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Once upon a time, the Forbes brand stood as one of the most highly regarded institutions in the world of media. Founded on September 15, 1917, the magazine built on the work of influential, well-respected contributors to become one of the most trusted names in business reporting. In 1996, the company expanded its presence to the web, founding Forbes.com as an online extension of its traditional reporting. The website has since grown to become one of the most visited financial websites on the internet, but all is not well for the media giant. Changing business models, plunging journalistic standards and intrusive advertising methods have rendered Forbes’ website little more than a pale shadow of its former self – and caused potentially irreparable damage to its once-sterling reputation.
The Decline and Fall of Journalistic Integrity
Advertisements have, in some form or another, always been a part of media and journalism. Investigating leads, writing stories and publishing all require capital, and ad money is one reliable way to fill the gaps that subscriptions and other revenue streams don’t cover. However, advertisements have traditionally been confined to discrete, relatively unobtrusive forms – banner ads, static images, sponsorships and so on – that clearly separate them from actual journalistic content.
Not so with Forbes’ website, where advertisers are given a platform that is virtually equal to – and hardly distinguishable from – that given to journalists and the content they produce. This is no accident, and in fact, it represents a strategy laid out clearly by the company’s Chief Product Officer, Lewis DVorkin, who said in a 2012 article published on the website: “Marketers are no longer satisfied with the 100-year-old silos that media professionals forced them into — containers intended to safeguard journalistic ‘truths’ from mighty advertisers and to protect consumers from confusion, or themselves.” In other words, the venerable publisher no longer feels the need to protect the sanctity of journalism or erect barriers between ad content and editorial work.
This is perhaps best reflected in the company’s “BrandVoice” product, which allows advertisers to produce their own editorial content that is then published alongside Forbes’ own editorial pieces. Though the ads are labeled as such, the format is otherwise scarcely different from the stories produced by Forbes’ contributing journalists. In effect, the company has chosen to cash in by selling its considerable brand equity – built largely on a formerly ironclad reputation and the steadfast work of talented journalists – to teams of marketers. Selling your integrity, as it turns out, is a pretty profitable venture – Forbes’ bottom line has certainly benefited from these moves, even as the publisher’s standing as a legitimate reporting outlet has come into question. When glorified PR pieces concocted by marketing executives are given virtually the same weight as hard-hitting investigative journalism, both readers and content creators lose.
The Content Mill
Equally troubling is the way in which Forbes.com generates its daily content. While the company still employs about 40 staff reporters to handle major news items, the website manages to churn out more than 400 new pieces a day thanks to a small army of more than 1,200 “contributors.” Many of these contributors are only paid based on the number of views their content generates, and even then, only recent content is valued. Writers receive just 25 percent of their normal pay for views on articles more than 90 days old; a business model that prioritizes large volumes of fresh new content above all else.
The result is a tremendous push to publish as many new articles as possible, as often as possible, regardless of the quality or utility of the content. This has led to a proliferation of the sort of pap previously relegated to the trash bins of the internet – clickbait titles, mindless listicles, entertainment and celebrity gossip, native advertising, self-serving press releases and faux outrage pieces. There is little to no editorial oversight, little accountability and no incentive to produce quality, independently verified content. Quantity over quality represents Forbes.com’s rallying cry of late, and thousands of marketers, pundits, consultants and other non-journalists have taken up the flag.
This model serves no benefit except to improve Forbes’ bottom line. Readers are served up unverified, biased or otherwise useless content from a broad network of self-serving writers. Contributors gain access to publishing under an increasingly tarnished brand in exchange for little to no pay and growing pressure to push out ever-greater volumes of empty content. Even advertisers may eventually feel the pinch as the publisher’s once-sterling reputation continues its decline. Despite the improving bottom line, the plummeting journalistic standards – as well as a litany of user experience issues – may take a serious bite out of the site’s traffic and general appeal.
Attack of the Ads
Speaking of user experience issues, Forbes’ website is littered with clunky, obtrusive and occasionally even harmful interface features. Chief among these is the ever-present and almost universally loathed “Thought of the Day” – a bland, flat-gray interstitial ad that masquerades as a useful content page by proffering a banal daily quote. In reality, the landing page is simply another means of serving up ads and forcing readers to jump through hoops before they can access the content they’re after.
This interloping advert is frustrating, obtrusive and unnecessary, but it’s also a security threat. In 2015, Chinese hackers seized on vulnerabilities in the page’s code to launch a serious attack on various U.S.-based institutions. Visitors from certain defense and financial institutions were redirected to another off-site page, where malware was surreptitiously distributed and loaded onto their devices. The exploits have since been patched, but the “Thought of the Day” ad model remains.
This isn’t the only ad-related security threat, either. The website found itself embroiled in another controversy in 2016 when the publisher banned users from accessing the website while using ad-blocking software such as Adblock or uBlock. This alone resulted in a great deal of anger and frustration among readers, but the problem was compounded by the fact that some users, upon disabling their ad-blocking software as requested, were promptly served up malware along with their advertisements. Though Forbes’ site is far from the only one to have been affected by such malicious advertising, it stands out for its efforts to prevent visitors from using the very software that might protect them against such threats.
The Audacity of Autoplay
As if all this weren’t enough, Forbes.com has other ways to ruin their visitors’ experience as well. Few things have aggravated would-be readers more than autoplay ads. These video ads are found scattered throughout the website, automatically playing once the page loads and often blasting unsuspecting visitors with high-volume advertisements. The ads are annoying at best, if not outright intrusive and disruptive. Even worse, the ads often fail to serve a purpose anyway. Most visitors seek to mute the ad immediately, and if they can’t, they will instead close the page altogether.
This is compounded by awkward, unintuitive and poorly designed interfaces, often making it a chore simply to navigate the site. Both mobile and PC users are subjected to puzzling design choices and obnoxious ads, and some users have even experienced lagging and delays thanks to the site’s overstuffed and poorly optimized format. For a website that depends so heavily on generating linkbacks and drawing in repeat visitors, this distasteful brew of incompetence and overt commercialism spells bad news.
Defending the Indefensible
Despite its many flaws, some have still come to Forbes’ defense. The very nature of media is changing, supporters argue, and media companies must adapt or perish. This much is true, as the digital revolution has completely changed the media landscape and the growing power of advertisers has altered the balance of power. Many media companies have found themselves struggling to adjust to this new reality, and particularly those built in the halcyon days of print journalism.
Nonetheless, Forbes has opted to confront these challenges by taking the path of least resistance. Rather than striving to leverage its journalistic power and build a reputation as a bastion of integrity in a sea of irrelevant drivel, the publisher has sold its integrity to the highest bidder, farmed out the majority of its work to unproven and unaccountable digital sharecroppers and deliberately sacrificed the experience of its readers in favor of greater ad revenue. The once-proud institution has largely been reduced to an ad-serving vehicle, with only enough quality content to justify its existence.
This is indefensible, and it’s not clear there are any winners. Readers get continually declining quality, ads masquerading as journalism and content of increasingly questionable veracity. Contributors find themselves pressured into focusing on quantity over quality, with little to no reward for engaging in the challenging task of practicing proper journalism. Even the advertisers may soon see their golden goose collapse under the weight of its own avarice as visitors to the website are increasingly turned away by declining standards, distasteful ads and a poor user experience. In the end, Forbes’ eagerness to embrace the modern media reality may prove to be its undoing.
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