In founding True/Slant, his expert blogging community, Lewis Dvorkin set out to do nothing less than invent a new business model for journalism. Now, Dvorkin is attempting to install that model at Forbes Media, which bought True/Slant for an undisclosed sum in May and hired Dvorkin as its new chief product officer.
Dvorkin, a former AOL executive, believes his model, which he calls "entrepreneurial journalism," is a big part of what Forbes needs to start growing again. Entrepreneurial journalism -- in which writers function as freelance contractors with a financial interest in building their own readership -- is the golden middle road, he says, between the old paradigm represented by print magazines and newspapers, and the new one represented by blogs and websites.
"On one side is low cost, low quality," says Dvorkin. "On the other side is high cost, high quality, and they're so calcified they can't change. What you need is high quality, efficient. You need to be a scalable content-creation force."
Although he has said that True/Slant achieved only modest monetization in its year or so of operation, it was certainly efficient, with 300 bloggers and only five full-time employees. Dvorkin is careful to say that level of radical leanness isn't appropriate for Forbes. "The True/Slant model was all about that one layer," he says. "I believe there are multiple layers here. Editors have knowledge and experience, and they should control content."
The print magazine, in particular, needs to maintain the rigorous degree of editing readers expect from it, while the website can be faster and more casual. "They're distinctly different products, but the voice and message are the same," he says. "It's about championing capitalism, about investing, about wealth."
Bringing Marketers Into the Journalistic Conversation
Dvorkin is currently at work making over both products -- not just redesigning them, he says, but "re-architecting" them. A key component of that effort will be taking the most important offerings of Forbes, such as its annual "Forbes 400" ranking of the wealthiest Americans, and putting them at the center of the brand.
"The Forbes 400 comes out in September and then you don't see it again until a year later," he says. "That franchise should be part of the magazine all the time." Likewise, he says, the online version of the Forbes 400 should be dynamic, updating automatically as, for instance, stock prices fluctuate. Not only is a dynamically updated page something readers will come back to time and again, he notes, it's also scalable: Once you've built the first, it costs virtually nothing to build the next 399. "That's what I call building inside-out," he says.
Another idea Dvorkin experimented with at True/Slant, albeit only in embryonic form, was giving marketers the same tools as journalists and allowing them to be part of the conversation. It's fairly obvious how such a system would serve advertisers' interests, but it would also serve readers, he says. "Users want to know. They want information," he says. "If good information is coming from content creators, great. If good information is coming from marketers, well, they want to know that, too."
Expect to see that theory put into practice at Forbes in the coming months. "The goal is to tear down the walls between content creators, audience and marketers," he says. "How do you get those three voices talking to each other so that everyone knows who's talking? To me, if you can do that with transparency and legitimacy, that's the future of the free press."
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