The Report

A second act for WebMD's content queen

A second act for WebMD's content queen

Posting in Cities

WebMD pioneer Nan Forte was thinking web content before you even thought about e-mail. Her next act? Travel.

Nan Forte's well-aware of the way many people feel about online medical help.

“Oh, it's a big joke,” she says with good-natured weariness. “And it's a big joke that people are addicted to it, that we've created a bunch of 'cyber-chondriacs.'”

But as one of the pioneers of WebMD, her eyes still light up as she scrolls through the site's latest version of its Symptom Checker. A human body appears on the screen, and you click your area of concern. You then select from a list of possible symptoms, triggering the display of possible conditions. You can click on each condition to see if it matches your ailment, and get suggestions for how to treat it.

“This was just a medical dictionary, straight-up,” she marvels. Over a decade ago, she took a behemoth physicians' manual and turned it into something everyday people could interact with.

“That's the biggest challenge in content,” she says, “imagining something that is unimaginable.”

Forte has been making inaccessible information tenable online before most of her contemporaries had even considered an e-mail account.

Forte's sitting at her bamboo-topped desk in her glass-enclosed office at Travora Media, where she's now chief executive officer. From her 24th floor window, she can see New York City's first snow of the season begin to fall over the Financial District. She excuses herself, and gets up to check on her employees.

The account managers need space heaters. An editor is dreading a power outage when he arrives home. Senior manager Beth Demoz faces a trek back to New Jersey that includes a ferry ride. “You should get out of here,” Forte warns her.

Then she's back at her desk, ready to talk about her favorite topic in the world: content.

Climbing the information ladder

“I really bought into the whole 'knowledge-is-power' thing,” she says of her youth. Forte has a knack for fleshing out cliches with sincerity. “I really saw it in my own life. I come from a family of doctors, all men. And they were all just very smart by nature, and they all just seemed to know things by nature that I just needed to be taught. [I felt like I had] an inability to process information as quickly as other people. So the concept of where I could get information, how quickly I could get it, and how I could share it with other people, was something that was going to set me free in my own life and career."

Forte's fascination with the way media can democratize information led her to a masters in biomedical communications. She viewed the degree as a stepping stone to medical school. But this was the late eighties, and the AIDS crisis had just begun. Forte found herself inspired by the way patients outpaced doctors in understanding their illness.

“All of a sudden,” she says, “the people without the knowledge, the patients, became the people with the knowledge. And the doctors, the ones with the knowledge, became the people who learned things from the patients. And so even before the Internet, even before this huge exchange of social information, I was watching how the dynamic was changing.”

Forte wanted to help continue that power disruption by providing patients with information in the most progressive way possible.

“I got involved with all the early new media technologies,” she recounts. First she helped implement closed circuit television –- shows for hospital patients. Then came direct broadcast satellite, broadcasting daily news into doctors offices and into schools. Next came cable television, where she worked with Lifetime Medical.

“I think there was a little bit of videodisc or CD-ROM in there,” Forte adds, “whatever was the latest technology, I was doing it. And then when I got to Time Life Medical, we actually were creating videotapes.”

“Hold on,” she says as her iPhone beeps. “It's my kid at boarding school.” She taps out a text message, then continues her biography.

In 1994 Time Life Medical landed a deal with IBM to put health videos on the Internet. Forte calls that partnering a magic moment in her career, though it was perhaps premature given the web's inability to stream complex animations. She concedes, “There was no bandwith back then.” So she had to take a step back. “We had to make content that fit the distribution stream," she says.

Forte says this has always been the greatest challenge of content creation – putting it in a format that makes it relevant.

In 1999 she teamed with Alan Greenberg to launch Medcast Networks, a news and information service for doctors. This was a time when the Internet was dubbed the “World Wide Wait,” so the service shipped daily news to M.D.'s in the form of screensavers rather than websites.

When pressed for the dates of these career moves, Forte grabs a piece of paper and starts writing down her daughters' birth dates. “I time all my career moves by my babies,” she smiles. She remembers where she was working during each delivery, and tracks her path from company to company using those markers.

Within a year of founding Medcast, a nascent website called WebMD picked up the start-up. Nan became its chief of content, assuring both the accessibility and reliability of information on the site for the next 13 years.

The pivot

In 2011, Forte left WebMD to pursue an entirely different frontier: the travel industry. She took the top post at Travora Media in Fall 2011 with a mission to turn an ad network into a premium content company that she described early this year as "the CNET of travel." (CNET is owned by SmartPlanet's parent company, CBS Corp.) Travora and its namesake website seek to help pair travel sites such as Not For Tourists, Fodor's, HopStop, and Rand McNally with advertisers, and have scooped up a handful of small websites along the way to make its case.

Last month, the company unveiled the beta version of Travora.com, packed with original travel content ("Nicaragua: The World's Next Design Hotspot?," "The Best Coffee Anywhere," "Camping Meets Glam: 7 Ultra Luxurious Tent Hotels") and already well-stocked with sponsor's ads. Forte hopes to create mobile applications for travelers that match the accessibility of WebMD's self-diagnosis tools.

“I'm passionate about content, so I had to become passionate about the business model of content,” Forte says. “I always tell people in my staff wherever I work, I say guys we're in the content business, don't neglect the second part of the word. Budgets get smaller and smaller every year for content people.”

A business model for content either has to charge for the content itself, or include advertising in the content, Forte says. The Internet has largely dissuaded people from the former, and made people wary of the latter. But Forte says she is undeterred.

“You'll always have successful examples of great content being well monetized,” she says. She cites Trip Advisor as an example. With a few swipes of her iPhone, she pulls up the company's stock price. “That's a $4.8 billion company,” she says. "They're wrapping an advertising model around it, and it's working.”

Forte's challenge is to crack that market with Travora, with the hope that the lessons she learned at WebMD still apply today. She's bullish on its -- and her -- prospects.

“In my own career, I would say I got everywhere I got just from sheer passion,” Forte says. “I think I was just resilient, and I always knew where the money was, and I always knew how to earn my salary.”

At the end of our conversation, Forte gets up from her office chair and walks back to the coat closet behind her. She rifles through her options, choosing a heavy black number with a tube scarf. The layer of snow visible through her window has thickened, but Forte seems ready to weather the coming storm.

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Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure