The Future of Arts Journalism is Here... Maybe

Worried about your local arts critics being cut? How about the impending demise of your local paper? Don’t worry; the future is here! Last week the USC Annenberg School for Communication announced five projects that will present at The National Summit on Arts Journalism. The School put out an open call for projects that represent the future of arts journalism. The five winning projects will be announced at the conference on October 2 and another five made the cut to present:

  • Sophie: A new authoring tool for multimedia developed by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy that suggests new possibilities for presenting critical response.
  • The Indianapolis Museum of Art: With its Art Babble and Dashboard, the IMA is an example of a cultural institution extending its reach into areas that have traditionally been the province of journalism.
  • An example of an aggregator attempting to gather up everything about an art form (in this case classical music) and making it accessible in one place.
  • NPR Music: An example of a traditional big media company that is reinventing itself across platforms. NPR Music blurs the lines between journalism, curation, presenting and producing.
  • Gazette Communications, Cedar Rapids Iowa: An example of a local media company trying to reinvent the idea of what it considers news and how it might be gathered and presented to a local community.

I, for one, find it incredibly encouraging that journalists are finding new paths to write about the arts in the face of the layoffs and budget cuts. As the newspaper industry struggles, the first cost-cutting measures always seem to involve pulling more things from the wire and less local reporting.  Many of us in the arts industry have felt the burn from the epidemic of local arts critic firings from major papers, or conversion to a part-time or freelance status. In turn, people find it less satisfying to read the paper as these local writers are cut and circulation decreases further as more people choose to go online to read wire reporting rather than pay for it in paper form. In an effort to save themselves, it seems as though the papers are cutting the very thing that makes them a viable business model.

So how does this decrease in arts journalism affect your local arts organizations? Arts orgs lose out in two major ways: 1) One of their advertising mainstays becomes less effective as less potential performance /exhibit-goers see the orgs' ad in print and 2) as more critics are cut from newspaper payrolls, coverage of arts events is decreased. Since reviews and articles are typically a great revenue generator, arts orgs find themselves hurting for objective reporting and distribution that their own blog doesn’t quite cover. But through the Summit, the search is on for the new model of profitability in this brave new paperless, everything-free-and-now world.

However, the Summit is tellingly vague on what that could mean. Especially interesting was the note about viable business models on the USC site:

"We had noted on the submission form that we were interested in viable business models. Admittedly, the definition of what constitutes a business model these days is unclear. Strictly speaking, an operation that relies on donated labor and sweat equity has yet to find a sustainable business model. A project that relies solely on philanthropic contributions also has no business model in a strict sense. What we're looking for, therefore, is not so much a commercial business plan but some indications of long-term operational viability."

I’d like to echo that question above-- what is a viable business model anymore? The situation with newspapers has gotten so desperate, some are saying non-profit status is the way to go.  But companies like Facebook are relying more on “ownership” of the social media market to determine their company’s value, rather than real revenue.  So what hope does that leave these start-ups? Can they hope to go national, or international? It seems like a near-impossible task to take “ownership” of the information of thousands of arts organizations. Unlike many other forms of journalism, arts journalism seems confined to being primarily local, because of the limitations of a performance or an exhibit. To report on a play, the writer has to be at a theatre at a specific time. There’s not really a good way to get around that. Because of this, many of the projects are confined to a specific city or state. The national sites face the additional problem of collecting these local voices into one comprehensive site (InstantEncore seems to do an impressive job with this).

No matter which sector of the arts you work in, this is definitely an area to keep an eye on. On October 2, you can stream a satellite summit live and participate via text or Twitter if you contact or register here.