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Connect Some Dots

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It seems as if every magazine on the face of the planet is seeking to redesign itself for a digital world, which mostly means littering their pages with arrows, bullet points, swooshes and other assorted doodads, all in an attempt to appeal to readers who consume much of their media via the Internet. (See Bloomberg Businessweek). But one publication is taking the webification of its pages to the next level: Forbes, the one-time "capitalist tool".

While other magazines develop new sections, revamp covers, choose new typefaces and call it a redesign, Forbes is altering the very way it reports and delivers its stories with an eye toward making their consumption more of a social media-like experience. Exhibit A: a piece -- really, a set of pieces -- in the May 9 issue about Lynn Tilton, the unconventional head of distressed investor Patriarch Partners.

Forbes warns readers up front that its Tilton feature is not "a traditional profile," though it did start out as one. We learn that a Forbes reporter began talking to Tilton as a possible subject for the mag's "World's Billionaires" issue, but things quickly turned difficult.

The reporter couldn't understand how Tilton made her money; Tilton "took umbrage" at the reporter's questions; nasty threats of lawsuits followed. Forbes threw more staffers on the case, who accumulated a "welter of material". But Team Tilton, we are told, didn't know what to do with all the information it had gathered.

The solution: Forget writing a profile. (That's so last century, not to mention a lot of hard work.) Instead, "let the story unfold" mostly on Forbes.com, by allowing different members of Team Tilton to give their different points of view, complete with comments from visitors to the website and from the subject herself; then run excerpts from the posts in the magazine. "The process of getting the story became the story," coos the intro in the magazine (emphasis Forbes'). The result, according to the mag (riffing on Wallace Stevens), is "13 Ways of Looking at Lynn Tilton."

Interesting, but really: Do we want to look at her 13 different ways? Reading through the magazine's Tilton feature feels a bit like wading through a data dump; you're given a lot of information -- she won't disclose her wealth; she's being sued by lots of people; her collateralized loan obligations look troubled -- but no real context in which to think about it. Unlike a traditional profile, this feature doesn't try to explain to readers why they should care about Tilton, save for her outlandish wardrobe and the fact that she gave Forbes a hard time. There's no real attempt to construct a compelling narrative that is informative, entertaining and has a definitive point of view (though the sheer amount of reporting resources Forbes devotes to this exercise does feel vindictive).

Of course, one could argue the more viewpoints, the better. Who wants some snooty, biased, know-it-all journalist to tell us what to think? Just report; we'll decide, thank you. But is that really what we want from magazines? From the media? Even from social media? Is it enlightening to know what other visitors to Forbes.com had to say about Tilton? Should we care?

I don't know the answers. And either way, you have got to give the folks at Forbes credit for really trying to change their magazine, rather than just settling for a few randomly placed arrows and doodads. Whether it will work is another question. Interestingly, a few weeks before Forbes hit the newsstands, another magazine, New York, ran its own, more traditional profile of Tilton. While it certainly didn't provide 13 ways of looking at her, it did manage to paint a complex, in-depth and entertaining portrait of a woman who is not easily understood. The Forbes effort, by comparison, seems disjointed and confused.

Maybe that's the point. In a world of Twitter and Facebook, we like our information fast and raw, like the tweets from the newly famous 33-year-old computer programmer in Abbottabad who unwittingly microblogged the U.S. raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound in real time. (Sample tweet: "Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).") By his own admission, @reallyvirtual had no idea of the import of the events he was broadcasting to the world. That's the difference between social media and the more traditional kind; between citizen journalists and their more professional brethren. As Forbes goes about its grand experiment, it might want to keep that in mind.

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Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal magazine.

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