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Feb. 9, 2022, 3:57 p.m.

An incomplete history of Forbes.com as a platform for scams, grift, and bad journalism

That “rapper” accused of billions in crypto fraud was also a Forbes contributor. Is it finally time to move past the contributor network?

I sometimes think about what the, oh, 1997 version of me would find most surprising about the news industry of today. For all that’s happened in the worlds of newspapers and TV news, I think it might be magazines that would throw me for the biggest loop.

“You know Newsweek — the Cracked to Time’s Mad? The third-best option in your typical doctor’s waiting room? Now it’s pretty much a place to run alt-right conspiracy theories — especially since that big raid of their office. You pretty much only hear about it when someone says, ‘Oh, Newsweek isn’t really Newsweek any more.’ Oh, and they might be run by some fringe Christian sect out of Korea or something?”

“Sports Illustrated? Yeah, it’s still around, sorta — still some good writers there. It’s owned by the people who — you ever think, ‘I wanna make a mug, and I really want to put Marilyn Monroe’s face on it, but I don’t know who to call about the rights”? They’re the people you call! On the plus side, you can now get an SI-branded sports bra at JC Penney. (Yeah, they’re still around somehow too.) I miss the football phone.”

Nintendo Power? They killed Nintendo Power. They’re monsters, Past Me, monsters. Also, I know these words don’t all make sense right now, but: Buy Bitcoin.”

But right up there in the Confusing Magazine Transition Dept. would have to be Forbes, the magazine David Carr once called “a synonym for riches, success and a belief that business, left to its own devices, will create a better world.” (Of course, he wrote that a year and a half into the Great Recession, so the shine was already coming off.)

This was a magazine positioned for captains of industry, the sort of outlet that would proudly brand itself as “Forbes: Capitalist Tool” without ever thinking those words might mean something other than intended. Owner Malcolm Forbes “seemed to exemplify a kind of gleeful capitalism that relished the things that money could buy, from macho symbols like the 68 motorcycles he owned to an extensive collection of Faberge eggs.”

Of all the ways Forbes magazine might have evolved from there, Past Me would never have guessed “under-edited group blog that’s a soft mark for grifters.” Call it “Forbes: Scammer Tool.”

The latest example comes from the police blotter. Here’s Sarah Emerson of BuzzFeed News:

A husband and wife were arrested in Manhattan on Tuesday for allegedly conspiring to launder $4.5 billion in stolen cryptocurrency. In an announcement, the Department of Justice called its confiscation of 94,000 bitcoins, which amounts to $3.6 billion, the agency’s “largest financial seize ever.”

The department named Ilya Lichtenstein and Heather Morgan as the individuals responsible for allegedly attempting to launder 119,754 bitcoin stolen from the cryptocurrency exchange Bitfinex. Bitfinex was targeted by hackers in August 2016 who “​​initiated more than 2,000 unauthorized transactions,” the DOJ said.

Yeesh, sounds bad. (I’m starting to think there might be something a little hinky about this crypto stuff!)

So who are these people, anyway?

The announcement shared little about the identities of Liechtenstein and Morgan except that they are in their early 30s. But court documents also identified the duo by their aliases, “Dutch” and “Razzlekhan.” Twitter users and journalists have already found what appear to be numerous profiles belonging to Morgan, who, before her arrest, was seemingly pursuing a career as an influencer.

On Twitter, Morgan allegedly identified herself as a “serial entrepreneur,” “surreal artist,” “rapper,” and “also Forbes writer.” Indeed, a Forbes contributor page for Heather R Morgan lists numerous posts, including a story titled “Experts Share Tips to Protect Your Business From Cybercriminals.”

Wowzers. Morgan wrote 47 articles for Forbes.1 (Forbes reported late this afternoon that she had been “removed [as] a [Forbes] contributor in September 2021 during a routine semiannual review.”)

Morgan also, naturally, raps under the name Razzlekhan, the “Versace Bedouin,” “like Genghis Khan, but with more pizzazz.”

I should note, of course, that neither she nor Liechtenstein has been found guilty of any crimes; perhaps they have a good explanation for the $3.6 billion the feds allegedly found in their digital seat cushions. But her aesthetic crimes are many and they are severe.

Her current pinned tweet:

(Not a Churchill quote.)

It would be one thing if this was the first time something like this happened at Forbes — for it to have matched author to subject so poorly as to have cybercrime-prevention advice coming from someone now under indictment for cybercrime. (It’s like finding out Smokey the Bear’s behind all the wildfires in California.)

But this is only the latest in a series of bonkers abuses of its “contributor” system. Actually, check that: These are less abuses than straight-up uses, because they’re baked into the very premise of letting anyone take your brand equity out for a spin.

If you need a refresher: The Gordon Gecko 1980s and NASDAQ-boom 1990s were both very good to Forbes, but things started to drift downward in the 2000s, both in print and in the new world online. When the financial crisis hit, there were cuts and layoffs and, for the first time, a non-Forbes hired to run the place, Mike Perlis. He and chief product officer Lewis D’Vorkin came up with a revival strategy that just screams early 2010s digital media: It’s all about scale, baby, scale.

Forbes’ staff of journalists could produce great work, sure. But there were only so many of them, and they cost a lot of money. Why not open the doors to Forbes.com to a swarm of outside “contributors” — barely vetted, unedited, expected to produce at quantity, and only occasionally paid? (Some contributors received a monthly flat fee — a few hundred bucks — if they wrote a minimum number of pieces per month, with money above that possible for exceeding traffic targets. Others received nothing but the glory.)

As of 2019, almost 3,000 people were “contributors” — or as they told people at parties, “I’m a columnist for Forbes.”

Let’s think about incentives for a moment. Only a very small number of these contributors can make a living at it — so it’s a side gig for most. The two things that determine your pay are how many articles you write and how many clicks you can harvest — a model that encourages a lot of low-grade clickbait, hot takes, and deceptive headlines. And many of these contributors are writing about the subject of their main job — that’s where their expertise is, after all — which raises all sorts of conflict-of-interest questions. And their work was published completely unedited — unless a piece went viral, in which case a web producer might “check it more carefully.”

All of that meant that Forbes suddenly became the easiest way for a marketer to get their message onto a brand-name site.

And since this strategy did build up a ton of new traffic for Forbes — publishing an extra 8,000 pieces a month will do that! — lots of other publications followed suit in various ways.

Let us count some of the ways this is bad! (“At a high level, many of your criticisms are fair, not reflecting the improvements that have been made over the years to make it the strong network we have today. When we have problems, we fix them,” a Forbes spokesperson told me. “Our contributors offer a level of expertise and depth that would be difficult to replicate at scale inside any newsroom.”)

Forbes became a hub of pay-to-play journalism. Sometimes it’s the contributors being paid by marketers; sometimes it’s the contributors being marketers.

If I was one of the actual journalists working at Forbes — or one of the many hundreds of contributors who do good work and follow the rules — I’d be enraged anytime I saw something like this question on the Q&A site Quora (all spelling issues in the original):

Q: A Forbes contributor asked me to pay $1,000 for a mention in an article. Is that ethical?

A: Forbes is a joke now. It’s interesting seeing the older comments from 2015 that talk about the “integrity” of Forbes. I have worked with people on multiple occasions who told me they can pay $4k to be featured in a Forbes article.

A: My friend paid Forbes around 4000$ to have his first startup featured back in days. I also know a close relative who paid Forbes too.

A: When I wrote for Forbes I got a few offers each week from people offering me between $500 to $2,000 to include them in an article. I always rejected them.

A: Nope — not unethical. It’s standard. The majority of readers may be ignorant to the fact that they are always being sold to — but that doesn’t make it unethical for you to be quoted or mentioned rather than someone else that is equivilent in whatever market you want to succeed in. If you honestly say what you think and the media prints it — where is the ethical infraction? Why is Forbes or WSJ or anyone else the arbiter of unbiased truth (there is no such thing)…

The way you get free media is you do something really noteworthy or you do you spin your average or below average activities as noteworthy and pay to have it advertized, talked about, retweeted. Then you put “as seen on Forbes” on you blog and your website and your cold emails and your speaking fee and at somepoint you most likely fade into the oblivion from whence you came….but a few people capitalize again and again and create a brand for themselves and all of a sudden they are a Lean Startup Consultant or a Trainer of Trainers or blah blah blah.

Indeed, “Become a Forbes contributor!” became part of the brand-building, growth-hacking toolkit, right alongside “Pay attention to SEO!” and “Have a Twitter account!”

At some point in your professional life, you’ve probably wondered how to become a contributor for Forbes Magazine…You also get free traffic and valuable backlinks from these very, very powerful authority sites that your competitors can’t get.

Unfortunately, contributing to highly respected publications isn’t always easy. Each publication has their own requirements and preferences with regards to the content they promote. It can seem almost like a maze you have to navigate with no map.

Without a doubt, the main reason most people apply for a contributor position is for the simple accolade that comes with being a Forbes contributor. By posting in a highly respected online publication, contributors are able to add “published in Forbes” to their resume, which can help them land other gigs later on. It provides contributors with opportunities to leverage Forbes’ substantial readership, SEO positioning, and social media following while helping build backlinks to the contributor’s social media pages, business recommendations, and own website.

That one’s from GetOnForbes.com, which, along with advice on how to work the system, also offers a paid “Direct Feature Service” which promises a “guaranteed feature on Forbes.com…Instead of putting in the hours yourself, let us do the dirty work for you. We will pitch your business to our contacts and won’t stop until your name is on Forbes.” It asks prospective clients what industry their business is in; two of the five options are “Cannabis” and “Blockchain.”

Forbes became known as the best way to disguise PR as news.

Jayson DeMers [CEO of marketing firm AudienceBloom] is a prolific writer for some of the web’s most prestigious business publications. He’s published more than 700 articles for Forbes and over 300 for Entrepreneur, and has seen his work republished by Business Insider, NBC News, and Fox News. He’s also written for Inc. and HuffPost, and penned blog posts for Mashable, Time, TechCrunch, and even the Wall Street Journal…

What’s missing from that bio, and from all of his articles, is the disclosure that AudienceBloom offers clients a service in which it secures “brand mentions” about them in “major media publications” — often thanks to DeMers himself promoting clients in his articles.

BuzzFeed News documented more than 20 instances in which DeMers referenced and linked back to clients associated with AudienceBloom without disclosing a relationship. BuzzFeed News also obtained an email pitch from an AudienceBloom employee to a potential client in which he offered the ability for them to review an article with a brand mention before it was published. The pitch said a mention with a link back in a “premium tier” publication like Mashable would cost between $1,200 and $2,000…

BuzzFeed News presented Forbes, Entrepreneur, and Inc. magazine with examples of articles where DeMers and one former and one present-day AudienceBloom employee cited and linked to clients without any disclosure. As a result, Entrepreneur removed the offending articles. Forbes removed eight and left others online while declining to explain its rationale.

One client touted by AudienceBloom is an entrepreneur and writer named Neil Patel. He was quoted about the value of AudienceBloom in a testimonial on the company’s site, recommended its services in a video clip on AudienceBloom’s YouTube channel, and wrote about his experience with the firm on his own marketing blog…

In late May, DeMers ranked Patel alongside Elon Musk and Sheryl Sandberg in a roundup, published by Entrepreneur, of entrepreneurs with exceptional personal branding. It was the fourth time he’d brought up Patel in that publication. DeMers previously called him a “highly successful entrepreneur,” a “marketing and conversion expert,” and a “world-renowned marketing expert and extremely successful entrepreneur.”

In total, DeMers has referenced Patel or his various blogs and companies in 12 separate articles for publications including Forbes. One of the Entrepreneur stories was republished by NBC News, and another by Business Insider.

(AudienceBloom still exists — it just “transitioned” its name to SEO.co after the BuzzFeed story came out.)

There’s no question that Forbes is aware of the payoffs, at least in isolated incidents. Last year, it pledged to investigate after a British PR firm called out one of its writers for soliciting a £300 payment in exchange for coverage. In a followup statement, Forbes said it had identified the contributor and would not publish their work in the future, though neither it nor the PR firm identified them by name…

Forbes seems to be a prime target for offers like Satyam’s, perhaps because of the high volume of stories it runs by members of its “contributor network.” The site publishes dozens of stories per day, many of them by contributors who, like Chong, are themselves publicists…

Yael Grauer, a freelancer who’s written for Forbes and many other outlets, says she’s gotten as many as 12 offers like Satyam’s in a single month, which she always rejects. Some are surprisingly straightforward, like a marketer who simply asked how much she charged for an article in Slate or Wired. Others are coy, like a representative of a firm called Co-Creative Marketing, who heaped praise on her writing before asking whether she could get content published in Forbes or Wired on behalf of a client.

Forbes became a place to launder even the dirtiest of reputations.

After Jeffrey Epstein got out of the Palm Beach County jail in 2009, having served 13 months of an 18-month sentence resulting from a plea deal that has been widely criticized, he began a media campaign to remake his public image.

The effort led to the publication of articles describing him as a selfless and forward-thinking philanthropist with an interest in science on websites like Forbes, National Review and HuffPost.

The Forbes.com article, posted in 2013, praised him as “one of the largest backers of cutting-edge science around the world” while making no mention of his criminal past

The article on the Forbes website was attributed to Drew Hendricks, a contributing writer. As The Times revealed in an article last week, he was not the author of the piece. Instead, it was delivered to him by a public relations firm, and he said he was paid $600 to attach his byline and post it at Forbes.com.

Mr. Hendricks said he had not been aware of Mr. Epstein’s history. “All I knew was, this is a guy doing a science thing,” he said. “If I had known otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it.”

(Guess who Drew Hendricks used to work for? Jayson DeMers’s AudienceBloom!)

While the number of views has gone up, the limited editing of contributors at Forbes has come in for criticism, with some noting problematic posts like one in 2014 headlined “Drunk Female Guests are the Gravest Threat to Fraternities.”

The heavy use of outside contributors has been profitable, said Damon Kiesow, the Knight Chair in digital editing and producing at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, but it has come with risks to the Forbes name. “It changed their reputation from being a respectable business publication to a content farm,” Mr. Kiesow said.

(From that “Drunk Female Guests” piece: “I have complete confidence that the men at the fraternity I mentor will always comport themselves properly. Any woman on campus knows that she is safe in our house, which is perhaps why some choose to behave with such reckless abandon…You have no idea what a predicament this has put our colleges and well behaved fraternities in…We take the rules very seriously, so much so that brothers who flout these policies can, and will, be asked to move out. But we have very little control over women who walk in the door carrying enough pre-gaming booze in their bellies to render them unconscious before the night is through…it is precisely those irresponsible women that the brothers must be trained to identify and protect against, because all it takes is one to bring an entire fraternity system down.”)

Forbes said of its editing process:

In terms of process, we have a strict process to ensure we’re vetting contributors thoroughly and letting go of those that don’t meet our standards. Forbes’ editorial team employs a variety of factors when vetting contributors, including reviewing writing samples, their professional background and how well their area of expertise aligns with Forbes’ editorial mission. In addition to being closely vetted, all contributors sign a contract requiring them to abide by a set of editorial guidelines. We also regularly and thoroughly review our network of contributors to ensure they are meeting our high editorial standards, and we pay close attention to ensure compliance. If they don’t comply, we end our relationship.

These are, of course, only the cases that have come out into the open, the fraction of the iceberg above the waves. Who knows the extent to which Forbes and places that learned from them are being used not just to burnish reputations but to move markets?

As far as I’m aware, there are no allegations of problems in the Forbes stories of newly indicted rapper Heather R. Morgan. Nonetheless, the mere mention of crypto in relation to this system gets my hackles up. Coins soar and drop with the slightest touch, and a “Forbes Calls Wrapped DorkCoin ‘A Billionaire-Maker'” tweet, with a real Forbes.com link, can certainly be abused by people with interests at play.

It’s a big enough market that there are now scammers imitating the scammers. On the gig-economy platform Fiverr, there are currently 129 different “services” for sale that promise to get you or your company in an article on Forbes. Maybe you’d like to hire forbes_offical9, or forbes_expert3. These are all (or nearly all) scams — in the get-you-to-send-them-cash-and-then-disappear sense, not in the actually-getting-you-on-Forbes.com one. But it’s telling that Forbes is the publisher that’s being pushed the most.

Or check out this YouTuber, who plays along with a number of Fiverr “publicists” to see how the scam works. One grifter lays out the pricing: $250 for placement on Yahoo News, $3,000 for Entrepreneur or Business Insider…and a whopping $7,000 for Forbes.com.

That, in the end, is the biggest problem with what Forbes has done. They weren’t the first to launch a contributor network. Most famously, The Huffington Post was earlier and bigger, with an estimated 10,000 contributors at one point.

But The Huffington Post was building something new, from scratch. It was treated by many — sometimes fairly, sometimes not! — as low-rent, low-trustworthiness online #content, in no small part because of its zillion bloggers, who published embarrassing things all the time. Pew research has regularly found it to be one of the least trusted major news sites. (Republicans don’t love it, of course — 4% say they trust it vs. 34% who don’t — but even Democrats aren’t sold, despite its agreeable political leanings: 20% trust vs. 15% distrust. There’s a credibility price to be paid for publishing the unedited thoughts of thousands of people, no matter how wonderful some of them are and no matter how much great work you wrap around it.) And HuffPost had the good sense to shut it down four years ago.

Meanwhile, Forbes was bringing an established, century-old brand to the table. It was bringing a roots-deep association with wealth and power, the more conspicuous the better. And thanks to its global print editions, that association existed all around the world, in countries rich and poor. Their brand is uniquely powerful to scammers — and Forbes has built a system that, for more than a decade, has given them access to it. And while they’ve worked to improve the network, the basic reality remains: You simply can’t have thousands of unpaid people, most of them conflicted out the wazoo, writing unedited copy at this scale and expect everything they produce to meet journalistic standards.

Medium is a fine site that lets anyone publish whatever they want. Some of it is excellent; some of it is terrible. But you don’t see scammers advertising “I Can Get Your Company Mentioned On Medium For $4,000,” or startups proudly slapping “As Seen On Medium” logos on their websites. That’s because Medium as a brand conveys no special prestige. Anyone can publish there, and everyone knows it. Forbes offers a version of the same idea, but then puts a century of history and publishing equity behind it. You can be an open platform people write on for free, and you can be an edited publication with a reputation for quality — but you can’t be both without a cost.

Consider the convicted crypto fraudster Ruja Ignatova, who is still on the run from the law. When she wanted to seem legit to the outside world, what did she do? She printed up a fake Forbes cover, with her as the star. (And hey, with a better designer, it might have even looked realistic.)

The contributor network is like that fake cover, an esteemed publisher being abused by people with bad intentions. Except Forbes can’t stop the world from photoshopping its covers; it can cut off the credibility leak it’s had since 2010.

  1. Not to mention nearly 200 for Inc. ↩︎
POSTED     Feb. 9, 2022, 3:57 p.m.
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