The Huffington Post, with its legion of unpaid contributors, has provided a controversial model for journalism and publishing in the digital age. Despite the controversy, it's hard to argue that the Huffington Post hasn't had some success with its model thus far.
The model has apparently worked well enough to interest stodgy old publishers to get in on the act. According to a tweet from Forbes editor David M. Ewalt, Forbes.com will soon see its own brand of the HuffPo model: standard journalistic fare supplemented with "a level 2 bottom of the pyramid: 1000s of outside contributors."
Already Forbes.com has a number of outsiders who contribute to the online publication. One of them, Jeremiah Owyang of social media consulting firm Altimeter Group, sees his relationship with Forbes.com as a win, even though he doesn't get paid. "I feel it's great exposure to my insights, which I can cross post on my blog," he told PRNewser.
It also makes sense for Forbes.com. By reaching out to third party contributors for expertise that would be difficult and/or costly to develop in-house, Forbes.com may be able to provide readers with content around a broader range of subjects than it would have otherwise been able to. And it, of course, is acquiring that content at price that can't be beat (free).
Yet there are some downsides. Third parties obviously come to the table with their own biases, and many if not most are ostensibly interested in promoting themselves and/or their companies in some fashion. Already, PR people see opportunity for their clients. Even if the lines of journalistic integrity aren't crossed, inherent biases and promotional desires will pose some editorial challenges, and could also eventually give readers pause when assessing the credibility of Forbes.com content in general. In short, Forbes.com will have to make sure it doesn't simply become a PR tool for its contributors.
Furthermore, by relying on outside contributors, Forbes.com must consider the long-term impact on its brand. Not only can contributors can come and go, readers know they're not Forbes.com writers, so quality content doesn't necessarily inure to the full benefit of the Forbes.com brand. And as Forbes.com rapidly grows the number of contributors in its stable, managing the quality of contributions -- and preventing brand-harming mistakes -- may become quite difficult. Outside contributors are a special kind of beast, and it would be foolish to think that a large team of contributors wouldn't require a large team of editors -- if Forbes.com is truly interested in maintaining quality.
From this perspective, it seems that Forbes.com might want to think twice about scale. There's a good argument to be made that there's a place for the HuffPo model at Forbes.com and the online arms of other traditional publishers. But even so, there can be too much of a good thing. In almost anything publishers do, scale is important. And when it comes to scale, a Forbes.com strategy that calls for bringing on thousands of outside contributors seems far more ambitious than it is wise.