Inside Forbes: On a Visit to Ole Miss, a Look Into Journalism’s Past, Present and Future

Oxford is more than a town, much more.  It's a way of life, a place built with words that holds the heart, mind and spirit of those who call it home whether for four years or a lifetime.  Oxford is at the crossroads of Southern culture, class and cuisine.  The storied buildings around the picture perfect town square seem to hold the key to Southern culture, equally embracing learning and leisure.  In many ways Oxford is a dichotomy, simultaneously offering stimulation and serenity, creativity and calm.  Oxford is a state of mind, a gateway to some and a lifelong home to others.  It's a place where all four seasons take a firm hold, accentuated by football games, festivals and friendships.  

Oxford is full of stories that resonate with a tenor that can only be found in a town that reverberates Southern charisma and charm.  Enjoy the slices of life that follow as they are but snapshots of the town and university we so deeply love and admire.



Inside Forbes: On a Visit to Ole Miss, a Look Into Journalism's Past, Present and Future


More than anything else the press coverage about the death of the American press has been a little presumptive. As long as there is a need f [...] Lewis DVorkin, Forbes StaffTim, I’m with you here. That’s why we’re working so hard to build a sustainable model for journalism — and that means building a business with a new kind o [...] Ed Meek Thank you for visiting Ole Miss and for enlightening us and lifting our spirits. Please return often; your visit has impacted many young and old lives. Lewis DVorkin, Forbes StaffIt was my pleasure. I learned, too, and that’s what I love about visiting campuses. The questions from students gave me much to think about since they are [...] pio dal cin Journalism has changed radically and will continue re-inventing itself as new media and social platforms will provide the tools to do so like G+ Hangouts.

Will Norton and I go back 40 years. A former Chicago Tribune reporter (a job I coveted at that time), he was a graduate student at the University of Iowa moonlighting as publisher of the campus newspaper. I was an undergrad — I think a junior — who found his way into the newsroom and the excitement and camaraderie of deadline pressure. Will convinced me to write what turned out to be a 50-page plan to run The Daily Iowan. I got the editor’s job, and, as they say, the rest is history, including the 25-cent late-night beers and shop talk we shared after putting the paper to bed.

James Meredith broke the color barrier at The University of Mississippi on Oct. 1, 1962. This photograph from his first day in class was taken secretly by Ed Meek, then a 22-year-old graduate student in journalism at Ole Miss. He kept a series of photos hidden in a bank safe for 40 years until he decided to release them a few years ago. Click on the photo to read Meek's account of this historic day.

Those were heady days for the media — unraveling truth in Vietnam, covering the turmoil of Roe vs Wade, bringing down a president. Today, as journalism grapples with its digital future, Will is the dean of The Meek School of Journalism and New Media at The University of Mississippi, itself at the center of American history (the photo to the right taken by Ed Meek says it all). Many of the school’s professors come from the culture of The Boys on the Bus and an array of once great but now doomed local and regional newspapers. They’re as anxious about today’s media business as they are eager to teach what is. Will asked me to visit Oxford. “Be brutally honest,” he said. “Tell the students what they’re getting into — and professors what they probably don’t want to hear.”

That was easy for me. Yes, it’s tough out there, I explained last week at Ole Miss, confirming things they already knew. It’s also incredibly exciting, in some ways more so then the 70s. That’s because everything is changing — and change means opportunity. Never before, I said, could aspiring journalists write, shoot photos and video, produce and publish without having to grovel at the feet of an elite professional class wielding the spoils of power. Never before were the tools of media so available to them — and for free. Never before did a generation of budding media professionals know more than the owners of printing presses and satellites about how to communicate and engage with an audience.

As I spoke, I saw one attentive student pitched so far forward in the auditorium seating that I thought he might tip over. I asked his name. Tim Summers, he replied. Then he captured the spirit of the 100 or so who were there, many preparing to launch a wave of questions with far more open minds than professional media reporters on the hunt for gotcha moments. “The bricks and mortar are gone,” Tim said, “but the idealism remains.” He didn’t stop there, using the words “trust,” “value” and “audience” and others in all the ways that showed an understanding of what’s important in the new era of journalism.

All those questions (from faculty members, too) followed my 40-minute talk about how FORBES is disrupting the traditional media model for news. I talked about our new ethos, our incentive payment system for contributors and our unique publishing platform. Each, I said, was a critical and probably inseparable component of our larger goal to build a sustainable model for journalism. Here are 11 questions (as I remember them) asked in the auditorium and throughout the day, along with my in-the-spirit-of-what-I-said answers:

1. How do you rebuild a Web site? One page at a time. There are lots of big design firms, I call them the Borg, that will try to sell you a story: give us nine months (and lots of money) and then we’ll turn off one light switch and turn on another and everything will be grand. Not so. These scenarios are usually the Borg’s vision for what should be and not yours. So much can change over those nine months and you can wind up with a site, functionality and features that have been overtaken by technology events and consumer behavior. You want to learn as you go — what works, what doesn’t. I told Tim Forbes when I started all this that it’s okay to have 5, 6, 7 or more page screen experiences on your way to a single user interface. The audience will be patient if the quality is there. In the end, it will be better and far more cost efficient.

2. What do editors do today? Ah, it does get to that, doesn’t it? During my True/Slant days I used to say, “We edit talent, not copy.” The fact is that FORBES editors today — for their digital responsibilities, that is — pay a lot attention to bringing in the right talent with the right expertise. They can be journalists, authors, academics, other kinds of experts, even business leaders and entrepreneurs. So, the job, the key decision, is who they bring on as contributors. Editors at FORBES always guide and consult, but the staffer or the contributor is the one who presses the publish button. They have the accountability to get it right. The fact is, a digital reader cares far more about getting timely, thoughtful and expert information than whether ever sentence or paragraph is in the perfect order or beautifully written. Magazine stories are different. They have a beginning, a middle and an end and our FORBES editors pore over everything word, sentence and paragraph. That kind of finesse in print is still required by the audience.

3. What’s the role of a staff reporter? To report, to make phone calls, to find out what others don’t want them to know, to get it right — in digital and in print. It’s a bit different for contributors, who bring knowledge and “reporting” from a lifelong career in a particular topic area. What’s interesting to see is that many more contributors are now doing the same kind of phone reporting that staffers do. One more thing: Staffers must engage with their readers by responding to comments. And they need to promote themselves, too, using the tools of social media. Oh, and they must act like producers, photographers, and look for video content, too.

4. What kind of software do you use? If you mean our content management system, or technology platform, we assembled it with a series of modules, mostly different pieces of open source software. Our secret sauce is how we stitched them together. For example, we use WordPress as our writing software. If something better than WordPress comes along we can replace that module with a better publishing module. That’s a simplified answer, but the core of what we do is integrate great software. We’ve also built some great algorithms that are definitely proprietary. One of them tracks the velocity at which FORBES content is traveling across the social Web.

5. That ad that pops up. What is it? Okay guys, I know what you’re getting at. That’s what we call the Welcome ad. Remember in my presentation I talked about the $2-$15 desktop cpms and how much lower they are than print? Well, Welcome ad cpms are much higher — and they help pay our staff and the contributors who produce the news for readers. We do put limits on how many a consumer can see during a day. Alas, sometimes, for one reason or another, such as when cookies are cleared (by the consumer or us) you’re seeing more of them than you’d like. We’re always monitoring those situations and figuring out the right balance. I know I am. You can ask anyone at FORBES and they’ll tell you I’m the protector of the consumer experience.

6. How about ads on pages. How do you decide how many? Ah, you’re pretty savvy. We’ve been working through it. There are display ads, search ads and other types of content that generate revenue. We’re working through it all. It’s a tough balance. First, we want a great consumer experience. We also want the marketer to be successful. And of course, we need to make money — journalism is a business after all. And it’s all complicated by the move to programmatic buying of advertising — that is, by computers rather than human sales people. It’s like a five-level chess board. Recently, we cleaned up the photo gallery experience and we’re looking at how to do even better.

7. How do you get contributors? Actually, they’re now coming to us — and we probably turn away nine out of ten. At True/Slant, the company I started that began all this, we had to recruit hard. And we did get 300 contributors. At a brand like FORBES, we certainly recruited at first, but now lots of talented and knowledge people want to participate in our model. As I say in the office, we’ll never turn away someone who is great.

8. Can you be sued because of contributor? Yes, we can, but it won’t work. We license contributor content, so that makes them responsible for their work. Ours is a system of accountability. Get it right, and if you don’t, fix it fast. The audience respects it when you update errors quickly. Of course, contributors who consistently makes errors will lose their credibility — with the audience and us.

9. Who’s going to do investigative reporting? News organizations and the folks out there who know what they’re talking about. Remember RatherGate. There were bloggers out there who knew a lot about typewriters. It wasn’t necessarily investigating reporting, but a few weeks back we did a big story on a wealthy Saudi prince and how he inflated his billions. It was information our staff reporter found out over five years. Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of the term investigative reporting, but I do believe the media and others are just as well positioned to do great reporting — if not better.

10. Is public relations changing? It should. They days of solely putting out press releases are over. There’s this new thing called native advertising and PR people need to understand their role in it. You’re going to find more and more companies communicating directly with the audience rather than through intermediaries like reporters.

11. How important is print? At FORBES, it’s very important. In fact, we call our covers the front door to our brand. Being on the cover of FORBES magazine is a big deal, and people know it. And these stories do well online. You should check out our new magazine app. It’s on its way to being a new kind of front door for a tablet generation that likes the familiarity of print, too.

After more than an hour of these questions, Tim Summers jumped from his seat to find me. He wanted to talk about It’s a site he started after deciding that “slinging sorority girls wheatgrass shots” in a local juice bar wasn’t making the best use of sources he had cultivated on the crime beat at a short-lived weekly. His startup quickly got a break when, as he says, the “internet in our state shivered from one end to the other” with the arrest of an Ole Miss football player — “and I was only three blocks from the county jail.” Tim soon began to charge subscribers $5 a month, accumulated 250 paying subs, periodically hit 3,000 daily page views — and proudly developed something he calls “parallel publishing.” In a follow-up email, he said the site was now on hiatus because the student he hired to help run it didn’t buy into the “more work equals more subscribers” view of the world. “Management is a skill I am still refining,” he says. Not to worry Tim, your kind of entrepreneurial spirit is the future of journalism.