We’re hearing from a trusted source this evening that Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of Forbes.com, is resigning, and have confirmed it from him as well. No word yet on who, if anyone, would replace him. (The internal memo to the employees, supposed to go out tomorrow morning, is here).
A bit later in the night, Spanfeller talked to our co-editor Staci D. Kramer about what he says is his decision to leave Forbes after nearly nine years (a record for him when it comes to staying in one place) to launch a new business that would manage startups and turnaround businesses for traditional media companies. His resignation, which he said was not a sudden move or a surprise to the owners of Forbes, will be announced officially Thursday and he plans to stay on at least through Labor Day to aid the transition.
“We’ve integrated the business; it’s not as web-centric anymore,” Spanfeller said. He spoke about joining Forbes when the website had roughly a half-million uniques and leaving with internal Omniture figures showing 20 million uniques—starting with at a multimillion dollar loss compared to what he says now is a multimillion dollar profit. He added: “A large part of the metrics around success have been hampered by the economic downtown and the secular change in media.”
Spanfeller knows that there will be any number of stories flying around, including some we’ve already heard about him being pushed out. “I think there will be lots of different angles on how people try to interpret it,” he said, adding, “at the end of the day, you can’t run your life” based on what other people say or think.
Back story: In the recent weeks, we have heard all kinds of tips about Forbes Media, including one that didn’t pan out about investor Elevation Partners had sold its stake in the firm. Rumors about Spanfeller’s fate at the company have been swirling since last year, with one camp rooting for him to be pushed to the top of the ladder (print + online) while another camp wanted him out. It seems like the latter has won, for now.
Back in May, Roger McNamee, co-founder of Elevation Partners, stepped down from the magazine companys board, ceding the role to Bret Pearlman, who is based in NYC and reputed to be an aggressive cost-cutter. The company has already been fairly aggressive on reining in costs since the financial meltdown last fall. In addition to completing the merger of its online and print editorial operations in January, which left 19 staffers laid off, it shuttered its auto site and gutted the ForbesTraveler staff. In March, Forbes said it would lay off another 50 employees on top of the 60 jobs cut since the fall.
Spanfeller says the idea of a McNamee-Pearlman switch has been overplayed, that Pearlman has been active with the board since the beginning of Elevation’s investment. He also said the post-meltdown push for cost-cutting was internal as well as from investors. The board has a scheduled meeting in two weeks.
In 2006, Elevation bought a 40 percent stake in the company for a reported $250 million or so, valuing the company at around $700 million. The investment was ade with the belief that the online side would outperform the print—the phrase used was they were buying into a website with a magazine attached—and with enough capital, it could become the biggest franchise in business media. What happened after that is a complex game of internal politics and intrigue. And then, Forbes has been under a lot of pressure with the downturn, like others in the sector—especially as its main message of unfettered capitalism has taken more than a dent during this cycle. David Carr described it well in a column about the company last month.
Disclaimer: Spanfeller has been writing a regular column for us for the last two months. His latest one, about the future of professional journalists, was published on our site yesterday.
By Rafat Ali