Money For Arts Journalism, In Three Cities That Need It
by Lara Pellegrinelli
Proposals for new arts journalism projects in Philadelphia, Charlotte, N.C. and Detroit won funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Knight Foundation.
Most people who haven't been living under a rock are aware of the newspaper industry's precipitous decline. And even the least media savvy surface dwellers could guess that this sorry state of affairs has disproportionately impacted arts journalism. In comparison with the one in four newsroom jobs that have been lost in the last decade, approximately half of all arts writing staff positions and beats have disappeared, according to estimates by Arts Journal editor Douglas McLennan.
Aside from us self-interested types who like this job and hope to continue doing it, why should you care about this most impressive of vanishing acts? In short, because the health of the arts media has an impact on the health of the arts ecosystem as a whole.
Acknowledging this long obvious truth, the National Endowment for the Art has teamed up with the Knight Foundation to offer the Community Arts Journalism Challenge: a competition to create new arts journalism models in eights cities. (The Knight Foundation and the NEA also provide grants for projects at NPR and many public radio stations.) Drawn from the 233 applications received last summer, three winners — the Charlotte News Alliance, Detroit's CriticCar, and Philadelphia's Art Attack — were announced on Thursday and awarded $80,000 to launch their ideas. As their content begins to flow, the projects will be testing new ways the forces of media can work with each other and their communities. It won't be enough to make arts journalism jobs magically reappear, but the three projects should go a little ways towards helping us learn some sorely needed new tricks. I asked representatives from each of the three winning teams how their project will fit in — and change — their city.
Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, Charlotte, NC
"The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance brings together five media partners — The Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, WFAE, Qcity Metro and Charlotte Viewpoint — to share the arts coverage each member produces. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte will provide specialized training in the arts for journalists. Rick Thames, an editor for The Charlotte Observer, says a growing arts scene demands expanded coverage."
What are the challenges for arts coverage specific to your area? "Our newspaper has continued to have some commitment to coverage of the arts, but we still can't bring to bear all of the resources that we once could. We're down a couple of positions from a number of years ago. And, unfortunately, this comes at a time when the arts community here is really blossoming. From where I sit, I'm within a block of three newly opened art museums and a new performing arts theater. We're seeing a real resurgence of the arts in Charlotte."
How will your project help meet those needs for coverage? "The University has graciously agreed to develop a curriculum that will help journalists who have general skills deepen their knowledge of the arts so they can write about them intelligently. I just said write, but they could also produce video or audio work. What's so great about the Alliance is that we have print, the web, radio, and TV. Each member will be able to pursue their own agenda for covering the arts, but they will also offer what they have produced to the other members so each piece will have a larger audience. Our rendition of that is called Arts Alive and you can see it on our website. In fact, we did a pilot in November and December and produced around 30 pieces of journalism that were shared among the members."
Is your model sustainable? "We're all publishing in one form or another already, so we have some infrastructure. What's powerful about even a relatively small grant like this one is that you can take that money and commission specific pieces, allowing us to cover the arts more thoroughly than we could otherwise. When you think about how arts organizations really benefit from the exposure— sometimes it makes the difference between success and whether or not someone has to close their doors. Our initial plan is to look for an underwriter who will see what we're doing, recognize what a big return there is, and will say yes, this is how I chose to invest in the arts community in Charlotte."
CriticCar Detroit, Detroit, MI
CriticCar is a mobile video booth that will crisscross Detroit, giving audiences an opportunity to record their own reviews of arts events. These will be shared through social media channels. Dan Shaw, a freelance writer and CriticCar's co-creator, says the the project will take advantage of Detroit's diverse cultural community.
What are the challenges for arts coverage specific to your area? "Detroit is kind of vast and no one has really connected the dots of cultural life. We talked to lots of people and one of the big problems for arts organizations was that there was no place to have dialogue. So we thought, wouldn't it be great if people could record their opinions and then share them on their phones, Facebook, youtube and the websites of cultural organizations themselves? It would be so appropriate in the Motor City for this video booth to travel around. The forces of media tend to appeal only to the readers they already have. We wanted to allow everybody to offer a critique of a cultural event, to make people think of all the different cultural institutions as part of one big community."
How will your project help meet those needs for coverage? "It can instantaneously go viral and it can become an entirely new forum for discussion of the arts. When people leave a museum, the opera, or a rock concert, they don't really think about recording their views—that other people care about their opinion. They may share some information with their friends on Facebook and Twitter, but not necessarily how much they loved a painting or an aria. I think a lot of people are intimidated by the arts. Part of our work is to demystify the experience of going to those high culture and avant-garde events that people may be wary of."
Is your model sustainable? "It's a huge amount of seed money and Detroit is filled with organizations and foundations that are committed to the city's revival. What we were told over and over again is that you have to have some money to raise more money. This money will make it very clear that the NEA and the Knight Foundation believed in this idea enough to get it started. Hopefully, that will bring other donors or investors on board."
Art Attack, Philadelphia, PA
Through its staff, students, affiliated journalists, and critics-in-residence, Drexel University will partner with the for-profit newspaper the Philadelphia Daily News. Selected content from two of Drexel's websites, Cultural Passport and The Smart Set, will run in the paper. Jason Wilson, the director of the Center for Cultural Outreach at Drexel University and a freelance contributor tothe Philadelphia Daily News, says the grant will extend a complementary relationship that's has already begun to pay off.
What are the challenges for arts coverage specific to your area? "We have two newspapers that are owned by the same company: the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. All kinds of coverage have been shrinking for the past decade because they've been hemorrhaging money and there've been tons of layoffs. The company was recently sold. Arts coverage has suffered, just as it has in every other city, but it's been even more acute here because of the crisis at our major papers."
How will your project help meet those needs for coverage? "If you're a freelance music critic or visual arts critic in this town, there aren't many outlets. Part of the idea is to create ways that local, beginning and mid-career arts writers can support themselves. Another part is to get analytical and critical pieces — really high level arts writing — into the newspaper—the kind of arts writing that the NEA has found to be in crisis. Are we going to be able to run a 4,000 word critical essays in the Daily News the way we do on SmartSet? No [laughs], but I think we're doing a lot of good work at 1,200 words. They're offering us as much space as any newspaper is these days."
Is your model sustainable? "One of the reasons why we were candidates for this grant is because we had the fixed costs in place. Drexel is already supporting us. The grant is specifically for content creation. The Daily News is not paying for content, but they're providing the real estate in the paper, which has some cost and, obviously, their editors are involved. I think we can do this project for two years and, in the meantime, we'll look for more support."