On Thursday, Forbes.com launched a new blog page utilizing the platform first developed by the blog network True/Slant, which it recently acquired. News last week that True/Slant was being shut down was met with a bevy of nostalgic posts and comments on the True/Slant site and elsewhere. But it is now evident that the experiment is not over, and that site founder Lewis Dvorkin is merely testing its guiding principles on a “bigger stage.”
True/Slant was a loose organization of individual writers, a range of voices who covered the political spectrum and had the freedom to write whatever they liked, from Winona Ryder’s film career to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous book sales. It was a model similar to The Huffington Post, in that the goal was to attract as much content as possible, but with a wider range of political viewpoints and a higher barrier to entry. The site explored the idea that online readers were more likely to respond to individual writers than to an institution.
Writers on True/Slant were paid stipends for their pieces, but they were also free to solicit advertisers that would match up to their content, if they liked, and share in the revenue they brought to the site. Dvorkin calls this model “entrepreneurial journalism.”
Forbes Media—one of the original investors of the project in 2008—was intrigued with the results. In April, the company brought Dvorkin on as a consultant to their own site redesign. (Soon thereafter, they hired him full time as chief product officer.) As Peter Kafka at All Things Digital wrote at the time,
Employees there say COO Tim Forbes has been particularly enamored of True/Slant’s low-cost, high-frequency approach to content generation, so you can read into this move what you will.
Following that move, Forbes bought True/Slant, and just as quickly shut it down. Some True/Slant writers stayed on to contribute to the new Forbes.com blog and some did not. The clean layout, heavy emphasis on social media, and prominent page-view rankings were all transferred to the new Forbes blog. The bloggers (some, not all of whom are Forbes staff writers) post their own content as well as “headline grabs” showing what they’re reading online at the time. Parts of the blog page are similar in feel to a Facebook feed, which jives with Dvorkin’s own description of the page as “a blogging platform that puts news…at the center of social media.”
It being Forbes, the blogs’ content is business-focused, but in general Dvorkin seems guided by a “more is more, faster is better” content philosophy. Shortly after he arrived at Forbes.com, Dvorkin explained his overarching strategy for the future of the site in an interview with New York Observer reporter Zeke Turner:
“Moving forward, when I look at an operation like Forbes, I look at a mixture of a full-time staff base and hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance contributors. It’s that blend,” Mr. D’Vorkin said.
“That’s what we did at True/Slant,” Mr. D’Vorkin continued. “We let the reporter self-publish-boom! We’re working through that at Forbes: How do you create a less layered process at the magazine?”
As it turns out, Dvorkin is not just allowing Forbes writers to run their own blogs, he is requiring it. Earlier this week, when news of the re-launch reached Business Insider, Joe Pompeo reported: “We also hear that every reporter will now be required to have his or her own blog, and that most are starting from scratch.”
It will be interesting to see how this transition goes. True/Slant writers who wrote, voluntarily, as little or as often as they wished, about whatever struck their fancy, are not necessarily the same breed of writer who reports business news for Forbes on deadline, and presumably have other responsibilities at the magazine. Still, early signs are promising. Judging from the day of their launch, the blogs are filled with substantial, original content, rather than “story behind the story” introversions that news sites sometimes use to beef up online content.
As of the first day, examples include a brief post on the news that dozens of billionaires were pledging half of their fortunes to charity, an interview with the creator of an app that can hack iPhones, and an update on rumors about who could be the next editor of Newsweek. Each post also involves a roundup of links to news and opinion elsewhere, its author pointing to a discussion on the Internet and inviting comment from the reader without necessarily taking a particular stand.
Dvorkin writes on his own blog on Forbes.com about the redesign:
These are ambitious times at Forbes, one of the most storied brands in American media. We recognize and embrace the need for an all-inclusive conversation. Consumers want their voices to heard on an equal playing field with content creators. Marketers want to get their message across in new ways that enable them to form relationships with both the audience and journalists.
These dual visions of journalist-as-brand and news-as-conversation have gained a lot of traction in recent years. In a broad sense, encouraging journalists to develop and individualize their voices as well as their beats seems like a good idea. Putting focus on those voices rather than on a magazine’s overall brand does too. But it’s unclear whether these models will work with Forbes.com’s particular audience. (It’s the exact opposite of the Economist style, where the pieces are all written in a consistent voice and its writers don’t even get bylines.) The casual, individualized tone of a True/Slant blog won’t necessarily translate to a staid Forbes story about oil markets, for instance. So what reason will Forbes.com readers have to “follow” or “friend” (or whatever) a particular reporter over another? Perhaps readers will be “fans” of particular beats, rather than reading columnists for their unique writing styles.
Another important difference, though, between the original True/Slant experiment and this new iteration of Forbes.com is that True/Slant was a completely blank slate, but Forbes is a well established news institution. Forbes is already its own brand, already has a readership, and that readership has certain expectations.
The danger of an “everyone blogs” edict is that it might dilute that brand, which can play out in at least two ways. One, reporters may find themselves distracted by the hungry beast of the blog and less able to report and write the other, longer stories they had previously devoted their time to. If the quality of the writing goes down, that can counteract the benefits presumed by an uptick in the quantity of the writing. Two, the aforementioned combination of “thousands [of] freelance contributors” and a “less layered process” will loosen editorial control, and, potentially, lessen the quality of the content coming into the site from the outside.
The latter does not seem to be a concern of Dvorkin’s, however. In an April True/Slant post on the occasion of its first anniversary, when the site’s founders wrote about what they had learned in the first year, Dvorkin wrote: “Editorial command and control is a relic of the past and has no place in a Web world. It will slow you down, cost you and stifle the upheaval you want to unleash.” And in his interview with the Observer, he emphasized that stories should be thought of as products. Specifically, print products are about quality; online products are about speed:
‘The editing process online is vastly different than in print,’ he said. ‘There is a fit and finish that you must have in print. Online, it’s not about fit and finish; it’s about the flow of information, the updates of information. It’s about relevance and timeliness. It’s not about craftsmanship. Quality online does not equal craftsmanship.’
So what is it we are unleashing here? And how will the upheaval be received? Web site redesigns and corporate rebranding efforts are always a bit of a crapshoot. You can invest money in a new logo, a new Web platform, and new consultants, but you can’t guarantee that that ethereal brand transformation will necessarily take hold in the minds of your audience. Indeed, even if your company succeeds in redefining your brand, you might alienate your old loyal audience in the attempt to win yourself a new one.
On the other hand, if the “old” audience isn’t doing you any good, then you might not have much to lose anyway. One can argue that, given the state of the online news industry, upheaval is good, and the time for Hail Mary passes is upon us. But it has to be someone’s job to ask the nagging question, how should we define success? A site can be deemed successful if it attracts enough page views to sell enough ads to stick around to die another day. Or we could define success in journalistic terms alone; in that case, quantity will never trump quality.