Feb 12 2005
Oh god. The things you learn when you google onanistically.
Back in the dark ages of the late 90s, when I was living out of a garment bag at the Yale Club and running Forbes.com, Jim Motavalli dropped by my office to interview me for a book he was researching about big media and the internet. I broke my first rule of reporters speaking to reporters — don’t do it — and spoke to him. I knew Jim for a few years. He was buddy of the ex-publisher of the magazine, Jeff Cunningham, and had been a dot.com columnist for the New York Post.
So, there in Google is a reference to me in Motavalli’s book — Bamboozled at the Revolution: How Big Media Lost Billions in the Battle for the Internet . I go to Amazon, pick up a used copy for (no shit) $0.01 and wait. It arrived yesterday. I jump to the index, find my name, and lo and behold there’s two pages devoted to my favorite person.
Motavalli sums me up this way:
Churbuck, famous for his bow ties and droll post-preppie demeanor, had had the foresight to register the domain name Forbes.com in 1994, and wrote a letter to Forbes magazine chairman Steve Forbes suggesting that Churbuck helm a Forbes Web project.”
“Droll?” Whatever. I don’t think John grasped the point that I had been writing for Forbes for six years as an associate and then senior editor. The rest of the passage makes me sound like some weird geek with a Forbes infatuation who snatched the domain name and wrote fan letters to his favorite presidential candidate looking for a job.
“If a leading magazine like Forbes could trust its web site to a complete outsider, an intellectual and computer geek who had little in common with the ambitious Forbes family, then all bets were off when it came to figuring out what media web sites were about.”
Again, John needed to check a couple facts. The reason I got the nod to start Forbes.com was because I was an insider already sitting on the masthead. Forbes.com wouldn’t have gotten out of the gate if it had been launched by an outsider. (I’ll take the sobriquet “geek” with pride, though I would have qualified it by saying I am a “geek manque”). As for “little in common” with the ambitious Forbes family. When it comes to bank balances and boats, yes, they are in an utterly different leaghe. But yes, I am a preppy. I graduated from the same little prep school that Steve Forbes did, and where he was chairman of the board of trustees. In fact, I wrote a letter to Steve in 1988 when I was suffering at PC Week, a letter which began with the line: “Not to tug on the old school tie, but here goes …”
Motavalli makes it sound like the Forbes’ were clueless about the web. That’s the thesis of his book afterall — big media was sucking its thumb and covered with drool when it came to the web. Not so at Forbes. Sure they dicked around with Prodigy and the accursed CompuServe in the early 90s — something I wasn’t happy about. But when it came time to go web, they went to the web, gave me a lot of slack, a lot of money, and a lot of encouragement.
Tim Forbes was entirely realistic about the potential of Forbes.com and the necessity for it to grow, even at the expense of the print side. The state of Forbes.com today — with awesome management in the form of Jim Spanfeller (ex-publisher of Inc. and Yahoo Internet Life), huge traffic, and allegedly strong financials — is a testament to the Forbes brothers’ foresight and patience in making their dot.com strategy central to the company.
Motavalli paints a convenient picture of a culture war between those darned web guys and the clueless suits. Sure, there were clueless suits, and sure, there were arrogant web guys. I don’t know where John got this pearl, but it wasn’t so:
“Churbuck and his counterparts would attend occasional Web-vision meetings with the executive hierarchy, but these sessions were painful for all concerned, and most of the advice doled out by the top echelon was useless and uninformed.”
There were never any “web-vision” meetings. Strategy was set directly by four people — Greg Zorthian the director of business development, DeWayne Martin the general manager of Forbes.com, Tim Forbes the COO of Forbes, and me. I was the ambassador of good will to the editors of the magazines — Jim Michaels and Bill Baldwin at Forbes, Rich Karlgaard at ASAP, and Chris Buckey at FYI. Advice was never “useless and uninformed.” There were stupid ideas, there were great ideas. There were distractions, diversions, and all sorts of day to day annoyances, but all-in-all, Forbes.com set, in my completely biased opinion, the standard for good print-to-web relations. The fact that we utterly kicked the asses of Fortune and Businessweek is testament enough for me.
Did we operate Forbes.com in a bit of a guerilla vacuuum? Sure. We had a couple operating principles: the first was “It’s better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission” and the second defined our strategy: “Ready. Fire. Aim.” Did we charge new PCs and software on our corporate cards because we didn’t want to put up with the central purchasing bullshit? Sure. Those frisky web guys. Did we think the adoption of things like the CueCat or the circulation department’s demands that we run pop-ups to sell subscriptions were evil? Yep. Forbes.com was no love fest. But it was a hell of a lot of fun to start and launch.
I don’t think I’d want to be managing it now. The crack-pipe of traffic growth will suck the life out you. But it had its days and remains one of the most fun things I’ve ever done.
“For the David Churbucks of the media world, the future was less than assured. And who wants to work in an environment where you are alternately admired, feared, resented, and, finally, viewed with contempt?”
Sigh. That’s a shitty epitaph for six years of hard work. Yeah, I expect there were people who admired me, feared me, resented me, and viewed me with contempt. I’ll get over it. There are weasels everywhere in life.