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    Open or closed: Who will control the paid-podcast experience, podcasters or tech companies?
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    July 22, 2019, 1:38 p.m.

    By running unwitting PR for Jeffrey Epstein, Forbes shows the risks of a news outlet thinking like a tech platform

    If journalists want to criticize the anything-goes ethos of Facebook, it’s only fair to note when news organizations’ hunger for scale leads them down the same problematic path.

    A technology company, anxious to grow its userbase and hungry for content, settles on a bargain: It’ll let people publish anything they want, directly on the platform. It used to be that only a select few had that privilege — but now just about anyone with a pulse and wifi could sign up, build out their network, and start pumping out copy.

    Lowering the barrier to entry will draw in some great content, they think, particularly in specific niches where a more centralized editorial operation might not know what to look for. Sure, some bad actors might take advantage of that openness, but they’ll probably be on the margins. This is democratizing publishing, people! And building scale, revenues, and profits along the way!

    That’s a story you could tell about Facebook: a social network that started out with a strictly defined audience, later threw open the doors to all, and bet on being a platform for content and the direction of human attention. They found that being a place where anyone could publish anything — Medium without the fancy fonts — was enormously profitable (and legally protected). It all worked great — until that openness gets turned into an opportunity to spread misinformation, invade privacy, build Nazi fellowship, spike racial tensions, and otherwise wreak havoc on the informational ecosystem required for a healthy democracy.

    But it’s also a story you could tell about, say, Forbes. The 102-year-old magazine lived most of its life as a relatively staid business publication for The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (or, more aspirationally, his boss). It was a very good business that made Malcolm Forbes a borderline billionaire and gave Steve Forbes the liberty to think of himself as a presidential candidate.

    But when the Internet came along (and with it a new wave of competitors), Forbes struggled — defaulting on its debt, missing rent payments, and being forced by creditors to oust Steve Forbes as CEO. In came new CEO Mike Perlis, joining chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin, and they decided to go big. The magazine would let anyone become a “contributor” who could post whatever they wanted to Forbes.com. (Okay, not “anyone” — it only felt like that. But at least 2,000 people.)

    Opening those gates led to big jumps in output (8,000 posts per month!) and in traffic (nearly tripling pageviews between 2011 and 2014). It pumped some life into a declining brand and made it possible for the company to sell a majority share to a Hong Kong investment company in 2014 at a whopping $475 million valuation. Impressive!

    The problem was that — just as your News Feed clogged up with junky memes, clickbait headlines, and your uncle’s crazy rants, all produced at no cost to Facebook — it was impossible to maintain quality with that much of an open-door policy. A once-esteemed publication took on the vague scent of grift: articles that looked suspiciously like press releases, writers with unknown loyalties, and just a general ick about the whole endeavor.

    We now know — well, we always knew; now we have one more piece of evidence — what that sort of an arrangement can lead to. As The New York Times first reported briefly a week ago and then at more length Sunday, the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein used Forbes’ open door to whitewash his reputation after his stint in a Florida jail.

    A 2013 article “by” Forbes contributor Drew Hendricks made Epstein look like a science superhero, “the financial guru” who “has become one of the largest backers of cutting-edge science around the world,” donating “up to $200 million a year to eminent scientists,” “motivated by learning more about the mind, versus creating a new start-up product.”

    But the Times reported that, in fact, the story was written by a PR firm working for Epstein; Hendricks “said he was paid $600 to attach his byline and post it at Forbes.com.”

    (This is the best paragraph in the Times story, by the way: “Mr. Hendricks said he had not been aware of Mr. Epstein’s history. ‘All I knew was, this is a guy doing a science thing,’ he said. ‘If I had known otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it.'” Note that he’s not saying taking $600 to fraudulently call a press release your journalistic output is the problem — only that it was done on behalf of a bad guy.)

    The thing is, this blurring of editorial boundaries wasn’t an unforeseen consequence — it was baked into the model from the beginning. Forbes didn’t just blur the lines between staff reporters and unpaid contributors; it also blurred the line between editorial content and advertising to a degree that stood out even among its peers in the native advertising boom. (They even extended this to print magazine covers; the left image here is “editorial” while the right one is an ad paid for by AT&T. Think most people caught that at a glance?) Forbes only paid about a third of contributors, based on their readership numbers; as D’Vorkin put it in 2014: “The remainder find rewards in an association with FORBES that often leads to paid opportunities elsewhere.” (Drew Hendricks certainly did!)

    Forbes wasn’t alone here; after all, The Huffington Post was doling out CMS logins to anyone sentient even earlier. And indeed it also ran a transparently Epstein-produced “contributor” story too. Reading it today reveals a true masterpiece of obvious ghostwriting, as well as a powerful argument for the existence of copy editors:

    • “The American financier and philanthropist, Jeffery Epstein, is known for supporting science; he is currently taking action to help a number of scientists thrive during the ‘Trump Era.’ None of this is new for Jeffery, though.” [Note not Epstein — just “Jeffrey”!]
    • “Jeffrey has donated large sums of money to help find a cure for cancer and infectious diseases…‘I have helped scientists for 20 years and I don’t really believe that you can say you fully understand a particular problem, unless your ideas can be tested against solid evidence,’ Jeffery said. ‘But to tackle those problems you need resources, and if you have them the results can be marvellous.'” [Note the two spellings of Epstein’s first name — he’s “Jeffrey” five times and “Jeffery” seven times in the space of a single article.]
    • “‘Jeffrey’s donations have permitted me to work on whatever I choose, in whatever way I choose,’ [biologist Robert Trivers] said. ‘Most of this is theoretical work. I think I have recently solved the problem of ‘honour killings’ [!!!] in terms of the effects of repeated first cousin marriages (Muslim) and long histories of within caste endogamy (Hindu).” [I’m sorry, I don’t have enough !!! for the idea that this theoretical biologist has somehow “solved” honor killings with Jeffrey Epstein’s money.]
    • “Jeffrey’s support included discussions with him, which were valuable mostly because he is extremely bright, open-minded and widely travelled. [!!!] They [sic] key is that he gives me consistent, warm support without me having to write endless applications for grants, and trusts me to put it to good use, as indeed I do.'” [Aside from the typos, given the spellings of “honour,” “travelled,” and “marvellous,” I’d be on the lookout for a Brit.]

    But in both these cases — and others where an established news organization has leaned hard into a contributor network — the tradeoff in quality is exactly the point. You are purposefully trading editorial quality for undifferentiated scale. You’re burning your core asset to generate a few sparks.

    And people notice! They notice when your “contributors” are doing paid pump-and-dump schemes with obscure stocks. They notice that when “brand itself has been diluted by bringing in all of these outside people.”

    They notice when people start $6,000 courses on how to finagle your way into a Forbes byline. (“This is the only masterclass that takes you through the entire process, step by step, and pairs you up with a live coach for one-on-one assistance to get you into a contributor position at a top publication.”)

    They notice when you can’t tell whether a Forbes link “it is going to take me to (1) the good work of a Forbes journalists, (2) the good work of a Forbes contributor, (3) the bad work of one of many Forbes contributors, or (4) the paid and wordy shilling of a Forbes advertiser.”

    They notice when a contributor falsely calls the president of Ireland an “acknowledged homosexual.” (“You hit ‘post’ and off your article flies. Generally, there are no senior editors to ask any questions about what we report, no junior sub editors to screen the article before it goes live, and certainly no fact checkers — at least not until the damage is already done…Internationally, the Forbes name carries the near equivalent weight of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal as being a reliable conveyor of breaking news and insight to the world. But has it become the news media equivalent of Facebook?”)

    Meanwhile, D’Vorkin’s biggest concerns about Forbes contributors seemed to be about Oxford commas. (“Providing publishing freedoms to 1,500 writers (up from 250 four years ago) results in style inconsistencies that would make a New Yorker editor’s head explode.” “Great expertise, authenticity and passion comes at the expense of traditional measures of ‘quality’ — typo-free text, perfect grammar and organization.”)

    HuffPost, under new management, shut down its contributor platform last year. Forbes changed its own around a few weeks later to eliminate unpaid contributors and now calls it “an area we need to re-evaluate.” D’Vorkin was hired in 2017 as top editor of the Los Angeles Times and planned to reinvent the Times with a Forbes-style model. (“Gravitas” at the top, “Scale” at the bottom.) But he barely lasted three months, bullet successfully dodged.

    Part of this shift away from low-cost/high-scale/low-quality content is an editorial reckoning. But let’s be honest: Part of it is also the fact that scale-driven online advertising isn’t the business it used to be for publishers. If Facebook and Google hadn’t eaten the digital ad market and scale still held the promise of big bucks, I’d wager these outlets would still be letting people publish Jeffrey Epstein panegyrics. Let’s hope that news companies are less willing to erode their brand equity the next time a revenue stream appears on the horizon.

    Photo of the former Forbes building in 2008 by Jens Hembach used under a Creative Commons license.

    POSTED     July 22, 2019, 1:38 p.m.
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