How Forbes recruits and maintains its massive contributor network

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Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer for Forbes

Before Mark Rogowsky joined the Forbes contributor network, he had tried his hand at blogging a few times but was unsatisfied with the results. “Every time I’d start blogging, for each new post I would have to rebuild the whole audience from scratch,” he told me in a phone interview. “It’s really frustrating to try to maintain that, and so I didn’t stick with it.” Rogowsky has been a member of the technology space for around 25 years; he started out working in IT, helping people set up and maintain their computers, before getting his MBA at Stanford and later working for and founding several early internet startups. By the time of the dotcom crash, he was burnt out, exhausted, and felt that he needed to take a step back. He joined a technology-related nonprofit and worked there for about five years, but as Silicon Valley began to heat up again, he felt its gravitational pull and started to think about ways he could re-enter the scene.

It was around this time when Rogowsky developed an interest in Quora, a question and answer social network that allows users to pose questions that can be answered by experts on those topics. “Quora syndicates its content to other sites, and one of its first syndication relationships was with Forbes,” he said. “At one point I had like four or five answers syndicated in a 30-day span, which attracted the attention of the Forbes folks, because that was an unusual number from the same person.” A managing editor at the magazine reached out to Rogowsky and asked if he was interested in joining the Forbes contributor network, a recently-launched platform that allowed several hundred experts in a variety of business-related fields to blog regularly on the Forbes website. For Rogowsky, the opportunity to consistently reach an already-established audience solved the aforementioned problem that kept him from blogging regularly. “He asked if I’d be interested, and I said, ‘Oh definitely.’ So that was the beginning.”

That was about two years ago. Since then, Rogowsky has become one of the most popular contributors on the site, writing between 15 and 20 posts a month and generating an average of about 400,000 monthly visitors to his content. A recent post of his published in late October giving his assessment of the iPhone 6 gathered over 200,000 views, and more often than not his pieces pull in at least 10,000. He attributes his success to the time he spent early on attempting to get acclimated to the Forbes platform, testing out which content resonated with its readers. “At first I wasn’t posting very frequently,” he explained. “I was sort of not understanding what balance I wanted to strike” between writing content that was of high quality versus focusing on trending, clickbait topics that would guarantee high traffic. “I eventually realized I could sort of have it both ways; I could write things that I knew were good, whether or not they got big traffic, and I could write things that could get good traffic, and that was a good blend.”

Rogowsky is just one of approximately 1,500 bloggers who write for Forbes’s massive contributor network. The project is the brainchild of Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin, a 40-year veteran of the news industry who launched the network in 2010, more than a decade after he had left his position as executive editor at Forbes to work on AOL’s content offerings (his tenure included the launch of TMZ). In 2008, he founded, with financial investment from Forbes Media, a news website called True/Slant. According to a Wall Street Journal article published at the time of its launch, True/Slant included 65 contributors who were “offered a share of the advertising and sponsorship revenues their individual pages generate” as well as equity in the company.  One of those contributors included Matt Taibbi, then a rising star at Rolling Stone whose articles had built him a growing online audience.

In 2010, True/Slant was sold to Forbes Media, and the Forbes contributor network that sprung out of it replicated both the style and editorial ethos of DVorkin’s original site. A recent piece by Michael Wolff detailing the family dynamics and internal politics within the Forbes empire claimed that DVorkin’s hiring and the launch of the contributor network came just as the company was facing a challenging upheaval, particularly with its top management; later that same year it hired its first CEO who wasn’t a member of the Forbes family and the magazine was facing a “tailspin” as a result of the financial crisis. “DVorkin was given primary editorial responsibility at the company, charged with creating a low-cost, high-traffic model,” Wolff wrote. “It was a kind of prewar/postwar contrast, one world giving way to the other, the necessary invention of a new society.”

When the contributor network first launched, in August 2010, it consisted of a few hundred people, influencers within the industries that Forbes regularly covered. In a phone interview, DVorkin explained that the Forbes website is divided into many channels — investing, technology, entrepreneurs, business, etc. — and each of those channels has a staff editor, typically someone who has been at the magazine for at least a decade. “Each of those editors are responsible for final approval of recruiting and for monitoring all those contributors for the channel.” Each editor also has at least one producer working under him, responsible for editorial review, technology support, and content programming decisions.

Above the channel teams sits what DVorkin calls a “network team.” “They’re responsible for the overall contributor base in terms of the larger strategy and monitoring of things. They deal with our recruiting in terms of identifying the needs of our audience. They watch the data, analytics, and all that kind of stuff.”

With such a large hodgepodge of writers, many with varying degrees of experience writing for professional outlets, I wondered how the magazine managed quality control, ensuring that the content published by the writers would be of professional merit. DVorkin outlined a number of educational initiatives maintained by the staff, including bi-weekly webinars that contributors are invited to call in and listen to. “Sometimes we have hundreds of contributors dialing into a phone call,” he said. “We cover things like education on headline writing, education about formatting, education about our tools, education about how to use the tools of social media, education about libel laws. In many cases we’ve repeated those topics and calls more than once.”

The growth since launching the contributor network, as DVorkin has repeatedly documented for his Forbes blog, has been massive. According to Omniture, Forbes.com hit 64 million monthly uniques in January 2014, an increase from 19.5 million before the network’s launch. In September, DVorkin announced that “nearly 65% of total advertising revenue is digital,” a figure almost unheard of among legacy print publications. Its Twitter following, at 3.6 million, is more than double the following for Fortune Magazine, one of Forbes’s biggest competitors. As the magazine continues to move into native advertising and other content-based revenue streams, it has positioned itself (or perhaps maintained its title) as one of the dominant voices in business news and professional thought leadership.

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It’s easy to see how Forbes benefits from the contributor network, but what about the writers? Two stats stood out to me during my interview with DVorkin: That about 500 of the 1,500 contributors were paid, and of those who were paid, the majority are professional freelance journalists and book authors..

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Faye Flam

Faye Flam is one of those freelance journalists. She spent about 17 years as a science writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, trying to translate difficult and abstruse journal articles for a general audience. Later, she wrote for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, a kind of watchdog publication that analyzed how science was reported on in the news. It was while she was reporting out a piece there that she first came in contact with a Forbes editor. “He reached out to me after the tracker was cancelled to see if I was interested in writing a blog for Forbes.”

For Flam, the idea of writing for an outlet that would give her free rein to write about what she wanted without heavy editorial oversight was appealing. “I feel like I’m capable after doing journalism for several years that I don’t need an editor standing in my way,” she said. The Forbes staffers she worked with sent her a number of documents that offered guidance on writing for the site. “I could see how someone who wasn’t a professional journalist needed to go over all that, but for me it was all pretty familiar.”

Of course the pay was also an incentive as well. In Flam’s case, she said that her contract stipulated that she write a minimum of five posts a month. For that, she would get a flat fee of $200, and then half a cent per unique view of her posts and five cents for repeat visitors. I asked DVorkin what Forbes considers a “repeat visitor.” “If you came and read a post of mine in September, you’d be a first-time visitor,” he explained. “If you came to a second post I did in September, you’d be a repeat visitor.”

So what does all this mean if you’re a writer? Well, assuming that Flam’s pay rates are consistent across the board, if your five posts receive 100,000 unique views in a given month, then that comes out to $500. And if 10,000 of those people viewed a second article, there’s another $500. Add in the $200 flat monthly fee, then that’s $1,200, or $240 per post. “I think that the time spent versus the compensation is reasonable,” said Mark Rogowsky. “Let’s be clear: nobody is getting wealthy off of this. It’s a one piece of making a decent living.” In a blog post published earlier this year, DVorkin revealed that, of those who were paid, “60 made as much or more in 2013 than the $45,250 a year the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the nationwide average for a professional reporter or correspondent. Five or so have built big enough loyal audiences … to top $100,000. Many dozens more make between $10,000 and $25,000.”

As for the rest of the writers, their incentives can be boiled down to a word that has been much-maligned in the journalism industry: “exposure.” When the Huffington Post used the word to justify not paying its army of bloggers, many critics labeled it as exploitative. But I think the word has always been given a bum rap. While there are a subset of professionals who make their livings as writers, there are others who make their money other ways and who would benefit from having an outlet for thought leadership and content marketing.

Chris Cancialosi is a perfect example. He’s a partner at a consulting firm made up of organizational psychologists who work with organizations to assess their “performance through the lens of cultural leadership.” Up until a few years ago, nearly 100 percent of the company’s clients came in via referrals from other previous clients. “But if you were to Google us, you wouldn’t find anything on us. It was hard for people who didn’t know us to find us. So my job in the company as managing partner is really to diversify our revenue streams so we can be more sustainable.”

To do this, he hired a PR firm that specializes in internet thought leadership. Quickly, the firm found several outlets for Cancialosi to write for, typically one or two blog posts a week on topics related to his expertise. Recently, the CEO of that PR firm was asked by a Forbes editor whether he knew anyone who would be interested in writing for the magazine, and the CEO recommended Cancialosi. “It’s been great in terms of getting me a recognizable outlet to be able to share my thoughts,” he said. “Most business leaders get wrapped up in doing the work every day to the point where you don’t think about the work you do as much. By having a deadline every day forcing me to think about this stuff in a different way, it forces me to create an opinion. It forces me to articulate that to others. That’s been really meaningful to me.” Cancialosi said his company, since he began blogging regularly, has seen a “meaningful shift” in its web traffic, and in the last year it received more inbound leads than all previous years combined.

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Andy Semotiuk

Andy Semotiuk, an immigration lawyer who often writes about the intersection of immigration and business, told me that a Forbes blog gives him an enormous level of credibility among his peers and clients. “I had a sense of detachment from the discourse,” he recalled of his pre-Forbes days. “I didn’t have a real genuine source to contribute ideas in a forum where others were contributing and my ideas might be read. I was sort of a voice in the wilderness posting on my [personal] blog and praying that people would migrate to it occaissionaly from searching for topics or whatever. I felt that by entering the Forbes family, I would have a place to make a contribution where my voice would be heard among other voices on topics where I felt I’d built up some credibility.”

DVorkin also mentioned that several Forbes contributors have received book deals, some from major New York publishers, as a direct result of their Forbes blogs. But while it’s apparent that the magazine has achieved a high signal-to-noise ratio when it comes to quality of writing, with such a large network of writers it’s impossible to maintain complete quality control. There were a few instances, when I was combing through the contributor network, when I’d come across a post rife with typos, barely-coherent sentences, and half-finished thoughts. And there have certainly been some cases when the publication needed to remove content, as it did recently when one of its contributors published a post warning college fraternities from admitting drunk females to their parties. But DVorkin maintained to me that you’ll encounter problems like these in nearly all communities and platforms (indeed, the deleted fraternity rant sounded very similar to what you’ll hear on your average Fox News panel).

“We try to be very careful to educate the different categories of folks about what’s expected of them and what’s off limits to them,” he said. “People are human beings and sometimes they don’t hear or choose not to hear, and that’s why we monitor things very carefully. We work to educate people, and in some cases speak to them. And sometimes if we’re not happy with a post we ask them to change it. We are not perfect. And I would dare say the journalism world is not perfect.”

Recently, Forbes announced it had been purchased by a Hong Kong investment group. What this means for the long-term strategy of the company is unclear, but by all indications DVorkin’s vision seems undeterred. The magazine recently published several ebooks, paying small advances to contributors as well as a share of royalties, and it launched a new publication geared toward high-wealth readers. In an industry where many news executives are erecting pay meters and still wringing their hands over the ethics of “native journalism,” Forbes has shown that it’s possible for a legacy publication to shed its vestigial hangups; it’s unafraid to explore new partnerships and monetization avenues in areas where old industry stalwarts still dare not tread.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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