Why Forbes burned a print story and put its Thiel coverage online
Randall Lane is the editor in chief of Forbes magazine, a position he started five years ago.
Lane previously worked at Forbes in a variety of positions — reporter, staff writer and Washington bureau chief from 1991 to 1997, authoring five cover stories.
Lane has also been was editor at large at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Previously, he co-founded and served as editor-in-chief of a half dozen magazines, including P.O.V. (Adweek’s “Startup of the Year”), Trader Monthly and Dealmaker.
He is a frequent television commentator and the author of “The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane.”
Lane graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in 1990.
Forbes magazine has an average of 6.8 million readers, according to the most recent MRI report, a record for the publication. And its recent issue with Ashton Kutcher on the cover reached a record 8.8 million readers.
He spoke Thursday by telephone with Talking Biz News about what has happened at Forbes in the past five years and how the print publication works with Forbes online operation. What follows is an edited transcript.
Why did you decide to come back to Forbes?
It was coming home again. I started my career here, and I was here six years. Everything I have learned was informed by that experience, and everything that I have done since then was informed by that experience. I learned how to produce a magazine and how to practice journalism with purpose, but I was also able to take what I learned outside of Forbes in terms of being an entrepreneur and changing journalism models and figuring out how things work. It was a very nice niche.
What are some of the changes that have occurred at the print publication in your five years?
What is very important is to look at each platform and focus on what makes that platform great. There is no one size fits all. What makes a great website, a mobile experience, a live event is different than what makes a great print publication. So what I have tried focus on is what people like in a print magazine.
That manes doing things that are counterintuitive to what other folks do, such as making articles longer and more in depth. We have invested a lot in photography, which was never a focus at Forbes. That is part of what makes a magazine great. We have improved our paper. We have done a lot to invest in what makes a print paper great, and continuing that classic Forbes focus of having a point of view. That is the value added in this world, doing deep dives and coming up with stories that have a point of view. It gives the magazine a personality.
Are there areas that you’d still like to change?
We always are thinking. If you don’t keep changing, you are in trouble. You write about this all the time. If you are thinking of changing, you are in trouble.
I just got out of a meeting about providing more context in stories. In a print magazine, if you can bring some packaging in the design and how you bring it together, that is something that print still excels at. That is something we will continue to push on. We want every story to have some contextual elements.
Forbes has had a major emphasis on growing its online audience. How does print fit into that?
What has been fun has been to blow up the idea that you shouldn’t put magazine content online because it would cut newsstand sales and circulation. They work together. Forbes.com over the last six years has had record traffic year after year. We have seen over that same period of time, with MRI numbers, that the print publication is at our highest level of readership. That’s independent, third-party numbers and just print readers.
We share everything that is in print online, and we look at what’s online to inform what we cover. We have shown and the numbers show that a strong website can absolutely power a strong print magazine, and a strong print product can drive online traffic.
Is there a process in determining whether a story goes online first or appears in print first?
There is no process. We will always put it online. But it’s a good question. At the end of the day, the story has to appear. You don’t sit around and wait. One example is our exclusive coverage of Peter Thiel backing the Gawker litigation. We were very happy to cannibalize our sales and burn a magazine story. That story belonged online immediately.
What we then did do was that after we made the news and drove the narrative, we did a definitive behind-the-scenes look at how it happened. The model of 10 or 15 years ago would have been to hold that scoop. No, that story was fast-moving. The process is if it’s breaking news we’re going to put it online, but if it’s a deep dive, we’re going to put it in the magazine. The goal of the magazine is to drive the narrative. The default is get it out, not sit on it.
We put the entire issue online as it comes out, not piecemeal.
Is there anything that Forbes started doing online that has been adapted or used in print?
What we’re doing is paying attention to what people, our larger readership, are interested in. So obviously it’s a bellwether to inform what folks want to read, or read more in-depth, in a magazine format.
We, like everybody else in the world, saw a ton of traffic when Pokemon Go came out. But when we got the exclusive story on the founding and creation, and had an exclusive with the developer, that was a magazine piece. Because of the digital numbers, we jumped on it. I may not have otherwise.
Forbes Media’s president recently called the print publication the “front door.” What does that mean?
We have the luxury of having one of the iconic magazines in the world. You have Bruno Mars singing about being on the cover of Forbes magazine. It is one of those five or six covers that means something, like a Rolling Stone or GQ.
If you’re on the cover of Rolling Stone, you’re a rock star. If you’re on the cover of Vanity Fair, it means you’ve become an A-list star. Forbes has that same kind of connotation. It means you are a success, an entrepreneurial icon. We respect that and are aware of it.
How has your readership changed?
Our average age of our reader is 42. We have been able to bring that down in the past several years. We have gotten younger while being richer. That is a very hard triangulation. In the age of Zuckerberg, it’s possible, and we have shown that.
There’s been a recent emphasis on content aimed at women readers. Why is that happening?
We have a new channel “Women at Forbes” and debuted last year our richest self-made women. For decades, if you were chronicling women in business, there was too much focus on widows and heiresses.
To back that up with our live events — our “Under 30” event had a majority of women speakers — is special. I tweeted from the event and realized that without intentionally doing it the majority of the speakers were women.
That speaks to a new generation. A lot of barriers have been tossed away. They have achieved success and don’t need to rely on anyone else. They can take things into their own hands. To be able to chronicle that as a magazine that chronicles capitalism goes hand in hand. They don’t want to work for a company. They want to start their own company.
What do events like “Under 30” add to the Forbes editorial brand?
They bring it to life. The “Under 30” summit generates almost 1.5 billion social media impressions. That’s close to the Super Bowl halftime show, which generates about 2 billion.
It’s 1,500 people in a room who are incredibly influential. It pops straight to the top of Twitter. It brings the magazine to life. It celebrates entrepreneurship through great journalism. And to put them all in a room and watch them interact as an observer builds loyal readers and a community.
It turns a media phenomenon into a living, breathing community that is powerful for the brand and allows us to establish a rich relationship with a segment of people that are going to be running the world.
What did you learn by starting your own magazine that has helped you in running Forbes?
The willingness to take risks and the need to try things. To be entrepreneurial ourselves and not just celebrate entrepreneurship from others.
We have to be willing to continue to evolve and be willing to change. Too many places will espouse doing new things, but they’re afraid of doing them as practitioners or editors. From the new live products, and the 36 local language editions, and the lists. Taking chances and doing things and being optimistic and not being afraid of making mistakes. We’ll ultimately succeed if we take the right chances.