How the self-proclaimed Capitalist Tool was brought down by capitalism itself.
The Fall of the House of Forbes: The Inside Story of the Collapse of a Media Empire
by Stewart Pinkerton
St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp.
Young readers may not believe this, but not long ago, some of the world’s most vital and creative work was appearing in magazines. As late as the 1970s, the bulk of newspapers were gray recitations of official news and garden club announcements, and network television news was basically a radio roundup with pictures. Magazines, though, were where the action was. It is not an accident that when Jann Wenner wanted to capture the tumult of the 1960s, and when Gloria Steinem wanted to propel the women’s movement, and when William F. Buckley wanted a rallying point for conservatism, they founded a magazine. Magazines provided homes for voices and ideas and, in doing so, created communities. Seldom any longer do restless young intellects seek to create magazines. Instead they blog, or tweet, or create Web sites. These options offer tremendous savings on paper and print, and they certainly offer readers a chance to form communities. But they have yet to create very many distinctive voices that manage to escape their niche and impact the thinking of society at large. Whatever the new media have created, it is nothing to rival Norman Mailer on the march on the Pentagon, or Tom Wolfe on radical chic, or Hunter S. Thompson on Las Vegas, or George Lois’s amazing depictions of Nixon and Ali and Warhol.
If this introduction seems excessively lamentatious, it’s only in keeping with much of the tone of The Fall of the House of Forbes: The Inside Story of the Collapse of a Media Empire, the new book by Stewart Pinkerton, the former managing editor of Forbes. Which, as the title clearly promises, tells the story of how a magazine, once rich and purposeful, lost its way, and how it is struggling for a raison d’etre in the twenty-first century.
Forbes was once a giant of a magazine, one that reached its apotheosis of influence and cachet in the 1980s. Under the leadership of Malcolm Forbes, the colorful, effervescent spendthrift who was the son of the publication’s founder, the magazine—the self-proclaimed Capitalist Tool—became an exponent of the Market Ideology that bloomed during the ’80s, and was accepted as a Bible by the men in the power ties and the women in the suits with padded shoulders whose worldview has governed us since. Pinkerton maintains that with his ballooning and motorcycling and yachting and Faberge egg collecting and mad party-throwing, the exuberant Malcolm Forbes was a living embodiment of the magazine’s central message: that having money is fun, and that having a lot of money is even more fun than people with only some money can imagine.
Pinkerton is at his best describing the era when Malcolm played the beloved if somewhat cartoonish head of state, while editor in chief Jim Michaels acted as the brilliant, ironfisted prime minister who delivered the goods every issue. Pinkerton has good inside stuff about things the legendary Malcolm did after work hours, but what is most important is the ethos that these two leaders instilled among the members of its staff: what you do is important; what you do must be done with excellence; what you do will be rewarded. But after Malcolm died in 1990, his Number One son Steve, abetted by brother Tim and to a much lesser extent brothers Kip and Bob, took over operations. The young Kaiser wasn’t running Bismarck out of the palace, but time is a relentless adversary, and Michaels retired the editor’s chair in 1999. On top of everything else, Michaels knew how to get when the getting was good. Like far too many people lately, the Forbes boys learned that the party seems less fun when you’re the one cleaning up the morning after.
Fond as Pinkerton is of Malcolm and Michaels, he does not play the “if only” game and imagine a rosier outcome for the magazine had their stewardship continued. One of the most formidable challenges the company faced in the twentyfirst century was how to synthesize its print and Internet operations and identities, and Forbes was hardly alone among media titles in making spectacularly costly errors. Michaels showed no more aptitude for solving this problem than his less divine successors. Steve Forbes might have done better if he had paid attention, but since he spent so much time and wasted so much money in 1996 and 2000 (some $75 million) in the utterly futile quest for the GOP nomination for president, one cannot suppose that a man with such a stupendously unreliable self-image could have been relied upon for an insightful analysis of this vexingly complex problem. Pinkerton does a good job with Steve Forbes, and one wishes for more about him and less inside baseball about the ins and outs of succession politics and ill-fated publishing ventures in Europe. But in Pinkerton I recognize a fellow graybeard who has spent a great portion of his life in magazine journalism, and who has found, to his horror and dismay, that bad management, changing appetites, and ravenous technological developments have sucked much of the life out of what was once a thriving world. In his account of the actions taken under Steve Forbes’s new regime he gets to the heart of what could be called, if melodramatically and sentimentally, the Crisis of the Magazine.
Facing dramatically declining advertising revenue (in the year 2000, Forbes had more than 6,000 pages of advertising—this was during the high-on-your-own-supply years of the dot.com bubble)—and was charging about $75,000 per page; in 2010, it had 1,640 pages of advertising, and was charging between $23,000 and $25,000 per page. The numbers from magazine to magazine no doubt differ, but throughout the industry the basic story is surely the same. Revenue declined, and the Internet, with all its power to deliver information quickly and cheaply, and all its nifty gadgets, pushed magazines into yesterday.
Of course, it didn’t help that the magazine industry already had been slowly curling into a fetal position for a decade—taking fewer chances, pandering more to reader tastes, making more concessions to publicists and powerful advertisers and bean counters, gradually relinquishing its hold on the public’s imagination. Even at Forbes, the magazine’s signature feature, the Forbes 400, a ranking of the 400 richest Americans, saw the concept extended past the point of profitability to the point where it became an overworked reflex.
This was a bad time for magazines to have lost their spark. The new medium turned out not to care very much for complexity, nuance, subtlety, detail, or narrative, and instead preferred speed, brevity, simplicity, and punch. The reality is that you didn’t need to be a highly paid, lengthily schooled professional to be productive in this environment; a college intern with high-speed Internet access and magic Google fingers could do well enough. A Web site wouldn’t need a curious, insightful, well-reported article about the changing role of magazines if a scantily worded online slide show about bad magazine covers did a better job of pumping up page views and click-though tallies.
What angers Pinkerton is that the new digitalista regime that eventually won control of Forbes turned its face to this vapid future and embraced it. Forbes is now headed by Lewis D’Vorkin (a man whom I met once and nominally worked under for a year when I blogged at True/Slant, a site he founded). D’Vorkin has the title of chief product officer, and if you’re like me, you hear in that Silicon Valley phrase a snub of journalism’s most noble and romantic notions so forceful that it practically invites you to start humming a certain Cee Lo Green megahit. According to D’Vorkin, speed is the new accuracy. Editors should be “curators of talent and marketers of stories” who blend the contributions of dozens if not hundreds of people, many of whom are not paid. Journalism is no longer news, or stories; it’s “a conversation.” Thus did Vichy welcome its conqueror.
“There’s an important distinction between one hundred people using their cell phones to record an event and real journalism, calcified as some of its traditions and procedures may be,” writes Pinkerton in a rousing defense of professional journalism as performed at magazines.
What’s missing from the raw footage is the authoritative voice, the result of years of source cultivation, the building up of levels of trust that allow a reporter to put something into context. It’s something only established news outlets can do. Most people need an expert to filter, prioritize, and context information. A fire hose of information without that is useless.
Journalism is essentially an elitist endeavor. A well-written, well-edited, well-researched magazine will almost always have more to offer a reader than the lone blogger does, but that is true only if the editors and writers act like Jim Michaels did and simply never tolerate sloppiness and boredom and laziness. And if that’s not enough for magazines to secure their place in the future, it’s better to go down believing in excellence than to walk into the light of the shining day of the slide show.
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