Forbes, Legends of the Fall

Stewart Pinkerton, former 'Forbes' managing editor, on how the Forbes family ultimately lost its way

Stewart Pinkerton’s new book, The Fall of the House of Forbes, reveals a lot about the magazine’s history—including that, according to Pinkerton's reporting, its longtime publisher Malcolm Forbes died from suicide, not heart failure. But the real story here is about a nearly century-old institution that splintered in the face of technological change and financial recession. In this week’s Fast Chat, Pinkerton, the magazine’s former managing editor, tells Adweek what he thinks went wrong.

Why did you write this book?

The legendary editor Jim Michaels was incredibly brilliant but incredibly irascible. He’d strike terror in your heart. After a particularly dramatic editorial meeting—Jim was just apoplectic about something, and throwing pencils—I was walking out with a colleague, and he said, “If anybody ever wrote this down, nobody would ever believe it.” So I thought, maybe I should take notes.

What was so unbelievable?

There was no advance planning, issues came together at the last minute, Jim would rip into stories that had already been transmitted. It worked, but it was really scary. The proprietors, especially during the ‘90s, were just riding the crest of the economic boom. It would be really hard to screw it up. But when the protection of that economic expansion went away, some of the decisions didn’t look so good.

When did the Forbes decline begin?

Malcolm died in 1990. His death set into motion a whole cascading of events that took a long time to unwind, but that clearly was the trigger. Michaels retiring in 1999—that was another clear moment of truth. You had, in effect, Apple Computer without Wozniak and Jobs. You’ve got the guy who made it work and the visionary. You take those two out of the equation, and over time that has an impact.

And why did it fall?

I’m not sure they had the right people in place. There were decisions made that, in retrospect, were probably not good ones. And the family was very concerned about keeping their money. My view is they tend to be very stingy spending money on stuff that they should spend money on and were spending money on other things that didn’t matter.

Did they invest in transitioning to the Web?

At first, they put a lot of money on the dot-com side. In many ways, that was a very smart move. But there was this whole focus on generating traffic—slide shows on “Ten healthy snacks to eat at your desk,” “The top Victoria’s Secret models: Where are they now?”—that, in my view, came at the expense of the quality of the product. Any publication, any brand, has a certain image and a certain panache. Once you start fiddling with that, it doesn’t take long to dilute it.

What is the family’s view of all this?

I think all the sons were distracted by one thing or another. My sense is that each of them, now, desperately wants to be doing something other than what they’re doing. Steve [the current editor] is very smart, knows a lot about history. But his heart is not in what’s going on in that building. It’s almost as if the brothers weren’t reading the magazine over the years because one of the lessons that we always used to write about was how family-owned companies don’t know when it’s time to turn things over to a professional, CEO-type manager who knows how to run a business. Over the years, Forbes has written about this time after time after time.