Jan 19, 2021 - Economy

Exclusive: Forbes launches massive expansion of paid newsletters

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Forbes is launching a newsletter platform that will allow journalists to launch their own paid newsletters and split the revenue with the 103-year-old publisher, executives tell Axios.

The big picture: Forbes will hire 20-30 writers with big followings to help get the platform up and running. It later plans to add some of its existing editorial verticals to the platform and make the offering available to its 2,800-person contributor network.

How it works: The idea is to create a platform that offers writers all of the marketing, editorial and salary benefits of being a part of Forbes' newsroom, but gives them enough editorial independence to ensure that their audiences follow them over to Forbes.

  • Writers will be able to split subscription revenue for the newsletters 50/50 with Forbes. They will also be able to receive a cut of advertising revenue with Forbes, with no cap on potential earnings.
  • The ad revenue share will be based on page views and recurring visitors, says Forbes' Chief Content Officer Randall Lane. "We will pay a flat rate based on page views and a bonus based on recurring page views," a metric that represents reader loyalty.
  • All the revenue comes with the guaranteed minimum of a full-time Forbes salary and benefits, as well as legal support, editorial guidance, copy editing, and fact-checking assistance.

Be smart: This is different from a platform like Substack, where content moderation policies are intentionally less strict because writers are paid directly and only by readers.

  • Forbes' offering will inevitably mean there's more editorial oversight over the selection of newsletters and authors.
  • Forbes' platform could be very appealing for writers covering industry topics and looking for more autonomy over their brand and compensation in line with their audience and performance.
  • It will be less appealing for writers with controversial political opinions or those looking for no editorial or brand oversight, like Glenn Greenwald, who recently joined Substack.

Forbes has already begun making a few hires and plans to announce another 5-6 newsletter hires this month.

  • Houston Chronicle tech editor Dwight Silverman will write a newsletter about consumer tech.
  • Forbes contributor and entertainment critic Scott Mendelson will write about the box office.
  • Forbes travel writer Suzanne Rowan Kelleher will write about luxury travel.

Existing Forbes staffers are eligible to apply to launch newsletter on the platform, but Lane notes that the company is specifically looking for "people who already have a big following in their area of expertise."

  • Later this quarter, Forbes will begin to add key Forbes franchises to the platform as paid newsletters, like the “Midas List,” which focuses on the venture capital community, and “SportsMoney,” which details the business of sports.
  • It will launch paid newsletters for popular writers from its contributor network closer to Q2.
  • The newsletters will be authored via Forbes‘ proprietary CMS called Bertie.

The platform, dubbed "Journalist Entrepreneurs" internally, will help Forbes grow its digital subscription revenue.

  • The company makes most of its money from advertising, events and sponsorship deals around its popular Forbes Under 30 franchise.
  • Subscription prices will be developed in collaboration with the writers.
  • Newsletter subscriptions are not included in the company's unlimited access digital subscription.

Yes, but: Not only will Forbes compete with a number of tech firms getting into the newsletter business, but a few editorial publishers that are eyeing a similar idea.

  • The opportunity for Forbes will be its ability to lure professional business journalists.

Unlike many newsrooms across the country, Forbes hired 59 people in 2020, and avoided large-scale layoffs and furloughs.

  • Lane says the project has required a “robust” investment, which includes not just the hiring of new journalists, but also staff for functions like design and marketing.

The bottom line: Forbes has a long history of platform journalism.

  • "We've had our contributor network for 10 years," says Lane.
  • In 2018, Forbes became the first major media company to try publishing stories via blockchain. Even though the experiment didn’t work out, Lane says the learnings were invaluable.
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