A conversation with Forbes.com CEO Jim Spanfeller.
Question: What makes a good Forbes list?
Spanfeller: Well, I should say a lot of things I guess, right? There’s a wide variety of list and I think fundamentally people like list and so there are lists that would be outside the Forbes brand and there are lists that are inside the Forbes brand. So, it’s a good Forbes lists is something that’s inside the Forbes brand but also has a wide degree of interest. So, certainly rich people you know or US wealth list in our worldwide billionaire’s list and then individual country list who do quite well all around the world. But any if you’re getting into specific types of things you know, most expensive houses, most expensive city you live in sometimes negative list work, worst automobile of all time was a big list there for awhile and sometimes we… we’ll get a little bit of a little fun with it and we’ll do the highest earning cartoons or fictional characters. I said cartoons because Scrooge McDuck is usually the number one list on that list. And then we will do our top earning dead celebrities lists which we usually try to do on a Halloween, so that seems strangely appropriate.
Question: What is your methodology?
Spanfeller: We try to be very, very factual in how we do it. Obviously, when we get it to more humorous and whimsical for example fictional characters, there will in fact be a methodology behind it but that methodology is one that you know, sort of has a… but when they say in Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s kind of a lose guideline but other than that there’s very, very hard fast rules and before in fact for our celebrity lists and our rich lists, we have a very large staff working on those list all year around digging into individuals, digging into what they own, what stock they have, how the companies they’re invested with are doing and then other times where the list will be pulled out of either public place documents or census numbers or US government numbers or some other third party of some credible source who has issued metric in some way should be form.
Question: What is the editorial process at Forbes.com?
Spanfeller: It’s a 24/7 type of operation. We’re publishing 5,000 stories a day. Now clearly we don’t write of 5,000 stories but they are made up in roughly 3 or 4 different buckets. Obviously, the first bucket is the most important bucket, ones that are written… write it, are written by our staff. It’s a staff of full time and part-time online people that was originally 375 journalist will now combined the offline and online staffs together, so we’re pumping around 700 journalist that are going to be reporting on some regular fashion throughout the course of a week or a month on the site and they all write a great many stories. We then also have wire services which will contribute you know, the regular sort of what happen and when type of story then we’ll have contempt partners. And at this point I think we’re up over 250 different contempt partners that will file to the site and fairly those filters that we placed on those partners are ones that make the selections that do appear on the site more Forbesian if you will. But those partners arrange everything from a paidcontent.org to Oxford Analytica which is a company that reviews sort of the world economic and social political situation on daily basis and then everything in between.
Question: What is your most popular content?
Spanfeller: So, we use web analytics to measure our web traffic every minute of the day and in fact we’re looking at that in our intraday basis. We’re looking at it from a daily snap shot with good staff snapshot and mostly staff snapshots as well but fundamentally you know, the editors are constantly reviewing that and making decisions base upon that in terms of what goes where in terms of placements. The popularity will range and vary depending what’s happening in the world. So, as you might guess, you know, around the middle of September of last year through now, there’s been a higher degree of interest in finance stories and in market stories. Although there was interest before but it was just spite as you’ve seen you know, the world sort of implode and explode and then hopefully rebound over the last you know, 6 to 18 months depending on how value and will feel about it. Other times, we’ll have an idea that will you know, make news so when we do one of our major list, one of the rich lists or one of our celebrity lists, you’ll see huge traffic around that. And the other times it would be you know, as it relates to news today, if a companies had a major announcement or a major breakthrough or hopefully not but if it goes through some serious issues, there’ll be a permanent traffic around stories about that happening.
Question: How do online stories differ from print stories?
Spanfeller: We spend a lot of time thinking about this because we have obviously print ad online and one of the things that we’ve come to is that there has to be some similarities but to you know, just sort of question is with some differences as well. So, similarities are that at its core every Forbes story should try to make the reader smarter or richer or both. Right, if you want to stilt it all down, that’s what we’re trying to get to. We do that often by being a tag contrarian and by usually having a point of view and default process there is that by giving our user base a point of view, they can make up their own impressions, their own opinions more easily. So, if you go back I think which Harry Truman who said that “I’d like to have 100 economists please.” And they said Mr. President you know, what’s up with that, he said, well I hate this folks to come in and say one hand is this and the other hand is this, you know, give me your opinion as long as it’s factually based, I can then make up my own opinion based upon what you said, doesn’t mean I’ll agree with it and we don’t expect to all of our readers to agree with all of our stories, in fact we hope there’s some hidden disagreements around that. Now, in terms of what should be more involved in an online opportunity versus a print opportunity I think that you’ve got to think about the mediums as they exist. So, in print, it’s a longer format, it’s a more graphically rich format it’s a more leisurely consumed format. So, stories tend to be more reflective and more predictive. Online it’s more about what’s happening the last day or 2 days or a week probably the extreme and what might happen the next day or 2 days or 2 hours in terms of look forward situation. The other part of that of course is the web is raised itself directly. So, we don’t expect anyone to read, all 5000, all those stories that we publish everyday, in fact no one individual on our shop resolve 5000 stories, I know it’s humanly possible to read 5000 stories a day or hopeful that you know, each of those stories will contribute to somebody’s day, some place around the world in a positive way.
Question: How will mobile technology change media?
Spanfeller: I don’t think we’re able to answer that yet and part of the reason on the answer that yet is that we’re not really sure as an industry or as you know, as a society of what those handheld units would be able to do, right? But clearly there will be something different, right it’s a smaller screen you will be able to express the same thing that you can express in the same way, its got a 23 to 17 inch screen as you can express on the 3 to 6 inch screen or for that matter on a 24 to 16 inch screen. If you go back to your living room, I think video will translate very easily and probably already has, we’ve already seen that. How the rest of it works is TVD, you know and it’s very crude levels if you look at wap sites on the rest, into your point it’s very much more a text based in lot less graphics because you know, simply waiting for those graphics to download will be forever but as the handheld devices get better and as importantly or more importantly as the infrastructure gets better, as you moved from a 3G to a 4G environment or some providers suggesting that the 4G environment will actually be cable mode of speed. Now, all of a sudden you’re going to have a whole different way of thinking about what shows up in that handheld device and help put that you can then move from one screen to the next. So, now, you want to try and basically communicate a lot in a real small piece of a real state. As you get to this faster download speeds, the idea of going through more and more real state and more and more screens because of much easier thing to think about understand. So, we’re still at the you know, at the doorstep to what… mobile will mean for content providers and the rest and it’s you know, it’s going to be a long interesting fun, dynamic track.
Question: What does the demise of print newspapers mean for journalism?
Spanfeller: Well, I just said a couple ways of thinking about that. The first is, it’s obviously not great, right? The second or the second tear of that would be that I think… I keeps saying this all the time and hopefully I say it enough will come true is that there will be a place for as many or more professional journalists in the future than there are now or than there was 10 years ago. Now, there’s going to be a troft in the middle of that while we go through these forward types of change. And that’s going to be a very uncomfortable time for journalism and it’s also be very uncomfortable period of time for society because again if you think about it, a free press is on the corner stones of democracy and having less of that is fundamentally not a great thing. So, you know, hopefully we’ll move through this period faster than not. One of the issues we faced now is I think regardless of what happened in the environment from the financing standpoint, you would’ve seen a troft right, print it, newspapers are not the best form factor whereas at one point time they were in terms of delivering locally or in current news. The web is you know, vastly superior for that mission and you can find that just what you want to find out, you can get it with information, it’s 5 minutes older, 2 minutes old, you can tell what that information so it’s always being fed to you in ways that you’re interested in and when you want it. Initially, we can’t do any of that. The issue that we fed though is that’s all been accelerated by the fact that the great many of the newspapers companies have and or facing very, very big finance issues. They’ve been leveled it up over the last decade or two in ways that simply can’t tolerate a downturn economy to the extent what we’ve had and so that’s one of the reasons why you’re seeing as many recently you know, go chapter 11 or cease to exist or reduce frequency as you are and my guess is that’s not going to stop anytime soon.
Question: Who is the Forbes audience?
Spanfeller: Well, you know, at our core we’re looking at c-level executive or senior businesses decision makers and with that, in that target is synonymous with affluence because those are the folks that you know, have either been smarter, luckier or worked harder or some combination of all three and in reason through the… you know, or started a company, a reason through the change of commander or start their own company. And they don’t have a lot of disposable income, so that’s where the site is developed for, we’re not necessarily about day traders or folks who are trading their own accounts and a lot of great sites out there that ours and are sometimes lumped in with a business finance category. We try to be very focused on the notion that we’re about people who are running businesses.
Question: How will Obama impact globalization?
Spanfeller: Well, it’s commissioning. I think he’s off to a good start in that regard, he is certainly reaching out and opening up the American brand if you will in a way that the previous administration was not particularly nimble with. That would be a very, very good thing. I was encouraged by the fact that you know, this G20 was radically different from the meeting similar to it back into the early 1930s that I think year it was the first time the FDR administration got involve and actually ended up resolving a lot more protectionism around the world. So, you know, that certainly some levels of high end protectionism happening but clearly it’s not nearly as bad as many feared and hopefully it will not get any worst it might get a little better you know, coming from Forbes, you know, we’re free market capitalist, I’m firmly believe in that, I think history has shown, that’s you know, that’s a really good way to go out there and rise the overall quality of living for all above, so, I’m very, very hopeful that in fact we won’t see barriers being build up and we still we’ll see the free flow of capital and free flow of ideas around the globe and you know, it’s even more important now because it has been you know, repeated at notion on some much smaller globe. It’s a much more an interconnected world and if you think about it we only have to look at the initiation of this recession to have a recent example of that. You know, the world went bad and the US and within weeks or months it went bad around the world. You know, there was no like.
Question: What is the American brand?
Spanfeller: Well, it’s this concept of the brand America that was sort of begins to be better, why I guess its always been talked about but was sort of conscious level was increased rather about the half way through the second term of the Bush administration. With the notion of the American brand, brand America was under the rest and I was, there was a lot of ill will towards the administration that was a lot of do it alone thought and not a lot of outreach and discussion around that thought. So, even things that we probably shouldn’t done, we could have been better about explaining or you know, giving you know, a sugary concept as opposed to simply handing it down. So, I think you know, where the Obama administration has been, although it’s very, very early yet but certainly where they’ve suggested they’re going to be where they would have been so far is trying to be much more communicative and much more open to ideas from around the globe.
Question: Will regulation do more harm than good?
Spanfeller: The idea that more regulation as in anyway good for business is hard to imagine, you know, having said that, there are some, there are more than some that would suggest without more regulation if nor the place and our financial systems. We’re going to have some tough issues going forward and I imagine that’s probably somewhat true, the issue was that with regulation and legislation it’s a blunt instrument, all right. Alright, it’s not a scalpel, all right, it’s in there with you know, a steam shovel and as such… you know, there’s as much opportunity for harm as the risk for good so I guess I get worried about too much regulation, you know, and I guess I’ll take some refuge on the notion that you know, the Obama administration is just going to balance the budget by the end of the first term. I’m a little hard press to see that’s it’s going to happen yet, given the spending that they’re working on right now and you know, spending around 3 or 4 major initiatives so, I get it why were increasing spending, not to lose of what your courses you know, is stimulating the economy, we can argue and debate in many will, the stimulus is the way to go for reinvigorating the economy. The economy but you know, we’ll see if that works out. But you know, I guess, when done it’s hard to imagine more regulation being good.
Question: What is one idea for the new economy you disagree with?
Spanfeller: The idea that a certain amount of new cars will be mandated to work via fuels, when in fact I think the last set of research suggest that it’s more energy to produce and less efficient to produce a bio fuel than it is to simply use gasoline. Now, having said that, in the side of that story would be yes but you know, personally technology will get better and better and better and at some point the efficiencies will be there and we’ll be reliant on diminishing resource and resource that we don’t have as a country that much controlled of. So, but I don’t mean, I’m not the expert, I don’t… I really can’t weigh in on which side of that discussion is right. What’s the old axiom, there’s your side, there’s my side and there’s the right side.
Question: What is your position on executive bonuses?
Spanfeller: Well, on the one hand, clearly, the idea that folks can’t make money by helping other people make money is crazy right, that’s the whole system revolves around rewards for a job well done. So, executive bonuses as a concept we should not stamped on however, to give bonuses to people who in fact are just the opposite and did so by you know, taking advantage of a loop hole in the system and in so doing hurt the system dramatically is equally as crazy. So you know, I think that we have every right to be outrage over some of the bonuses that have been highlighted and brought to light, after the Merrill Lynch stuff and AIG, on the other hand I imagined that there are a percentage, perhaps a good percentage of those people within that group that deserves those bonuses but there’s probably also a percentage of people in there that deserve not only no bonus probably get fired. And again, it’s really hard to come in from, you know as a congressional committee or as the White House although I thought the White House has a sensible reaction to this at the end of the day and try to make that determination from outside of the company.
Question: What is the best advice you have ever received?
Spanfeller: Change begets opportunity. I’m sure a lot of people have said but the fellow who told me that was Chris Sinclair, at that time he was the marketing director at Newsweek and then I went off to become president of Pepsi and you know, this is going way back to the mid ‘80s that we have some changes in Newsweek which in my tender young years, mid ‘80s, I think I was in Grammar school, okay I was out of college. You know, I was… you know, my God so-and-so’s leaving, Chris just said, “Change begets opportunity.” And yeah that’s really been an incredibly important knowledge nugget to have because if you think about it, the velocity of change has not slowed down and in fact has increased radically as we moved through the years.