Forbes Finds its Billionaire

Austin Russell, the 28-year-old CEO of self-driving-car-tech developer Luminar Technologies, is fronting a group to acquire the storied title in a deal valuing it at about $800 million.

The new owner of Forbes, a mid-20s man, sitting on stage with a microphone in hand.
Austin Russell. Photo by Amanda Stronza/Getty Images for SXSW

Back in the heyday of print, Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek comprised the Holy Trinity of prestigious business magazines. A PR agency that managed to land its client a cover—at least, a favorable one—could dine out on it for weeks if not months.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Much has changed since those days, as all three titles struggled with the transformations required by the digital era. BusinessWeek found salvation in a billionaire’s arms—in its case, Michael Bloomberg, who in 2009 used his pocket change (reportedly, $5 million plus assumption of some debt) to acquire it from longtime owner McGraw-Hill, lower-case the W and slap his own name on it to create the current Bloomberg Businessweek. Fortune, once a crown jewel of Henry Luce’s Time Inc. empire, went through various ownership permutations that included the epically disastrous AOL Time Warner merger and Better Homes and Gardens publisher Meredith Corp. before it too settled in the hands of a billionaire, the Thai executive Chatchaval Jiaravanon, who paid $150 million for it five years ago.

But the most interesting trajectory has been taken by Forbes, which this week finally found its own billionaire: Austin Russell, the 28-year-old CEO of self-driving-car-tech developer Luminar Technologies. According to Axios, Russell is fronting a group including foreign investors who are to acquire the storied title in a deal valuing it at about $800 million.

In some ways, it’s a back-to-the-future moment for Forbes, which was founded and controlled for decades by its wealthy, eponymous family, most colorfully by the lavishly large-living, celebrity-hobnobbing, hot-air-balloon-flying, Fabergé-egg-collecting Malcolm S. Forbes Sr.

When the digital media revolution began taking shape, both Fortune and BusinessWeek at least had deep-pocketed, publicly traded corporate parents to fund their (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to adapt. Forbes had little backstop beyond the family’s own wealth, and soon learned the hard truth behind the joke about how to make a small fortune in digital news. (Answer: Start with a large fortune.)

In the mid- ‘Aughts, the Forbes family brought in new investors, most notably Elevation Partners, whose principals included the early-Facebook-investor-turned-critic Roger McNamee and U2 frontman Bono. But perhaps the most important addition was Lewis DVorkin, whose picaresque career had already by then featured stints at Newsweek, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal (where he was, briefly, the Page One editor) and TMZ (originally an offshoot of America Online), with a number of other stops along the way.

In 2010, DVorkin rejoined Forbes in an acqui-hire of his media startup, True/Slant. At the time, True/Slant—which provided a publishing platform and tools to independent writers, some of them paid based on the size of their audience and others just looking for eyeballs—was something of an odd duck, occupying an uncomfortable niche between the burgeoning blogosphere and the rising importance of social media as a source of news and information. Looking back from the vantage of 2023, it was a pioneering concept, among other things a clear precursor of today’s Substack.

But as implemented at Forbes, DVorkin’s vision was also pioneering in other, less admirable ways. The high-volume, high-velocity, low-cost model flooded Forbes with content, some of it quality but much of it not: clickbait; contributors with more passion than knowledge of what they were writing about; contributors with hidden agendas and conflicts of interest.

The result was entirely predictable: an indelible stain on the Forbes brand. “Effectively, Forbes has been paying people with its brand equity. But when you do too much of that, you dilute the brand,” the Columbia Journalism Review concluded in 2014. “Forbes has blurred the lines more than any other mainstream publisher between journalistic content and marketing/PR. Flacky garbage written by marketing executives and consultants is barely distinguishable at first glance from reported stories written by staff writers.” I saw the effects firsthand back then, when trusted tech-industry sources warned me off writing for the magazine, telling me they were so flooded with dubious inquiries from self-interested “Forbes contributors,” and so appalled by the resulting content, that I would sacrifice whatever credibility I’d built through my Bloomberg News column.

There’s one other uncomfortable but undeniable fact about the Forbes model, though: At least in a business sense, it worked. Forbes executives I spoke to at the time and since universally credited DVorkin with saving the company, which lacked the support provided by McGraw-Hill and Meredith that helped BusinessWeek and Fortune find their new homes. In 2014, the Elevation group sold control of Forbes to Hong Kong-based Integrated Whale Media Investments in a deal valuing it at a reported $475 million. Subsequent efforts to sell control to foreign investors or go public via a SPAC (a backdoor IPO method popular for about 15 minutes during the pandemic) collapsed. Still, the new deal’s $800 million valuation is particularly striking at a moment when digital-news models are under intense pressure, as evidenced by the closure of BuzzFeed (BZFD) News and Vice’s bankruptcy filing.

Forbes certainly isn’t the only hallowed journalistic title to have traded its reputation for its survival. What remains to be seen is what its new owner, Russell, has in mind for it. In some cases, billionaire ownership has provided the resources for newsrooms to maintain quality—as has been the case with Jeff Bezos’s ownership of the Washington Post—or even to improve it: Despite reports of ongoing tensions with owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, today’s Los Angeles Times is unquestionably a better product than the hollowed-out shell he acquired five years ago, only months after DVorkin was ousted as its editor in chief.

But the kindness of well-heeled strangers only goes so far—and seems a particularly thin reed for Forbes. Having already sold its soul once, there seems little incentive for its new owners to try to buy it back.

Rich Jaroslovsky is vice president of SmartNews Inc. in San Francisco and teaches a course on the history of online news at the University of California. Reach him at rjaros01@berkeley.edu.

Forbes Finds its Billionaire