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Inside Forbes: The Role of Pay and Traffic in Our Search for a New Media Equation

Apr 1 2014, 8:11am CDT | by , in News | Technology News

Inside Forbes: The Role of Pay and Traffic in Our Search for a New Media Equation
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Inside Forbes: The Role of Pay and Traffic in Our Search for a New Media Equation

Full disclosure: I’ve used this headline before. Actually, only the second half of it. Both times I was riffing off the title of David Carr’s column in The New York TimesThe Media Equation. Six months ago, David put his glaring eye on the boom in native advertising. Last week, he challenged a growing movement to link a journalist’s pay to Web traffic. David brings the voice of a widely followed media observer to these topics. FORBES, a leading practitioner of both trends, brings marketplace experience and results. As for me, I can offer lessons learned by a chief product officer — and reflections from 15 years on the rocky trail to a new media equation.

Anyone trying to drag a recalcitrant news industry into digital, then social and now mobile has been through lot — from professional intrigue to disinterest to scorn. Gawker’s Nick Denton certainly has with his Kinja platform. I faced it at AOL in the 00′s along with Jim Bankoff, who today runs Vox Media. Jim and I are each engaged in building publishing platforms, suddenly the fascination of media reporters struggling mightily to understand the economic and technological complexities of our new world. Let’s put aside their thrashing about for a moment. Here are four charts that tell a story — the FORBES story.

There’s a decade-old narrative to much of this that began with The Huffington Post. From the get-go, it didn’t pay a nickle to its vast army of bloggers (9,000 is the popular count) — and still proudly refuses to do so. Traditional media has long had a love/hate relationship with this scourge of a business model. It hates that people aren’t getting paid, but loves to use the model as a rallying cry for its base in the face of shrinking newsrooms. So focused is the old guard on original sin, that it’s quick to dismiss, sometimes derisively so, newer, more equitable models.” Grizzled veterans are far more enchanted when a billionaire throws money into the media pot, or colleagues with bold-faced names find buzzy startups to pay them pretty much what they already make to do what they already do, with a twist here and there. Nice situations for the very few, business models aside.

The FORBES model for journalism is unique — some of what’s old, lots more of what’s new. Forty or so full-time staff reporters write for our magazine and post to Forbes.com. They take home salaries, occasionally participating in quarterly incentive programs. They’re now publishing side-by-side with more than 1,200 carefully selected contributors from around the world. One-third of them participate in an audience-based, rather than a page-view based, incentive plan that we regularly adjust to meet marketplace forces (Contributor George Anders expands on Why Writers Need Metrics, Too in this post). The remainder find rewards in an association with FORBES that often leads to paid opportunities elsewhere. Staffers and contributors alike focus on attracting followers to their own individual brands. They’re all bound together by a 97-year-old brand that runs a publishing platform, not a Web site.

How much do our 400 paid freelance contributors make? Combined, 35%-40% of my total story costs for digital and print, or about 25% of my overall editorial budget. Individually, 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 loyal big enough loyal audiences (the model pays more for repeat visitors) to top $100,000. Many dozens more make between $10,000 and $25,000. We probably pay more writers than most news startups combined. None of this fits traditional media’s preferred narrative, leaving full-throated stalwarts and observers clinging to a time-worn rallying cry that is hopelessly nostalgic at best and unprofessionally simplistic at worst.

FORBES has multiple digital templates that account for hundreds of millions of page views each month. They include article pages, photo pages, list pages, people profile pages, data pages, section pages, department pages, etc. In the last three years or so, the number of article, or post, pages has risen steadily as the growth of photo pages remains flat, with fluctuations tied to the release of our popular lists and mobile consumption (see charts above). Also as indicated above, our contributor base rose sharply with the launch of our platform, then stabilized at the 1,200 range. On-going quality control efforts result in natural turnover. New contributors more aligned to our content and business goals replaced those who didn’t work out for one reason or another.

Quality (expert contributors), quantity (7,000-8,000 posts per month) and variety (multiple channels) attract audiences at the scale required by today’s advertising market. The Forbes.com audience as measured by Omniture rose to 63.5 million unique users in January 2014 from 19.5 million four years ago. As measured by comScore, our monthly audience jumped to 30 million from around 11 million. Its multi-platform report, which includes mobile-only visitors, places the number even higher than that.

The FORBES story of reinvention is far from over. Is what we’re doing perfect? Surely not. Neither is journalism as practiced for the last 100 years. Do we learn from our mistakes? Every single day (I’ve written about that). Are we producing the quality content that today’s news enthusiasts want? Our growing audience suggests our brand is more relevant than ever. Can expert writers build and extend their careers on our platform — and make money doing so? The numbers above tell that story. For FORBES, there is no going back, there is no standing still. There is only a bold path forward for a storied brand and its believers.

My ebook, The Path Forward for the News Business, is a full account of the steps FORBES is taking to implement new models for both content creation and advertising. You can get it here. My first ebook, The FORBES Model for Journalism in the Digital Era, can be found here.

Source: Forbes

 

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Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

 

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