"Co-storytelling": How US business magazine and media company Forbes plans to upset the journalism establishment... again

William Turvill
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Lewis DVorkin is chief product officer of media company Forbes (Source: Forbes)

City workers may be surprised to learn that it is rare, and even frowned upon in some areas, for journalists to familiarise themselves with the business-end of their trade.

But, with revenues, profits and headcounts at publishing companies falling each year, editorial staff may increasingly find themselves having to familiarise themselves with how their companies make money and survive.

Journalists working for Forbes, a 99-year-old US business magazine turned international online brand, probably had to endure this earlier than most.

In 2010, the company introduced BrandVoice, a system under which marketers were granted access to the back-end of the Forbes website so that they could easily publish their own content. It was seen as a breakdown of a Chinese wall between editorial and advertising.

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“That was a big deal,” Forbes’ chief product officer Lewis DVorkin tells City A.M. on a visit to London. “Because everybody said ‘you’re going to ruin journalism or you’re going to ruin Forbes’.

“The editors of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal said they’d do that over their dead bodies. And now they’re all doing it.”

Here, he refers to native advertising – where advertisers are able to run labelled marketing material which appears in the same format as editorial content. Few other companies allow marketers access to a CMS, although City A.M. recently did so through the launch of City Talk.

Co-storytelling: "A very big deal"

Six years on from BrandVoice, Forbes and DVorkin are seeking to shake-up the business again through a new system: “co-storytelling”.

“So now all of a sudden you have a topic, and on one page the journalist tells the story along with the marketer telling the story,” says DVorkin, emphasising that the marketing content will still be labelled.

To pull it off, DVorkin believes Forbes will need to “change the mindset of the newsroom – again”.

“No journalist is going to want to see their name on the same page as a marketer. Right now they don’t,” he says.

“When you look at native advertising in the New York Times, it takes places over here. And the journalism takes place over there. And they never meet. Ever. Now, all of a sudden, they meet: ‘By Lewis DVorkin; by Microsoft.’ That’s a big deal, that’s a very big deal.”

While DVorkin acknowledges “co-storytelling” is likely to enrage and upset journalism purists, he emphasises this is not the point. The current traditional “banner” advertising model is, he feels, not doing enough to sustain journalism as a business long-term.

When Forbes launched BrandVoice – a period in which the company also started giving independent external contributors access to its website to upload content – it was “betting the ranch”, he says.

“It was a big bet, and everybody at that time said: ‘You just killed your company. It’s going to die. It’s never going to survive.’ Well, here we are six years later, and not only are we surviving, but we’re prospering and we’re doing new things.”

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Still a journalist, but also "a business-minded person now"

Journalists may be surprised to learn that DVorkin himself comes from an editorial background, having started out on a wire service in 1974 earning $12,500 a year. He went on to work for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Newsweek among other titles in editorial positions.

But what about now? Is a chief product officer an editorial or a commercial position?

“I often say I used to be a journalist,” says DVorkin. “But I’m not sure you can ‘used to be a journalist’.

“I don’t believe in the romance of journalism, like I did 40 years ago. I believe in the business of journalism.

“So sure, I go back to my roots because I’m passionate about it. But I’m not the same sort of journalist I was 40 years ago. I’m more of a business-minded person now.”

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