The internet has changed news habits, even those of the most loyal print subscribers. Instead of opening the pages of a newspaper or magazine, readers avidly click from one article to the next.
If something fails to grab immediate attention, readers can move on.
No pages to turn. Just buttons to click.
While the internet allowed for radical improvements in customer service and engagement, it sent advertising spend into a tizzy. The traditional, ad-based revenue models of print subscriptions struggled to translate to the digital era. It caused a rash of media market consolidation and forced companies to rethink content priorities.
Savvy organizations differentiated physical and online subscriptions and wove in technology to personalize the reader experience. But the transition is invasive, leaving media organizations to rethink business models.
When Salah Zalatimo joined in 2015 as VP of product, following the acquisition of his private photo sharing company Camerama, Forbes was just coming out of the "era of quantity and breadth in publishing.
"We saw the writing on the wall about the next era for journalism, which is really about quality and depth," Zalatimo said, in an interview with CIO Dive.
Named chief digital officer at Forbes in January, Zalatimo's job is to make sure Forbes succeeds in its next era, one in which:
- Digital is integrated
- Product, engineering and design operate as one, efficient and quick group
- Data is infused in Forbes decision making
- The company maintains a laser-like focus on audience and segmentation
Forbes is more than a century old, and capturing 100 years of content and knowledge can give the company an edge. As part of a three-year transformation plan, Forbes overhauled its content management system (CMS), building a tool internally, tailor-made for its needs. It also rebuilt and redesigned the website from scratch.
Since then, Forbes has reached record audience size, revenue and profit, Zalatimo said. It has improved load time so much Forbes has, on an annual basis, collectively saved 57 years of readers time.
The curious case of the CMS
Every company interacts with a content management in some way. CMS tools power websites; without online visibility, a company ceases to exist in a customer's eye.
Regardless of business or vertical, CMS is one of the most "universally adopted" technologies available, Mark Grannan, senior analyst at Forrester, told CIO Dive.
The reliance on a CMS is expanded in media, where products — articles, blog posts, listicles — predominately live online, though some, like Forbes, have print offerings.
The one curious element of CMS technology is the reflex to build, rather than buy and customize, a solution. Building an e-commerce, CRM or analytics tool from scratch is practically unthinkable.
"For some reason, CMS and web has maintained this small camp of diehard folks who think that they should be able to build it," Grannan said.
This has worked to the advantage of some savvy media companies. The Washington Post sells its homegrown Arc CMS to other newsrooms.
The decision to build Forbes CMS was "rather simple," Zalatimo said.
In 2011, Forbes moved to the contributor model, where 'crowd-sourced' content creating experts draw their external communities onto the website, which in turn drives engagement, according to Forbes.
Its roster of contributors, combined with internal staff, meant no off-the-shelf CMS could meet business needs. Previously, Forbes relied on a customized WordPress CMS, which was "buckling at the seams."
"We needed something that was built for us and I think therefore meant built by us," Zalatimo said.
All about Bertie
Forbes built from scratch a publishing platform called "Bertie" — named after founder B.C. Forbes — which it introduced in July 2018 and has a variety of artificial intelligence and machine learning features intended to make writers more effective.
Treated as augmented intelligence, "we think of it as a bionic suit for our writers," Zalatimo said.
The idea is to weave in insights gleaned from the company's publication of more than one million pieces of content during its lifetime.
"Imagine if we could take that knowledge and information and infuse it into our publishing platform so that it is something that we want our writers to feel naturally is supporting them and kind of nudging them in the right direction," Zalatimo said. Forbes wants its publishing platform to serve as more than a "flat tool," allowing writers to "benefit off our years and decades of experience."
Benefits are seen throughout the phases of the writing process, Zalatimo said:
During the idea phase, Bertie can offer suggestions for stories or trending topics relevant to a writer's beat or audience.
During the creating phase, the system can create "rough drafts" or synthesize research on a given topic. Bertie can also suggest images based on what is written.
During the distribution phase, the system helps get content to the right places by optimizing headlines, and consider the right image, length of article and time of publication.
Based on its historical data, Forbes knows which articles are successful and can assess why.
There are limits to what Bertie can do. New content discovery poses a challenge if there isn't a breadth of historical data that can offer writers insights.
"Bertie will always be an augmentation," Zalatimo said. "We're always going to need humans to do a good chunk of this work," such as finding emerging trends before they're trends.
For now it's not a comprehensive solution, but it is an incremental solution. Forbes is "constantly iterating" and trying to "enhance and test."