Why are journalists hostile to Forbes' Lewis DVorkin? He wants them to get real

By Erin Griffith , written on April 18, 2013

From The News Desk

It's easy for journalists to dislike Lewis DVorkin. He's the guy who has expanded Forbes, the 96-year-old business publication, into a network of contributors whose content does not always pass the journalism-with-a-capital-J smell test. The quality is questionable, haters argue, because now marketers and PR people get to look and act like Forbes writers. They can write whatever they want. They can promote themselves, and it sounds authoritative. The line is blurred between filthy advertising and important journalism. How will people know the difference? And, if they can't, why should anyone trust anything they read on Forbes' contributor network, it is often argued, is bad for journalism.

It's not a new argument -- the same idea was trotted out when Huffington Post, with its network of unpaid contributors, rose to prominence. It's trotted out when reporters cite Tweets in their stories. It is especially hostile when media watchers discuss Narrative Science, a company that literally does journalism with algorithms. And surprise, Forbes uses Narrative Science. Robot journalists are here to take your job, writers!

What does DVorkin think of journalists who feel hostility toward him? "Get over it," he said flatly at PandoMonthly tonight in New York. The traditional business models supporting journalism are not working, he said. "If you want to keep digging the same hole and not finding any oil, go for it. What we're trying to do is build a sustainable model," he said.

"They just need to understand the world is changing. It's hard for them to do that," he says. He later joked that journalists are too used to having someone tell them what to do. "And you better be right, and if you're not right, the social web is going to figure it out, or we're going to figure it out, and it's going to be a bad scene." Journalists that are used to five layers of editing are afraid of the freedom of something like the Forbes contributor network.

Even his own publication was skeptical of his new vision of contributed, blended content. Call it "native" advertising, which DVorkin notes Forbes was been doing for years before it was in vogue even. "There was a vision and a braveness that Forbes had," to let him build out this product, he said. And it's worked: Forbes is profitable, growing; its network is thriving. The site has 26 million monthly uniques, up from around eight million three years ago.

Regarding Narrative Science, DVorkin says it frees journalists from the busy work of rewriting earnings reports and boiler plate wire copy, so they can write more interesting stories. I'm skeptical -- I've read some badly written Narrative Science stories (robots apparently think "half" equals "most,") but I don't doubt the algorithms will get smarter as the company continues. And I agree that rewriting earnings reports is not a fulfilling day's work.

But he wasn't preaching the gospel of Forbes as the only way to save journalism. "What we're doing is a way," he said. "It works for Forbes and I do believe it could work for other places, But its not the only way."

[Image via pepper digital blog]