Digital Forests

Fallen old treeLewis DVorkin of Forbes Magazine may have offered the final and definitive answer to the old question “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound?” Based upon DVorkin’s apology published on on August 6, the answer is an unqualified no. In order to make sound your tree has to be in the right place.

I encourage you to read Dvorkin’s own words as they are as fine a declaration of the surrender of whatever pretense to some social benefit journalism had left to claim. Though he might argue with my characterization, DVorkin says the only value left to information platforms like Forbes, is simply that; it is a platform that provides a space for information, period. Forbes and other legacy media outlets, DVorkin’s article mentions The New York Times, are now primarily, if not exclusively, valuable as a place to be heard.

By extension of this argument (this is my extension and may or my not be DVorkin’s), it could be said that their history as newspapers and magazines and the audience they still possess is the real value of these legacy media outlets. This value is diminishing at an alarming rate.

DVorkin says there are five constituencies a legacy media outlet serves. In the case of Forbes these are: Forbes itself, journalists, consumers, the social community (I am just guessing here but I think this used to called the public) and the marketer. I infer from the article that each of these constituent groups has an equal and separate right to the use of the platform that is Forbes. However, the article is not precise as the percentage of “rights” each group has to the platform, so I just assumed equal shares.

The article says of Forbes, “… we’re a brand-building platform for journalists and expert voices.” In the brave new world of digital age media, each constituent group has a right to create it own “expert content” produced by it own “expert voices.” By inference, the reader is to be left believing that there is no relative distinction between one constituent group’s expert voice and another group’s expert voice. The battle is to “build a brand” around your group’s expert voice that somehow outshines the other guy’s brand. (This may prove to be a wonderful market for “content providers” which, again, just guessing, is what we used to call writers.)

DVorkin points out that this notion of content marketing is nothing more than an extension of the role advertising has played throughout the history of journalism. He uses Mobile Corporation’s decade long policy of paying for ad space on the op-ed page of The New York Times to push forward its view on rising energy prices and other energy related topics. Obviously, the reader is expected to believe and accept the Times exercised some editorial control over the content of Mobile’s ad copy. This was limited to making sure “facts” were correct and did not involve any input into how those “facts” were interpreted and presented to the reader.

I am not certain DVorkin thinks Forbes will even be fact checking. It may be his view that Forbes is the same as Fox News – if the content agrees with our world view and we can’t be sued since we did not write or produce it, then let her rip. Either way this new Forbes is different. This is a line being crossed.

Having never been one to put much stake in the concept of journalistic integrity, the DVorkin article left me with strange misgivings. The truth is, people almost always drink their own Kool Aid. As long as journalists were pretending to possess ethics and making pious sounds about it from time to time there were occasions when one of them actually did the right thing. I concede it did not happen often but every now and then it did happen.

DVorkin’s article is an articulate pronouncement that the pretence is over. Pay your money and you now have an “expert voice.” You can make unfiltered noise in the form of your version of expert content and can do so on what used to be storied and respected media platforms.

In the same manner that drug lords can have better weaponry than local police because they have more money, it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to see that “content marketers” will overwhelm the ‘expertise’ of whatever journalist makes into print on a subject the marketers care about. Having the money and the motivation, content marketers will secure the best placement in the print or digital magazine. Likewise, content marketers will have the best graphics and any other widget, gidget or gimcrack needed to make its content palatable and pleasing to the reader/watcher/etc.

There is nothing illegal with Forbes or any other media platform turning itself into a bidders’ forum for any constituent group it feels it has. If decides to leverage its considerable influence over the malleable minds of its readers by selling editorial space to highest bidding “constituent,” God bless. Just recognize that in doing so it has crossed a line. This place on the other side of the line may be the future of publishing in the digital age but it ain’t the mythological journalism of old. It is just a bunch of falling trees so placed that somebody hears the noise.

Image: Licensed by at © Pink Badger
Mike Copeland

Mike Copeland

I am old enough to know better. I have a B. A. from Birmingham Southern College and a Master's in City Planning from Georgia Tech. I have worked in SC State government for over a decade leaving as the Deputy Executive Director of the State Budget and Control Board, the state's administrative agency. I have owned the Fontaine Company since 1984 and am the managing member of a management, marketing and consulting company.

I am the author of several novels, some of which you may buy and read if you are of a mind to do so.