Chicago Art Machine Network CEO Kathryn Born on Technology and Journalism

Kathryn born is CEO of the Chicago Art Machine Network, which offers news and features on the Chicago art scene. Born founded Chicago Art Magazine after a career as a filmmaker, artist and writer for 15 years. Chicago Art Magazine began as part of Art Talk Chicago – a Chicago Tribune sponsored blog network – and went solo in the fall of 2009.  She also runs TINC Magazine (Technology Industry News Chicago) and DIY Film Magazine.

Recently, Born shared her thoughts about print and web publishing – both fact and fiction.

Many say technology and the internet have decreased peoples’ attention spans, and so editors now want much shorter articles. What’s your take on that?
The truth is people have had the same attention span they’ve always had. They’re smarter than they’ve ever been. But the reason that writing is being shortened so much – we had articles because articles were the only option. We had to do storytelling. Things were very long and drawn out. There is a place for storytelling and there is a time for reading. That is one type of writing that we can be doing. The problem is that there is another type of thing that’s needed.

What is needed?
People go on the web looking for very, very specific pieces of information. You’re looking for information, and you’re trying to harvest the information out of articles. But the articles aren’t the way to do it – they’re not comprehensive, they could be old and out-of-date. So articles became this really, really bad research tool that we all became dependent on. People want to get information. If one of the things you want to give your readers is organized sets of information they can use themselves, then you don’t need to be writing articles – you can be using software.

Can you give me an example?
At TINC Magazine, we’re just starting to pitch the start-up catalog. We take all these companies [for example, gaming companies] and we start to compress them into information for a database. So we’re going to have a button that says “gaming,” and all of a sudden there they are. You see all of them, if they’re active, how many employees they have, how much revenue they have. It immediately gives you that information. Who wants to be surfing for information? You want to be finding information. So, we’re creating these systems.

It doesn’t seem like most online media is doing this…?
When media went online, it’s like nobody sent them a memo saying that you’re not limited to the things you did in print. And so what publishers did, they just took everything they did in print and they did it the exact same way online, not realizing there are all these other things you can do. Slowly video has gotten in, there’s been some interactive graphics, but it’s really, really primitive.

So what direction could writers go?
As publishers, we can be getting data and putting it in a useful way so our readers can be getting the information. Like when the financial collapse happened, I wanted to know more about what the government spends money on, what was on the table and what the politicians talked about. Where are the tools to help us understand our transparent government? Because watching C-SPAN ain’t gonna work! So that’s what’s happening – we’ve got this data out there, but no one’s looking at journalism as a way to organize information for the public, which is the core principle of what journalism and web content writers are supposed to do. Not write articles, not tell stories, but organize information so the public can be informed. This is not that radical if you think about what the core of journalism is supposed to be. The public is actually incredibly smart, and when the go to your article and the information is not there, they’re clicking away from it. There’s a difference between the desire to read and the desire to find information in a hurry. Nobody is talking about this.

How else could writers and the media take advantage of technology?
The whole system of the way media is done is really, really broken. You’re a reporter and you’re going to write a feature. So you go out, you do 20 hours of research, and out that 20 hours of research you take the most usable 15 minutes out of it. Where does the rest of the research go? It disappears, you put it in a file and nobody ever sees it. Why doesn’t the media outlet store that, so the next time somebody’s doing a story on that, they can use your research. You know, 10 people will call me for information for the same story. Someone already called me about this! They don’t have access to the other information that’s out there. So that’s what I try to do, I try to connect people to what’s already been said. Even journalism is really sloppy, and the research isn’t being pulled. They don’t have the technology and have been in such a budget crisis for the last 15 years, and they have so much nostalgia. They’re not forward thinking, and that’s why they’re dying.

So for people who aren’t part of the Old Guard, who are just getting into writing and journalism, what’s the best advice you can give?
How can you lay out your ideas? Don’t think about articles, but think about info-graphics. Think about the core points you’re trying to educate people on. If you let go of paragraphs and look at lists and images and bullet points, how can you reformat your article so it’s really, really informative. Do you need these paragraphs? You’ve got a concept, so what’s the best way to express it, so somebody can come and instantly snatch up that lesson. Question the article format, because that’s what nobody’s willing to do.

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