Earlier this year, The Dallas Morning News rolled out Insiders Network, an unpaid contributor network that now includes 59 people. They each write for one of five blogs, including two about suburban towns, one on craft beer and cocktails, and one on LGBTQ issues. “It’s really important to involve people who are really close to the topics in the community,” said Keith Campbell, who helps run the network. “They’re almost sort of like extra eyes and ears for us.”

The Hill
45 editorial staff
200 contributors
5-8 posts per day

The idea builds on Neighborsgo, a project the News started nearly a decade ago to deliver hyperlocal print editions to Dallas-area communities. The current, online version of Neighborsgo allows readers to post stories directly to the site. In a given month, about 1,100 people make contributions, mostly press releases from schools, nonprofits, and businesses. This content is housed on the Neighborsgo website in an orange box that says, “Your stories, your news.”

In the new contributor project, The Dallas Morning News, like Forbes, posts bios for every blogger and uses a tag (“Insider”) to distinguish contributors from reporters. All content is approved by an editor before it is posted, an arrangement that limits the number of bloggers the site can handle. “You don’t want a situation where you’re not aware of what’s going on,” Campbell said. “This is still in its infancy. We’re already talking about what we should do to tweak it.”

Any newsroom considering the bargain-content model will quickly see that a core philosophical question arises: Do you consider these people independent bloggers or something more akin to op-ed columnists? Scientific American editor in chief Mariette DiChristina says she believes that outside contributors are essentially bloggers and should remain unedited, despite controversy over a few contributor posts on her site in the last year. “I guess I’m among the people who have tended to think that bloggers were a little more independent than everything being edited and factchecked prior to publication,” she said. “Otherwise, it would be Scientific American, not a blog network.”

Still, DiChristina is aware of the risk, having learned the hard way. Last October, Scientific American blogger and biologist Danielle N. Lee published a post accusing a representative of another blog network of calling her a “whore” in an email after she declined an invitation to blog for free at that site. Scientific American pulled Lee’s post down and DiChristina tweeted, “@sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.” Hundreds of critical tweets and a “#boycottsciam” hashtag followed. The post eventually went back up, and in a long editor’s note, DiChristina wrote that the post was removed for legal reasons until the other network, Biology-Online, confirmed the exchange.

Despite its policy on publishing blogs unedited, Scientific American has always had an editor to work with this cast of bloggers. The first, Bora Zivkovic, had come from a “blogging tradition,” DiChristina said. “We saw how that went, and decided over time that for our brand we needed an editor from the journalistic tradition.” Scientific American got its chance just days after Lee’s post, when Zivkovic resigned following accusations of sexual harassment. DiChristina brought in Curtis Brainard, who previously oversaw media criticism of science and environment reporting at CJR. He started last January.

DiChristina and Brainard brought more oversight to SciAm’s blogging. “We had given our blog network the keys to the car,” DiChristina said, “but hadn’t really explained to them all the rules of Scientific American’s particular road.” Training began for bloggers in copyright and libel issues; bloggers were told to consult with an editor if they planned to post content outside their blog’s particular mission; Brainard began assembling the first written guidelines for Scientific American bloggers.

By July, however, Brainard found himself writing his own editor’s note. Blogger Ashutosh Jogalekar had generated controversy with some posts related to race and gender, including a positive review of a book arguing that, as Jogalekar wrote, “those who claim that race is only a social construct are ignoring increasingly important findings from modern genetics and science.”

“Sensitive issues require extra care,” Brainard wrote in response, “and that did not happen here.” Brainard says he told Jogalekar to take greater care on race and gender issues and give him advance notice if he planned to write about controversial topics again. Nine days after Brainard’s editor’s note, Jogalekar wrote about what he called the “casual sexism” of the late scientist Richard Feynman. Rather than condemn Feynman, he argued it was “simplistic” to dismiss Feynman as “ ‘sexist’ across the board,” speculating about his psychological state and pointing out the ubiquity of his kind of attitude toward women in the “giddy postwar years.”

Brainard took down the post. Two days later, he decided that was a mistake. “As a journalist myself, I believe so strongly in the right to free speech. And I believe that the place for even the most distasteful opinions and ideas is out in the public where they can be deconstructed and rebutted in public debate,” he said. The post went back up, but Brainard removed Jogalekar from the magazine’s network, believing his failure to alert him about the Feynman post was a “careless violation of the editorial agreement” they’d made.

Jogalekar told me that he had considerable freedom under the first blog editor, and that the guidelines did not seem to change when Brainard came on board. “That model sort of stayed constant even after he took over,” he said.

Brainard says the changes to the guidelines are being put in writing in hopes of preventing similar episodes. But he recognizes there is an inherent tension in incorporating an unedited platform into an organization that has been publishing journalism for decades. “Really, everything has to be judged on a case-by-case basis,” Brainard said. “There’s no way to actually draft guidelines comprehensive enough to cover every possible scenario that you can imagine.”

The “edit or don’t edit” decision is the first stop on a path to a larger question facing news outlets: Do they want their network to be a hands-off platform or part of the journalistic brand that’s already established?

The Dallas Morning NewsInsiders Network is, of course, an example of the latter. All pieces are edited and the network is much smaller than the paper’s editorial staff. As long as the editor-to-contributor ratio stays manageable, copy can be kept relatively clean. This model has drawbacks, however. The allure of contributed content is that it’s cheap. And a limited network limits the amount of ad revenue it can generate. Another problem is liability. Once you’ve edited an amateur writer, you start to share the responsibility for what’s written. Still, the open-platform approach is the bigger gamble. While it puts more liability for the work on the contributors—at least in theory—the more unedited contributors you add, the more likely one will damage the brand.

In a February 2014 article at Recode.net, Jonathan Glick, CEO of a social platform called Sulia, coined a term to describe media companies that want to be a platform and a publisher at the same time: the portmanteau “platisher.”

Glick suggests media companies with a journalistic reputation at stake need to put distance between their platform and their traditional publishing—but not too much. “Create a new brand,” Glick advises, “where there’s brand inheritance carried over to the new brand, but that it isn’t the actual brand.”

Not only must publishers choose between the high-traffic, high-risk option and the low-traffic, low-risk option, but the dynamics of the industry continue to upend basic pillars of the industry while these decisions are being made.

New York City investment adviser Joshua Brown, who founded the blog The Reformed Broker, has contributed to publishers like Forbes for several years, and it’s helped him professionally. But he increasingly sees the media as a middleman. “I had something retweeted by Mohamed El-Erian,” Brown said. “He’s a thought leader in the investment business, he’s very well-respected. So him retweeting that meant more to me than a corporate media conglomerate doing the same thing an hour later. That’s kind of where the whole thing is headed.”

That’s another way of saying that it’s the readers who are gaining power as the industry contorts itself in first one direction and then the next. And it is readers who can demand more say in the conversation. So far, their thoughts have been relegated to the comment sections of sites, but here, too, revolution is afoot. Gawker Media has developed Kinja, which catalogs each user’s history of comments on an attractive, flexible page where users can post other content—including other Gawker Media headlines—and where Gawker sites can troll for good writing to post on their own front pages. The New York Times and The Washington Post are collaborating with Mozilla and the Knight Foundation on a platform they hope will make commenting a better experience for readers, and make it easier for publishers to incorporate reader contributions into their news streams.

With everyone perched on the publishing platform, the journalists who once had sole domain find their roles changing, too. You can already see it in journalists like Keith Campbell and Curtis Brainard, who are recruiting contributors and looking for efficient ways to render reams of amateur content into something that a professional brand is proud to publish. Gawker Media is demanding an even more powerful alchemy from its editorial staff, asking them to cull the free-for-all at the bottom of the page and turn commenters into contributors. “You’re going to have to take people that have information but don’t know how to communicate it, maybe even aren’t great writers, and figure out how to put that information out in a way that’s useful and good for everyone else,” said Joel Johnson, Gawker Media’s editorial director.

The internet has always been a place where the masses went to make their voices heard. What distinguished journalism was an assurance to the reader: What you are reading is being produced by professionals, information is being verified, voices are being vetted. Once the rest of the world expects their writing, opinions, and ideas to be published, news outlets will also have to distinguish themselves by making sure content from readers and contributors doesn’t rub too closely against content from the newsroom.

If they don’t find that sweet spot, the ones left holding the bag will be the journalists, people trying to make a living in a profession where they believed their reputation would be determined by their own integrity—not the integrity of others.

*The piece has been updated to reflect the correct number of Dallas Morning News newsroom employees.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lawrence Lanahan is a Baltimore-based freelance journalist