Every business has its highs and lows. In digital publishing, the swings can be violent. One minute, your site is humming. Seconds later, it’s spiraling to scary places. One minute, the flow of news is routine. Suddenly, it’s anything but that. The image above tells that story for FORBES. On Feb. 14, the Syrian Electronic Army did its damage, as it’s done to many others. Seven days later, out of nowhere, came a journalistic coup — our exclusive rags-to-riches tale of Jan Koum. In an entrepreneurial story for the record books, he sold his startup to Facebook for a stunning $16 billion.
The digital revolution marches on. There’s no pause button to hit in this movement. I’ve learned that countless times — at AOL, my startup and FORBES. The trick: take it all in, chart a course, execute, keep going. Along the way, fix the mistakes, put the industry noise aside, make the most of good fortune. Above all, share all the information you can, within and outside your company.
With that, here’s the good and bad in our latest week that was — and a bit more of what’s to come.
The digital attack: In building a new model for news, we’ve had our share of humbling experiences. Some were public, some not. This one continues to play out. Last week, staff reporters Andy Greenberg, an expert on security, and Kashmir Hill, an expert on privacy, wrote about the SEA attack on Forbes.com as part of their on-going beat coverage. In a so-called tik-tok, Andy chronicled the day of the attack. Kashmir spoke to the SEA about why it targeted Forbes.com. Away from the public eye, our technology and product teams took a number of process-related steps. They included resetting passwords, evaluating third-party plug-ins and reviewing publishing code, rights and permissions. It was all part of detailed forensics operation to get us back on track. Our customer service department began a mass email campaign to notify those who registered to Forbes.com that their emails and encrypted passwords were exposed. Various site features, such as log-on and comments, began to come back online.
None of that stopped work that was already scheduled. We updated our new mobile product to improve horizontal swiping of “info cards” in preparation for releasing new mobile ad products. We launched new people profile pages, all 10,000 of them. They’re now optimized for mobile ahead of the Billionaires List (set for March 3) and the launch of our real-time billionaires project (see below). We also released our annual NASCAR valuation list.
WhatsApp — a coup, with a twist: How did this blockbuster come our way? Lucky timing, for sure — if you don’t factor in the year-and-a-half that staff reporter Parmy Olson spent courting Jan Koum and the never-ending investigative story that is our annual Billionaires list. Parmy’s story was locked and loaded for the upcoming issue — and then came the news. Still, it wasn’t as simple as hitting the publish button. Randall Lane, our magazine’s editor was in Florida. Bruce Upbin, who had edited the story, was on a plane. And, our internal email system was undergoing maintenance after the digital attack. So, editors and producers from New York to Kansas City to San Francisco used Campfire, our participatory newsroom tool, to coordinate all that needed to be done. That included re-topping the magazine piece with the news; getting it out across social media; and working with Parmy, who was in London. The exclusive photo of Koum signing the Facebook deal just two hours before it was announced is another story. He symbolically put pen to paper outside the welfare office he regularly visited in his teens. Later, he asked one of his directors to send it to Parmy via WhatsApp.
The FORBES hybrid content model worked as envisioned as the WhatsApp news unfolded. Staff reporters spend their time reporting, and 1,200 contributors provide knowledge and perspective. It was actually a contributor who first posted the news. Then two staff reporters, Brian Solomon from our markets desk and Ryan Mac from our wealth team, followed with more information. Contributor George Anders added a few, including this gem. Contributor Robert Hof did as well. By the morning after the news broke, we had 20 posts on Forbes.com to accompany Parmy’s exclusive.
2014 Billionaires List: The FORBES 400 gets the attention. It’s the billionaires’s list that travels around the world. In fact, it’s a product made possible by nine of our local language editions, from FORBES Russia to FORBES China. Each licensee does much of the on-the-ground reporting and collection of wealth data. The information is then sent to our wealth editors in New York and San Francisco for final analysis. On March 20, in a new initiative, we’ll begin updating all wealth data in real time — on thousands of people profile pages, feature pages and our home page. The data will update every 5 to 20 minutes based on market movements and various indexes we’ll use to determine shifts in private wealth. For the March 3 list launch itself, we’ll publish 50 quick-take videos (60-90 seconds each) as part of a larger plan to produce easily consumable and shareable video. Some will be graphic videos, others remixes of much longer video interviews.
International: The potential of our licensee network goes well beyond tracking wealth. The hubbub over Flobby Bird’s demise proved that. Again, it was an expert contributor, Paul Tassi, who first posted that the game’s Vietnamese creator was inexplicably killing it off. Randall then reached out to Lan Anh Nguyen, the editor of FORBES Vietnam, who last year wrote about the country’s first billionaire. Through a mutual friend, she got the gamer’s mobile number and texted him. She then received a call from his lawyer and within 24 hours Lan Anh was on a flight from Saigon to Hanoi. She got the first interview and beat other competitors by a few hours. As we role out our contributors model in Europe and Asia, there are clear opportunities to leverage ambitious journalists such as Lan Anh.
The internet revolution comes with its victories and defeats. If only we knew what was coming next — tomorrow and in the years ahead. That’s a question Gawker Media’s Nick Denton says people ask too quickly. In an interview for Playboy conducted by our own Jeff Bercovici, Denton says “the internet is it for this century, maybe the next one too. To the extent there is some kind of message in the valuation that the market has given Twitter, it is that communication, information and media are at the heart of this phase, this cycle, and it’s a long, long cycle that could last 50 or 100 years.” The best course of action: just keep going — faster, faster, faster.
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