When Kathryn Born got recruited to run a visual arts blog for Tribune Media’s Chicago Now network, she dared to get her hopes up. After years of working in the arts for little or no money, she thought this might be the opportunity she’d been waiting for: a vehicle for reviews, profiles, and news with enough muscle to pay the writers.
Life in the arts has taught Born, 38, that you can’t have a life in the arts unless you’re “able to work for free or almost nothing.” She thinks that’s wrong because it “locks out a huge section of the population,” and all the other problems she’s overcome—disability, botched surgery, addictions, a boyfriend who, she says, abandoned her after she got pregnant—have led her to believe that things that are wrong can be changed. Never mind the 300,000 struggling art blogs already out there. This one, with the giant Tribune company behind it, could be the one that succeeds in “monetizing content.” She signed the first of two 90-day contracts in June and began putting together the Art Talk Chicago blog.
By late November, she’d quit. The blog was bringing in about $25 a month.
Born had come to Chicago Now from Bad at Sports, the weekly arts-talk podcast created four years ago by Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie. Bad at Sports logged its 200th episode in June, and Born had been with it since episode 12, wearing many hats—mostly administrative and promotional. Like everybody else there, she’d volunteered her time. (She’d bonded with the founders after meeting them online and getting into a flame war during which Holland called her opinions “narrow-minded and uninformed.”)
Bad at Sports is a labor of love. Money is “just not what they’re about,” Born says. “Richard Holland always said, ‘We’re never going to pay people for content.'” And, although Born “loves” BAS and is still part of the team, listed on the Web site as “Chicago correspondent,” she says “that’s where I felt a little bit of a divide. I just can’t ask people to work forever for free.”
According to MacKenzie, it’s not that BAS is allergic to money. “It’s that we couldn’t do both—we couldn’t chase the money and make the content, and we were more interested in getting the content out there.” Besides, he says, “if you’re working in the art world, you’re an idiot if you think you can make money.”
Chicago Now would’ve happily sucked up the entire Bad at Sports operation, Born says, but Holland and MacKenzie would’ve had to surrender their autonomy. They took a pass on that. “We didn’t want to compromise,” MacKenzie says, “and we weren’t excited about turning over control. We didn’t want to be told how to do what we’re doing.”
So Born became the willing and optimistic “test pig,” signing on to see if the big guns—which promised and then mounted a major rollout—would pay enough to make it worthwhile. She considered 50,000 pageviews a month a realizable dream, she says. “And once we learned it was $25 a month, that really dampened everyone’s spirits.”
Chicago Now pays a standard rate based on the traffic the blog attracts: five dollars for each thousand local pageviews. And Born says Art Talk Chicago did well thanks to her promotional efforts, beating so many of the other blogs that she was asked to write up her strategies for a guide. But the payoff was minuscule—”a lot of work for nothing.” In a month where they went “crazy” with content, she says—”Did this whole fall opening night preview thing, had everybody linking to us, and got so much traffic”—they only managed to bump the take up to $50.
Born, who’d started out paying her writers, had to retrench, even on token amounts. “I had to say, ‘I’m sorry, this doesn’t pay anything, and I can’t pay you,'” she recalls. On Thanksgiving weekend, when it came time to sign her third 90-day contract, she bowed out. Stephanie Burke took over, and Born—still thinking that online arts publishing could be financially viable but convinced that she needed to control ad sales—went to plan B: a trio of Web sites she’d been incubating since before Tribune Media came along, and which she now runs with Burke’s help.
Born says she learned a lot from Chicago Now and considers it her biggest break so far. She got training in the dark art of search-engine optimization (“so when people search we’ll come up”); met with people like Barbara Koenen, director of Chicago Artists Resource for the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who helped her figure out how to hone in on her audience; and developed a following that she was able to take with her. One of Born’s own sites, a searchable, Google-based gallery map and calendar called ChicagoArtMap.com, was up and functioning in October. It addresses what she saw as a glaring need for a consolidated, user-friendly list of gallery openings and shows. The second site, ChicagoArtMagazine.com, is what Art Talk Chicago was when she ran it: criticism and features by a roster of 45 writers. The third site, ChicagoArtCollector.com, is up but hasn’t yet had its promotional launch. Born intends this one to take on questions like, What does collecting mean in an art world that’s turning away from the idea of art as object? She thinks it could have national interest.
Born has 14 fused vertebrae. Her childhood and teens were dominated by a case of scoliosis that she says had her looking like “the hunchback of Notre Dame” at age 12 and by the multiple surgeries that necessitated. Into drugs and alcohol at Niles West High School, she had a serious habit by the time she got to Indiana University, where she discovered creative writing (a book of her one-line poems, The Lovers, the Death, and the Crimes, will be published in April by StepSister Press). At 27, having survived a “no-vitals” trip to the hospital earlier that year, she finally got clean. Born saved enough money from an e-bubble sales job to take a year off and make a 30-minute movie called The Real Reason Monique Became a Vegetarian (which can be seen, in segments, on YouTube). Two days after submitting it to the Chicago Underground Film Festival, she discovered she was pregnant and went back to work to support the baby. She met screenwriter and user interface designer Dan Greene through Match.com, married him, and had another child. Now she’s that blissful cliche: a mom who works from home.
Thanks to “Thor” (aka Alexander Schwarzman), a Siberian programmer, ChicagoArtMap.com was built for just $1,000. The three sites are costing $1,700 a month to run, and Born says they’re now getting a total of nearly 1,000 hits a day. But traffic will have to triple in the next three months to keep them going. Born is looking for advertising strategies that work online. Chicago Art Magazine, for example, sells sponsored posts—labeled ads that look like, and are interspersed with, editorial content. Ideally, she says, one of every ten items on the site should be an ad. After a discouraging start, she reports that ad sales are starting to pick up. She’s paying feature writers a $25 honorarium, and reviewers—who’ve been working only for the glory up to now—$10. Click on the “Transparency” tab at ChicagoArtMagazine.com and, at the bottom of a page subtitled “The Current Budget and Road to Fiscal Solvency,” you’ll see, “We’re also open . . . to being bought or absorbed by something much larger than us.”