Advice for the next owners of Forbes

Reclaiming the legacy of the legendary James Michaels should be the first order of business

The news, broken by Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee, that once mighty Forbes is going on the block after 96 years of mostly family ownership, has evoked mostly shrugs—another day, another fire sale of a journalism icon—with much of the discussion surrounding how well Bono and other minority investors have done from their investment. That, and what to do with the carcass.

The asking price of $400 million would represent at best a salvage operation for both the Forbes family and Elevation Partners, which includes Bono and former Apple executive Fred Anderson, and which paid, according to Fortune’s Dan Primack, $265 million (higher than previous reports) for its 45 percent stake back in 2006, valuing the company at $588 million. Elevation has already written down its investment by 75 percent.

If Forbes doesn’t get its asking price, it won’t be for lack of effort. Since 2010, the Forbes story has been a strenuous effort to reinvent itself as a digital media innovator, creating easily the most frenetic site in business news. It has assembled an army of 1,200 (that’s one thousand, two hundred) mostly bloggers producing dozens of posts a day (a mere 45 between 5pm Saturday and 5pm Sunday; e.g. “Practical jet packs finally take off”); embracing native advertising, the ethically problematic mixing of ads and editorial, to an extent few mainstream outlets have; amping up its conferencing business (itself not without problems), among other things.

The company has also been on an aggressive campaign of late to market itself, pitching its story to other news outlets. News of the sale, for instance, came mere days after the Times did longish and reasonably skeptical profile of the Forbes operation and its CEO, Mike Perlis.

The marketing campaign has included triumphalist claims about its model, taking full advantage of its closely held status to release flattering figures selectively, a not uncommon practice among certain digitally oriented news organizations. Forbes told the Times, for instance, that “advertising revenue for would grow by 35 percent from 2010 to 2013,” the kind of nugget that, without context, reveals very little.

In fact, the enterprise would seem, like most of the media business, to be struggling to hold its own, with ad pages down 12.5 percent in the first nine months of the year, compared to a 6.5 percent decline for arch-rival Fortune (to be fair, Bloomberg Businessweek was off 13.8 percent during the period).

Still, note to prospective buyers: if Deutsche Bank calls, be sure to check under the hood.

Indeed, any chatter about Forbes in recent years has revolved much more about its digital strategy and business model than about its business journalism per se. Pinkerton, in the Times story, calls the Forbes brand these days “diluted,” and it’s hard to argue with that. And here it’s worth remembering an important legacy that any buyer would do well to recall and to reclaim.

Forbes was founded in 1917 by B.C. “Bertie” Forbes, a plunky Scottish immigrant who set the tone for the magazine that became known for its explicit pro-capitalist bent, flattering profiles of moguls, a sometime too-cozy relationship with certain advertisers—and, it should be remembered, the pointed “attack” piece on managers that it believed were no good at their jobs. The very first issue included a piece by Bertie himself titled “High Placed Misfits,” about the incompetent offspring of Jay Gould.

But Forbes was, by all accounts, a struggling, marginal publication—the “National Enquirer of business publications,” in the words of one historical account, until Bertie’s death in 1954 and the ascension of his son, Malcolm, who would become the iconic face of both the magazine and of a new, brash brand of capitalism. Most of us remember the private plane, Capitalist Tool, the Highlander yachts, and the Fabergé eggs on display in the lobby of the magazine’s swank Fifth Avenue headquarters. But, beyond the flash, the Forbes 400 (started in 1982), and other celebrations of wealth, Forbes the magazine was able to established itself as the home of serious business journalism and thereby create the kind of value that attracted Elevation Partners in the first place. And that elevation, so to speak, was due to a large degree to the man Malcolm Forbes promoted to top editor in 1961: James W. Michaels.

The son of a Buffalo burlesque owner, Michaels distinguished himself as a wire reporter (he was first to report Gandhi’s assassination in 1948) and eventually brought a new rigor and edge to the always quirky magazine. He sharpened the magazine’s writing (a colleague said he could “edit the Lord’s Prayer down to six words and nobody would miss anything”) and elevated its “attack piece,” the business investigation, into a Forbes staple and defining feature. The magazine was a talent factory and in the 1980s routinely cranked out killer exposés, including Loeb-award winners like one on a highflying savings and loan, Financial Corporation of America, by Allan Sloan and Howard Rudnitsky, and a takedown by Richard Stern on the notorious small-stock boiler-room operator Robert Brennan.

“Like well-crafted jury summations, they proved, never asserted,” writes a former managing editor, Stewart Pinkerton, of the classic Forbes story. Pinkerton’s 2011 Fall of the House of Forbes, along with Christopher Winans’s excellent 1990 biography, Malcolm Forbes both nicely emphasize Michaels’s outsized role.

Michaels’ tirades were famous (or notorious, depending on whether you were the target). “This isn’t reporting,” he scribbled atop one particularly credulous piece, according to Pinkerton. “It’s stenography! Why is this person still on staff????” In one of my favorite anecdotes, recounted by Pinkerton, Michaels at an editorial meeting spontaneously blurts out: “It’s time for a really nasty story. Let’s really stir up the animals.” The result was a scathing piece on the spendthrift ways of William Agee and wife, Mary Cunningham Agee, who had achieved notoriety for mixing business and romance at Bendix Corp. and who were then involved with construction firm Morrison-Knudsen.

Some of the best Wall Street reporting of the 1990s was done by none other than Gretchen Morgenson before she decamped to the Times. (For the full story on where Forbes fit into business news history, you’ll just have to get [plug alert!] my book: The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism [January 2014, Columbia University Press].)

There were many factors at work, of course, but it wasn’t entirely coincidence that Forbes went from being a second-tier player, at best, with circulation of 130,000 when Michaels arrived to a formidable rival to Fortune and Businessweek with circulation in the 700,000-range by the time he retired in 1999.

The Fabergé eggs are gone; the Fifth Avenue mansion is sold. But when the next owners of Forbes—whomever they are—consider which direction they want to take the magazine, they’d be well advised to read a few back issues and start finding its inner Michaels.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.