Death Of Print: Forbes.com exacts revenge of nerds on Forbes

The jungle drums of the Forbes.com alumni network are starting to rumble today, reacting to the piece in Gawker yesterday and Valleywag this morning that Forbes.com is making a power move on the print side at Forbes Magazine. “What’s your take?” emails are hitting my inbox.

So rather than indulge in some sort of retromingent nyah-nyah-told-you-so crap — it’s been eight years since I’ve darkened the Forbes door and I have nothing but positive memories (save for the f@#king CueCat). Let me give some useless armchair quarterbacking. First, read the Valleywag stuff:

“A tipster tells us that a “big shakeup” is coming, with the editorial staffs of both magazine and website getting “smashed together.”

Death Of Print: Forbes.com exacts revenge of nerds on Forbes.

My take:

1. Forbes.com’s president and publisher, Jim Spanfeller, is a magazine publisher first and foremost. It’s in the guy’s blood — Inc Magazine, Yahoo! Internet Life — the man is a publisher’s publisher and essentially would now be (if the rumors are true) be rushing into a void left open for the past decade when former publisher Jeff Cunningham departed for CMGI. The “publisher” named to replace Cunningham was Rich Karlgaard, the founding editor of the late tech mags Upside and Forbes ASAP. Rich was given the publisher title in the late 90s when Forbes was hot to establish a toehold in the Valley — opening a big bureau in Burlingame near the row of airport hotels so they could get some logo love visible from 101.

2. Karlgaard is an editor first, and not an ad guy. Where Cunningham was a classic space salesman — the guy who could sell pages, Karlgaard was the intellectual technology front man, a great speaker who had a solid tech network in the valley. Forbes brought in former American Express publishing exec Jim Berrien to semi-fill the Cunningham shoes in NYC at 60 Fifth Ave.. update: Berrien is no longer with the business, and I have no insights into how the ad side of the magazine is organized.

3. Spanfeller consolidated Forbes.com following the interim CEO reign of Jeff Killeen, who was brought aboard during my stint at the dot.com to put a professional CEO face on the business during the pre-IPO planning of 1999. When the bubble popped, I bailed, Killeen hung on a year, but without a solid publishing/ad sales background, was outgunned and moved on to become the CEO of GlobalSpec. Enter Spanfeller.

4. Spanfeller took the business separation put in place during my tenure and by the pre-IPO structuring to really set Forbes.com off on its own trajectory.  That separation gave Forbes.com its own corporate structure but an exclusive reprint license to the magazine content. The new editor in chief, Paul Maidment, came in from the Financial Times. With no past allegiance by Maidment to the print side (but interestingly an executive editor’s title on the print masthead), the beginning of a serious separation from the magazine side was underway, paving the way for Spanfeller and Maidment to build Forbes.com into what it is today — a completely independent operation with a robust balance sheet and a business model fundamentally different from the mag. The mag and the dot.com never played well together (update: no print/digital operation ever has and ever will anywhere IMHO). I was able to hold things together in the early political years as an alumni of the dead tree, but with me out of the way, I understand things drifted further apart, with some experiments in “loan-a-writer” going on with print people serving in the dot.com newsroom, etc.. Efforts by some of the print side to get involved — Dan Lyons asking for a blog, getting rejected, starting Fake Steve Jobs — never were really welcomed.

5. The mag feels and reads like a deer in the headlights. All mags do, but Forbes is sort of where it was in 1995. Bill Baldwin, my ex-boss, is the smartest man in the room, but he’s a contrarian and happiest in a geeky tax code/mutual fund fee story. He has not put Forbes in a miniskirt and halter top the way Andy Serwer has tarted up Fortune.

6. Forbes, as a brand, is very very proud of the dot.com — Forbes.com kicked the snot out of its print competitors early on because Tim Forbes gave it carte blanche to do what it needed to do without any political bullshit from the print side. Now I think Forbes and Elevation Partners are killing the division between the two properties — likely undoing the corporate separation put in place during the IPO process — and co-locating the edit teams.

Predictions:

1. Baldwin moves upstairs and a new EIC comes into the print side. I’d bring Gretchen Morgenson — Forbes alum — former contender to replace Jim Michaels, back from the Times.

2. Ad sales get merged.  Spanfeller becomes the main man on the business side for both print and dot.com sales.

3. Karlgaard remains in the same role. After all, he brokered the Elevation investment.

4. Elevation starts to throw its weight around more. I agree with Valleywag. This mashup is their doing.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Death Of Print: Forbes.com exacts revenge of nerds on Forbes”

  1. Don’t know jack about Forbes, but can’t agree w/ the blanket ‘print & web can’t get along’. 🙂 I run both, have different target audiences in mind (or at any rate, print goes after the smallest inner ring and web after the broadest outer ring of the tree), and make it all work. And yes there are competing priorities, and yes it makes me bonkers sometimes. But that is the nature of work generally.

    I think the process of splitting or remashing will always generate a ton of friction and residual heat, but I also think a generation of editors/journalists/writers/whatever will slowly bubble up who have no fundamental problem with the duality.

    Of course I have been wrong on occasion.

  2. Blanket statements are smothering, so I’ll retract in deference to Mister Slater, who indeed works at an org that has solved a lot of the dichotomy bullshit. But …. the most tiresome discussion topic I can think of is print-online relations. It’s just tedious and the fact that there is a dichotomy, the fact that I constantly get asked to help with a print to online migration model, and the fact that there are people who will resist that integration, or ask for caution is NUTTY.

    Look, Forbes is ahead of the game when it comes to developing and nurturing a digital strategy. But …. the location, colocation, who prints first, etc. etc. etc.

    It’s natural and normal, but it is not a distraction for the upstarts that are bleeding off the audience.

    Publishing is a very interesting place to be this day.

  3. NUTTY, couldn’t agree more.

    Ditto that on location, colocation, etc. I guess if the patient is unresponsive you get out the paddles, but every volt spent on electroshock could have been spent instead on making a great site and great content. And I think there are some (few, I hope) people who don’t have much in their management toolkit except the paddles.

  4. We’re struggling with the same issues among our publications. I fully agree with Mr. Slater’s point that a new generation is coming along (who will wonder what all the fuss was about) but in the meantime we still have two camps who are more likely to claim loyalty to the medium first, and the content second. And the fault isn’t always with the “print-types” – there is also an unfortunate “we’re the future” attitude coming from the “web types” (of which I count myself).

    What’s the secret to the day-to-day managing of staff from both sides to the point of cooperation? Or does it need to be accepted that a brand can only be perceived as one medium and any other channels considered complementary?

    One can argue that the ESPN brand still evokes the image of cable channel first with .com and print coming after despite ESPN.com ranking in the top 50 visited US sites. Like Forbes, CondeNast/CondeNet tried the full separation only to put the magazine sites back in the print titles and focus solely on the web-only products.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.