Forbes.com, Self-Censorship, and the Perils of Cheap Content
A few weeks ago, Forbes.com abruptly fired contributor Bill Frezza after he posted a column warning fraternities to watch out for female party guests who show up intoxicated. I addressed the substance of his column and the resulting controversy in this Bloomberg View piece. Frezza has now written a follow-up post on his own site, explaining why he cares so passionately about the problem of binge drinking.
What has drawn little comment is the business model that produced a journalistic fiasco. Forbes.com (not to be confused with the print magazine) is a publication that acts like a platform. It hires columnists, gives them a general turf, tells them to write and post pieces, and pays them by how much traffic they attract. Unlike a traditional publication, it doesn't spend money on having editors review the topics or articles beforehand. In the traditional model, Frezza's article either would have had the backing of the publication--which would have stood up for it--or it would have never seen the light of day. If the argument seemed beyond the pale, an editor would have said, "No thanks. What else do you have?" There would have been no public blowup and no firing. One way or another Forbes.com would have taken responsibility. (As anyone who reads Forbes.com knows, its lack of editorial oversight extends to basics of proofreading.) Forbes.com's business model has been successful in a tough environment, but it presents editorial perils.
Under the new model, columnists have to guess what readers will find interesting and they also have to guess what editors will find a firing offense. They are expected to internalize vaguely defined standards and self-censor accordingly. That's made clear in the email that opinion editor Avik Roy sent out following Frezza's firing, which was passed on to me by someone who got it from a Forbes.com contributor:
You may know "don't do stupid stuff" as the Obama foreign policy doctrine. But it also applies to writing for Forbes.
On Tuesday, one of our contributors wrote a piece entitled "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities." The first sentence read, "I realize this headline is click-bait, but I believe it to be true. Let me explain."
The article did not meet our editorial standards -- not by a long shot -- and was taken down within 8 minutes of its publication. The contributor is no longer with us.
8 minutes, however, was long enough for the article to ignite a firestorm around the internet, much of it justified. You can survey the wreckage here:
As you know, we allow the vast majority of you to self-publish on the Forbes platform without prior editorial review. This is because we trust you to write responsibly about matters of public importance, in a way befitting your own reputations and the Forbes brand. But as opinion writers, we are all capable of making mistakes.
The contributor in question here was one of our best performers from a traffic standpoint. It doesn't matter. Forbes' reputation for quality journalism is more important than traffic stats or any individual. If you're writing about a sensitive or controversial topic, please make sure you're doing so in a way that brings light, instead of heat, to the issue.
Overall, you all are doing great work. Forbes Opinion traffic is up around 50 percent, relative to last year. Our impact is increasing as we refocus the channel around original expert commentary, like yours. But let's make sure that we use this week's incident as an opportunity to improve.
Avik S. A. Roy
Opinion Editor, Forbes
60 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10011
The latest news out of Forbes.com is this Facebook post from former contributor Brett Arends reporting that he and other, unnamed contributors have also been fired, despite having nothing to do with Frezza's article.
Forbes managing editor Dan Bigman (yes, that's really his name) had to be seen to be doing something. Forbes just got sold to some people in Hong Kong. Mr Bigman had to be able to say "look - I've taken action! I've fired people!" So he's axed a bunch of contributors, pretty much randomly. Apparently the only unifying theme is that we write interesting copy.
In another post, he writes:
The sad thing is that people will take this as a sign that the original "bucks for clicks" Forbes model didn't work. The truth is that it would be an excellent model - so long as you don't give blog posts to guys the editor met at a cookout.
It's an excellent model until it isn't. Arends thinks Frezza got in trouble because he was an "amateur," but he's just being arrogant. The same thing could have happened to anyone, however experienced, who offended the wrong loud voices. For now, Forbes.com seems to think a combination of columnist pruning and self-censorship will make it work.
Update: A reader alerts me to this August Space Politics post and discussion about a deleted Forbes.com post attacking Space X with what (from the post) appear to be ill-founded rumors. That contributor still appears to be on the Forbes.com team, having posted most recently four days ago.
Note: Bill Frezza's archive is still on the Forbes.com site. You can see how many views each post received--the numbers range widely, from a few hundred to tens of thousands--which (assuming Roy is telling the truth) gives some idea of what qualifies as "one of our best performers."