How Forbes stumbled triumphantly into digital success

Among legacy news publications, Forbes can be counted as among the few that launched a “digital first” all-in strategy back when the rest of the industry was still trying to convince itself that this whole internet thing was a fad (The Atlantic was another early risk taker). It seems evident that this aggressive strategy paid off, as Forbes is deriving more revenue from its digital operations than the print magazine. In an article I hope to publish next week, I’ll explore the inner workings of its contributor network — its army of thousands of bloggers that are producing content on its site. But for now, check out Michael Wolff’s feature that explains the internal politics and family dynamics that allowed the company to make such an aggressive move while the rest of the industry was still trying to maintain a moat around itself.

The family found itself poised between protecting its legacy and protecting the wealth that it had come to assume was its due. It seemed clearer to some, notably Tim, and less clear to others, particularly Steve, that protecting the legacy was a losing battle.

And then, in 2007, the financial world collapsed, devastating many industries, perhaps none more than print publishing. The ever-downward glide of Forbes Media became a tailspin, and by 2009 the company was failing to make payments on its ­$90million credit line, and there was an exit of top managers, including Berrien, Spanfeller, Kneale, and the respected international head, Robert Crozier. A restructuring completed in 2010 mandated the ouster of Steve Forbes as CEO and his replacement with longtime magazine manager turned technology investor Mike Perlis, the first non-Forbes to run the company since it was founded, in 1917. Steve was allowed to go on holding the titles of chairman and editor in chief.

But perhaps even more profoundly, there was a radical restructuring of the editorial side, reportedly instigated by Tim. Lewis Dvorkin was an editor at the magazine who, with an investment from Forbes Media, had gone off to start a company called True/Slant, a user-created content concept (i.e., anybody could write and nobody got paid—at least, no more than a token dribble). When Forbes Media absorbed True/Slant, in 2010, Dvorkin was given primary editorial responsibility at the company, charged with creating a low-cost, high-traffic model. It was a kind of prewar/postwar contrast, one world giving way to the other, the necessary invention of a new society.