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Michael Stevens was elated. For a decade he has been the respected president of the fast-redeveloping Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District.
Like many, he was over the moon recently when news broke that Forbes Magazine had named Yards Park—the centerpiece of the bustling area in Southeast D.C.—one of the “12 Coolest Neighborhoods Around the World.”
The world, mind you, the world.
“We were totally surprised” but excited, Stevens toldCity Paperas he girded for the Major League Baseball All-Star Week and its big crowds.
Stevens wasn’t the only one excited by the “cool” designation.
All-news WTOP trumpeted the status. So did Washingtonian, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. The Post’s online headline: “Forbes declares Navy Yard one of the ‘12 coolest neighborhoods around the world.’”
Again, the world!
Only things is, Forbes did no such thing.
It turns out the promotional piece was written by commercial travel writer Ann Abel. It appears online but not in the print magazine. And it’s hard to see online, but there is a small dot next to Abel’s byline. If you happen to click on that, up pops this major, hidden disclaimer: “Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.”
Of course, no casual reader or even journalist, apparently, is inclined to click on such an obscure, qualifying asterisk.
So, if Forbes editors don’t stand behind the fluff piece, who does?
It turns out there is a whole world of controversy over these paid and unpaid contributors, some of whom are paid by public relations firms or others for specifically mentioning people, places, or products. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review in March, freelance writer Jed Gottlieb (who was paid) explored the murky world of pay-to-play contributing writers.
Gottlieb reported that Forbes, in part in response to criticisms, announced it would begin paying each of its 1,500 ongoing contributors—about 60 percent of whom were previously unpaid. “Each contributor will earn a minimum of $250 a month with a chance to make more, based on traffic benchmarks,” Gottlieb wrote. His article noted that HuffPost last January dissolved its stable of mostly unpaid contributors, a “sprawling, unmanageable 100,000 writers.”
Writing in an email from Portugal where she lives, Abel says that she alone is responsible for the article and the “cool” designations.
“I am a paid, contracted contributor to Forbes, and my contract clearly states that there is no pay-for-play allowed. Forbes pays me for my writing, but neither Forbes nor I accept payment from organizations, individuals, or companies mentioned in my articles. As far as I know, none of my sources ever receives payment either. The opinions I express are my own.”
In her email, Abel says that she sought advice from three travel agencies, including Indagare, Black Tomato, and Culinary Backstreets. Abel says the founder of luxury travel firm Indagare specifically recommended Yards Park.
A City Paper check of Indagare’s website shows no mention of Yard’s Park, cool or otherwise. Its highlighted three-day trip to the District (you have to be a paying member to see more) promotes a trip that includes one day of shopping in Georgetown, a day on the National Mall (including the “amazing Newseum,” which we point out is not technically on the Mall), and a day of visiting other “art and culture” sites like the Renwick Gallery and Phillips Collection. Again, no mention in this tour of “world cool” Yards Park.
Riverfront President Stevens was disappointed to learn Forbes had not endorsed Yards Park, but he says it has received plenty of publicity and favorable attention.
Travel writer Abel is prolific.
Among her frequent writings this year is a February piece entitled, “The 10 Coolest U.S. Cities to Visit.” D.C. doesn’t make that list.
In April, she authored, “The 14 Coolest Towns for Your Vacation.” Again, not D.C.
In every article there are lots of specific commercial hotels, restaurants, and stores highlighted for you to easily click on.
It seems you shouldn’t have to search for, or click on, an obscure dot next to the author’s name to tell you the true nature of what you’re reading.
(Tom Sherwood is a paid, contributing writer for Washington City Paper. He receives no other compensation of any kind for his submissions. He also likes Yards Park.)