Highlander V was the last and largest of Malcolm Forbes’ yachts. In the ’80s, Mr. Forbes would throw parties on the boat for potential advertisers, his friends, captains of industry and politicians. Much like the galleries on the first floor of the Forbes Building on Fifth Avenue, Mr. Forbes used the boat to display items from his collections.
Inside the yacht, Mr. Forbes hung the framed front pages of newspapers bearing the news that the Titanic had sunk, “to remind you all things are mortal,” he would say.
Forbes magazine is no exception. A publishing depression and the general souring of readers on business news have made for a tough decade for the magazine that bears Forbes’ name-which makes the latest plan to save Forbes particularly surprising: Not only does it hinge on the ideas of one man-the founder of True/Slant, Lewis D’Vorkin-but it adapts Mr. D’Vorkin’s controversial views on the business of journalism.
Mr. D’Vorkin, recently installed as Forbes‘ chief product officer, thinks of stories as product. And the most efficient way to churn out and make money from this product is to create a more efficient editing process with fewer layers. “Moving forward, when I look at an operation like Forbes, I look at a mixture of a full-time staff base and hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of freelance contributors. It’s that blend,” Mr. D’Vorkin said.
“That’s what we did at True/Slant,” Mr. D’Vorkin continued. “We let the reporter self-publish-boom! We’re working through that at Forbes: How do you create a less layered process at the magazine?”
Not all of Mr. D’Vorkin’s new journalism ideas are being embraced by the Forbes staff. One high-level editor who has been with the paper since the ’90s said that while there seems to be a clear strategy for the magazine, the staff isn’t clear on how it will affect them. “I don’t know if I would use the word ‘bewilderment,'” the staffer said. “It’s kind of unclear even at this stage, when he talks about turning people into bloggers, self-promoters and everything, does that mean us? Where do we editors and reporters fit in?”
The Observer requested an interview with William Baldwin, who has been the editor of the magazine since 1998-and above whom Mr. D’Vorkin has been installed. The request was declined by a spokeswoman for the magazine. “The person to talk to about everything is Lewis. He is in charge and he has the vision,” she wrote in an email.
‘I don’t think it’s “Oh my God, Lewis D’Vorkin is coming back, let’s shit in our pants.” I think it’s more, “Oh my God, he’s here, he’s taking this place in another direction and what does that mean for me?”’ —Forbes staffer
The Forbes staffer continued. “It’s clear his vision is, we need to have tons and tons of outsiders contributing, and I think everyone understands that, but the uncertainty is where do we all fit into that. I don’t think it’s ‘Oh my God, Lewis D’Vorkin is coming back, let’s shit in our pants.’ I think it’s more ‘Oh my God, he’s here, he’s taking this place in another direction and what does that mean for me.'”
Mr. D’Vorkin has stayed very patient. “So you talk a lot and you talk a lot and you explain a lot and you say the same things over and over again because, you know what, if I hadn’t been doing this for 10 years, I guess it would be bewildering to me, too.”
THE FORBES STINT is a return engagement for Mr. D’Vorkin, who worked at the magazine in the ’90s, after Newsweek and before AOL. In 1988, he resigned suddenly from one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism, Page One editor of The Wall Street Journal. Shortly thereafter, he filed for personal bankruptcy, citing debts of $129,000, some of which was owed to Dow Jones after Mr. D’Vorkin over-exercised his expense account.
“I saw him in the dark periods of his life,” said Meredith White, who worked closely with Mr. D’Vorkin when they were both senior editors at Newsweek in the early ’80s. “He felt like a lonely guy to me at that point. Kind of lost and lonely, and there was a period that was very difficult for him.”
During their time together, Ms. White said that Mr. D’Vorkin would often come into her office to share ideas. “He was very forward-thinking, very outspoken.” The two also talked about how the magazine worked. “He knew who the smart people were. He didn’t suffer fools,” said Ms. White, who is now a deputy managing editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Mr. D’Vorkin developed the same reputation during his first trip to Forbes as an executive editor. Dennis Kneale, now a CNBC editor, shared the title of executive editor with Mr. D’Vorkin and felt like the pair were in immediate conflict.
“He’s a good talker. He has a very knowing air-and he wears black,” added Mr. Kneale. Another former co-worker remembered a nickname that was often passed around for Mr. D’Vorkin-Darth D’Vorkin.
“YOU KNOW WHAT in the ’80s, it was New York, I wore a lot of black,” Mr. D’Vorkin said over a bowl of orange segments, bananas and cranberries at a cafe two blocks from the Forbes Building. Mr. D’Vorkin knows that some people thought he was scary. He’s heard the Darth D’Vorkin nickname.
In hopes of overcoming that, he held a series of meetings with the Forbes staff in his first weeks on the job to explain his plans for the company.
“The editing process online is vastly different than in print,” he said. “There is a fit and finish that you must have in print. Online, it’s not about fit and finish; it’s about the flow of information, the updates of information. It’s about relevance and timeliness. It’s not about craftsmanship. Quality online does not equal craftsmanship. In print, quality does equal craftsmanship.”
The most obvious risk with Mr. D’Vorkin’s model-aside from the fact that amateur “topic-specific credible” journalists might not be great writers-is this: How do you screen 1,000 contributors, especially when the staff has been shrinking from cuts and departures?
“Certainly there are questions about, ‘Gee, if you bring in hundreds of bloggers, who controls them?'” said the Forbes staffer. “Some of them will be stock-touts, and we know that, and Lewis knows that, but he says that’s a cost of the model.”
When speaking with The Observer, Mr. D’Vorkin was adamant that all the contributors would be screened.
“We have a fire hose of digital bits coming at us, and we need good editors more than ever,” said Mr. Kneale. “I don’t want to hear from 1,000 contributors. Journalism is not crowd-sourcing.”
“I think part of the problem is that people understand that he has a strategy,” said the Forbes staffer. “But there is a lot of doubt about whether this is a viable strategy or a Hail Mary pass on part of the owners of the company.”