The ouroboros is complete: Forbes outsourced contributor outsources journalism to actual journalists

By Erin Griffith , written on December 17, 2013

From The News Desk

A curious "interview request" arrived in my inbox today: A Forbes contributor would like to include my opinions in his post about equity crowdfunding. I was flattered for a minute, but then I realized what was really happening here: An executive who has been given a journalist's platform is now asking -- through a publicist -- for a journalist to do his work.

I love the irony. Forbes has outsourced the production of content to non-journalists, who are now turning to actual journalists for content. And the topic? Crowdfunding. It's a snake eating its own tail.

Apparently I was chosen to do someone else's work for them because a company called OurCrowd is publishing a study in which I'm included as one of the "Top 25 influential people in crowdfunding." That sounds dubious enough -- I can think of maybe 100 people who are more influential around this topic than someone who has written a handful of articles about it.

But anyway, since I am already in the study, the publicist writes, why not provide a few insights about crowdfunding? Insights like: what are my predictions for equity crowdfunding next year? And what tips would I offer investors interested in crowdfunding? You know, the kinds of questions I might ask actual experts if I were reporting a story on the topic. Oh, and once I'm done writing a chunk of the article, could I please help spread the word about it?

This is what's become of Forbes. By lending its brand to anyone who can string a few sentences together, Forbes' contributor network is now little more than a platform for promotional marketing posts and unverified pontifications. (Some of which have paid to be there, via a product called BrandVoice.) It's never clear when you click on a Forbes link whether you're going to find useful, reliable information, or some random contributor's self-promotional musings. Given that Forbes now has 1200 contributors, the odds of clicking on a story by one of the 45 or so staff writers Forbes employs is fairly low.

Forbes introduced its contributor platform in 2010 and has been heralded as a win by almost everyone, except actual Forbes readers.

Contributors get to promote themselves and build a following on the back of the credible Forbes name. In the process, the company cracked 28 million uniques in October, a 28 percent increase from the beginning of the year that puts it ahead of WSJ, BusinessWeek, CNNMoney and Bloomberg, according to comScore. Digital revenue at Forbes is expected to rise by 25 percent this year; the company's executives are confident enough in the business that they have hired a bank to sell it for a reported $400 million.

The contributor network has worked so well that even the New York Times is copying the model, despite executive editor Jill Abramson's past comments disparaging native advertising that blurs the line between editorial and sponsored content. The Times has hired away Forbes' head of BrandVoice, Kopit Levien, to lead the effort. The Washington Post is getting in on the action, too. Last month, Kevin Gentzel, the CRO of the Post, said native ads are "a spiritual journey."

Readers aren't confused by the self-promotion masquerading as journalism, proponents argue, because, on Forbes, the author bios of non-journalists are labeled "contributor." This is a lame argument, though. The term "contributor" often refers to writers commissioned by a publication. Beyond that, contributors can write whatever bios they want, and many of them have a bio that mimics a journalist's.

For example, the bio of the author of the crowdfunding piece (who I'm not going to name here, because it's almost Christmas) simply says "I write about social, mobile and marketing trends." If you look over on the side of the page, the fine print explains that he is the CEO of an "Influencer Marketing Network" which is scheduled to launch in nine days. After reading that, I understand the author's biases. And, no, I'm not confused. But I am annoyed.

Of course, I can't poke fun at the Forbes contributor network without noting that PandoDaily, in common with most of our competitors, also runs guest posts from industry executives. The difference (apart from the fact that only a very small percentage of our daily output comes from guest contributors) is that guest posts are edited in-house before publication. We also correct errors when we find them, and have even retracted guest posts that we've later learned to be inaccurate or unfair. That's the difference between a publication and a platform: When something goes awry with a guest post, and it has, we take responsibility for it, because we are a publication. A platform which allows anything to be published with no oversight, such as Buzzfeed, Medium, and yes, Forbes, can push responsibility to the poster when there is an issue. Not our problem. We're a platform!

The platform-publisher problem is a sticky one which content companies will continue to grapple with, particularly as more publications turn to native advertising and sponsored content to replace dwindling revenue.

In the meantime, according to Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin, the architect of the platform, journalists who cry foul should "get over it." The traditional business models supporting journalism aren't working, so "if you want to keep digging the same hole and not finding any oil, go for it," he said at a PandoMonthly earlier this year. "What we’re trying to do is build a sustainable model."

[Image via Wikimedia]