Frederick E. Allen is the Leadership editor of Forbes.com, the online counterpart to Forbes magazine. The print publication was founded in 1917 by B.C. Forbes and remains a privately held company. Forbes.com says it is the No. 1 business site on the Web, with 18 million monthly viewers.
Prior to moving to Forbes.com in 2008, Allen was an editor at American Heritage magazine for 23 years. American Heritage was founded in 1954 by three ex-Life magazine staffers and focused on U.S. history.
An Interview with Fred Allen
Bob Buday and Tim Parker from The Bloom Group interviewed Allen in December 2009 at the company’s Fifth Avenue office in Manhattan to explore how he manages the tasks of soliciting, evaluating, and editing contributed articles for the Leadership section.
Bob Buday: Fred, tell us little about Forbes.com and how it fits with the print version.
Fred Allen: Forbes magazine has terrific indispensable content … but there’s a lot you just can’t do there because there’s a physical limit to how much it can carry. Leadership [articles] haven’t always fit into the magazine easily in very great quantity, but there’s a terrific amount to be said about leadership.
Also, there’s this funny thing with the Internet, that you essentially don’t have economies of scale. We not only can reach anybody in the world, we can run any amount of content that we can produce and keep top-level. At the same time, of course, online usage grows and grows; Forbes.com has 18 million unique viewers every month and so we can reach a lot more people than the print edition. [Note: The print magazine has a North American subscriber base of more than 900,000.]
Bob: Tell us about the Leadership channel on Forbes.com.
If I had come into this say four or five years ago, I would have thought, “Leadership, well that’s sort of interesting and noble when it’s not just hot air.” But coming into it in the last year, I think it is really important. Leadership has a lot to with what got us into a huge global mess: governance, management, risk, business models, planning, and so on. It’s crucial. Not that we’re going to come up with all the answers to everybody’s problems on Forbes.com, but it’s stuff everybody realizes they really need to think about and think better about. And we love any way we can contribute to that.
Tim Parker: What sorts of leadership topics do you look for?
Fred: We cover a lot of topics, including management and management advice as well general career advice. Also matters of governance, matters of corporate citizenship, and matters of risk. Topical questions we cover might include, “How will Company X do under its new CEO?” “What can we predict based on that CEO’s previous experience?” That sort of thing.
We also have sections within Leadership at Forbes.com. We have one called Thought Leaders, which has interviews mostly—some of them video—with known thought leaders on big topics. We also depend heavily on contributed articles, and we hope to be adding a blog network. We are going to be looking for the initial bloggers who will contribute to that.
Tim: What sorts of material do you prefer to receive?
Fred: Interms of content, one of the qualities we look for in articles is usefulness. It’s got to be something that’s going to be of practical value to somebody—solid and substantial. Also, every article needs to be entertaining and surprising and fresh and provocative. We want articles that really teach you something you didn’t expect to learn, but are solid. It’s not just somebody having a wacky idea. It’s something that’s backed up by serious research, or it’s an especially thoughtful person with insight that other people wouldn’t have. And having real examples is important.
In terms of length, we look for op-ed-like pieces 500 to 1,000 words in length. Generally speaking, we don’t want pieces much more than 1,000 words because that’s about as much as busy people will really read in one sitting. And generally not much less than about 500 words so it doesn’t just seem fragmentary.
Tim: So there are two parts. One is the useful, substantive content and the other is the entertaining, provocative presentation?
Fred: Yes. We want it to be both.
Tim: Can you help contributors communicate their ideas?
Fred: Yes. That’s my craft. I can’t generally add substance. If something is just a lightweight piece of fluff, there’s not much I can do about it. But editorial help is one thing that we can offer in addition to the platform; a lot of writers have found that we can help them look even better than they looked in what they sent to us. I prefer to receive material that is perfectly clean, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes the people who have the most important thing to say can use a little help saying it as clearly and concisely and efficiently as possible. And that’s okay.
Bob: You mentioned that you have 18 million unique visitors per month. How does that translate into exposure for contributing authors? What size of an audience should they expect in the Leadership section?
Fred: It varies terrifically. Some of the most valuable leadership content won’t have the biggest audience because it’s really directed at top executives—the top of a pyramid. Some of the biggest numbers we get in Leadership are for career advice articles for people early in their careers: in which industries there are good paying jobs, where they’re hiring, that sort of thing.
We also serve our readers and our writers by pushing content out and making sure it is picked up by other people. A lot of our articles are found by people who are searching. We do search engine optimization. And we do a lot to have articles picked up by portals such as Yahoo Finance and AOL. So our work with contributing writers doesn’t end when we edit and publish a piece; we continue to try to build the audience for it.
Bob: Is it easy for you to get good people to contribute?
Bob: Do you receive as much contributed material as you can handle or could you accommodate more?
Fred: I’ve been getting enough, but I always need the material for next week and beyond. One thing that’s happened in the year that I’ve been doing this is that as we’ve become known as a platform for the very best material, I’ve been able to be ever more selective. I can now select stuff that not only is fresh and provocative and interesting and solid, but also cleanly written.
Bob: How many submissions do you get in a week on average?
Fred: That’s hard to say because it ranges everywhere from a press release saying, “Here’s an expert you might want to talk to,” of which there are dozens a day, through to fully formed, well-written pieces that I want to run right away. For articles alone, including proposals for them, I certainly receive hundreds every week.
Tim: How many of those do you publish?
Fred: I tend to run about three a day. I haven’t figured out how to handle all the submissions and all the editing that some of them require and do much more than that. But I don’t want the submissions to slow down. There’s a balance where I don’t want too many fewer because then I’d worry I wouldn’t have enough good ones. And I don’t want too many more because then I can’t handle it. I’ve got a fairly good flow, but I want ever-better material.
Bob: If, say, you received 20 really good pieces a day, would you run them all?
Fred:I would try to. Logistics alone makes it hard to do 20. But as long as I can maintain the standard, I would. I want people to feel that when they come to the leadership channel of Forbes everything will be worthwhile. They won’t have to slog through a lot of garbage to find the Learjet.
Nobody wants to do that. There’s too much of that on the Internet already, and the people we want to reach have time that’s much too valuable for that.
Tim: Can you give us an example of a contributed article of the sort you love to receive?
Well, here’s one I’m putting up today by the dean of the business school at Vanderbilt University. [To view the article, click here.
] He talks very eloquently about how, when he faces really complicated problems that aren’t just about the technical things you learn in business schools, he finds himself turning to literature and interesting books.
He’s written a piece that gets to the core of the businessman’s experience, and how he has translated that into something called the Dean’s Book Club at Vanderbilt University and how he’s actually put this to use. He explains how it works with students and how he’s gotten the most motivated and interested students—who will do all their work but find time for something like that—involved in it and the kinds of discussions they have. He then adds to that a list of recommended books and why he thinks they’re wonderful.
It’s superb because, in its unusual way, it suggests a practical value in broadening a businessman’s experience. It also has the hands-on recommendations of particular books. And it’s very nicely expressed.
Tim: What sorts of things in article submissions turn you off?
Fred: I’m allergic to transparent self-promotion. I might get an article from somebody who runs a company that makes software for human resources departments. And he says, “The big problem every company is facing is that their human resources department doesn’t have their functions automated. And that’s really what’s going to save American business.”
That speaks for itself. On the other hand, if somebody has a terrific new book out about leadership, I think that often rather than just having somebody review it, it’s nice to have something in the author’s voice about why she wrote this book and what its essential core is. I think that can be truly useful and not just somebody saying, “Buy my product.”
Self-promotion works when it’s something that creates value for somebody else. That’s basic truth number one of selling anything, including oneself.
Tim: What other common reasons you decline to run a piece, presuming it’s on topic?
Fred: If it says something that’s self-evident or boring. Or if it’s said in such constipated, jargon-filled language that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
One of the funny things about leadership is that anybody can hang up a shingle and say he’s a leadership expert. There are a lot of people out there saying, “Well, you have to break down silos.” If I hear that word “silo” one more time, I’m going to slit my throat.
A lot of people are saying, “Well, the most important thing for getting through this recession is you’ve got to really have open communication with your staff.” Well, okay. Fine. But what else is new?
There are all kinds of other reasons why things might not excite me. Sometimes I find myself just saying, “This just doesn’t interest me very much.” The beauty of that objection is it’s unanswerable. If I make my doubts too specific, the author can argue “Yes, but.” Sometimes it’s better just to say how I feel, that “This just didn’t really grab me.”
Bob: Can you give us another example of a great contribution?
Fred: Another piece I’m putting up today is by a director of a management consulting firm that has done a study of 150 businesses: how they’ve innovated and how they’ve managed that innovation. What they have found is that technical innovation and new products are never enough. You’ve got to be innovative in your business model. He cites Apple as an example; the iPod wasn’t a big success until they really figured out the iTunes music store and that changed the whole business model. It wasn’t just the novel device. It was having the whole business model with the marketing, the new way of selling music and so on. Even for Apple, technical innovation was not enough. He cites other companies too and explains what you do to have an innovative business model as well as good technical innovation.
It’s also a piece that has concrete research behind it. Everybody’s talking about innovation right now and saying you have got to come up with the best new product. But he’s saying something a little different—he shows that you have to go way beyond that, explains why and presents the hard data. It’s a good, brisk, lively and engaging piece.
Bob: Both of the examples you have used are somewhat prescriptive. Is the articulation of a solution one of the things you look for?
Fred: I need articles to be fundamentally useful, but an article can be useful if it just gives you information that can help you make better decisions in the future; I don’t think useful needs to have a narrow definition.
For instance, I also publish broad opinion pieces. One that I published recently was about why men don’t promote women more. The author began by saying, “I’ve always promoted men more than women. It’s not because I’m sexist, but here’s why.” And his message was it’s because women aren’t pushy enough. Men fight more to get promoted and if women want to get promoted, they need to push for themselves more. This author argued that if there’s any wrong old stereotype about women in an office, it’s that they’re pushy.
So it nicely went against the stereotype and got very good viewership and was picked up and syndicated. That wasn’t exactly prescriptive, but it’s something that readers might find useful. “Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe I don’t think enough about the women in my organization when I’m promoting because I don’t hear as much from them.”
Tim: What other features of an article make it appealing to you?
Fred: One thing I look for is that, however specialized the subject matter is, a piece should appeal to all the readers of the leadership channel. A good example is a recent article by the CEO of Novell about cloud computing. That’s an article that will be interesting to CEOs, CIOs and heads of IT departments, who would particularly be the point persons on the topic. But it’s very brisk and direct about a big topic that should be of interest to anybody who’s interested in running a company today.
Something that’s a little difficult, when you are getting expertise from contributed articles and not remunerating people for them, is jumping on news very fast. I can’t call somebody up and say, “You’ve got to give me an article within the next 12 hours about what Tiger Woods being dropped by Accenture tells us about using a big celebrity as a spokesman and what lessons that holds for all companies that turn to celebrities.”
I’d love to have a piece like that, but I can’t order it. I can call people and say, “Is this something you could do?” And they’re likely to say, “Well, yeah, I can have something for you in two weeks.” And then the moment has passed.
So one thing I’m eager to have people think about, if they want to get their articles on to Forbes.com, is how to jump right on something in the news fast. That will always have particular appeal to me, especially if I can get somebody who’s a real world-class expert on the matter.
Tim: How are you building the readership of the Leadership channel?
Fred: Overall, I am concerned with making the Leadership channel a place that has only top-level, valuable, useful, entertaining content, so that people will want to come to it, see that it’s sharp and incisive and not full of jargon, and not the same stuff they can find elsewhere.
However, there’s a terrific variety of what appeals to readers as long as they can immediately grasp that it’s useful and entertaining at the same time. It also has to be engaging; you have to see the headline and think, “I’ve got to read that.”
One difference between the web and anything in print is you have to have a headline in just a few words that sells you the whole thing. In a newspaper or magazine you can see a headline, a deck, some text, a picture, a caption, or maybe a pull quote. On the web you have to be able to get it across in about a six-word headline that draws somebody right in.
Bob: How do you like to be approached by authors? Do you prefer an email inquiry or would you rather see the whole submission?
Fred: Either is fine. What I don’t appreciate is, for instance, something from a publicist saying, “I have an expert who could write an article about so and so” with an outline or a bunch of bullet points. I need some sense of the writer’s voice and tone. So something from the author him- or herself, or a submission, is a lot better than bullet points.
There are some things I don’t even respond to if they are clearly a mass mailing or a press release or something that says, “Dear my name,” but have obviously also gone to 100 other people.
Tim: I have one last question I’m intrigued to ask. How was the transition for you between American Heritage and Forbes online?
Fred: Technology, history and leadership are not really subject matters so much as they’re perspectives. They’re ways of looking at things. You can look at anything and look at it as a question of technology and of engineering. If you go into the woods and look at the natural world, you’ll see the fallen-down stone walls that farmers built. Also where land was cleared and where it wasn’t, and where there were bridges and dams and rivers and so on. Even in the wildest places you see the hand of man and you see the history of technology.
If you look at anything and you think, “Well, how did it get that way?” then that’s history. That’s in absolutely anything there is; history is just a perspective and a point of view. But leadership is that way too in any realm of human activity. It’s about how you get things done and how you accomplish things, and how you accomplish things together with other people, which is how we basically all accomplish almost everything.
So it's not that different; it’s just shifting your perspective. But it’s still your perspective on the whole world and how it works and what’s fascinating about it.
History’s all we’ve got; past experience is all there is. You’ve always got to be figuring out what’s new and different about the current situation and trying to deal with it. The difficulty of that is why we all get so much so wrong, but it’s what we’ve got.
Bob: Thank you.