What the National Arts Journalism Summit Is Doing Right — and Wrong

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NSAJ_logoThere isn’t as much discussion on the Intertubes as I’d like regarding the National Arts Journalism Summit, which is scheduled for Oct. 2 in Los Angeles.

For those unfamiliar with this event, it has been organized by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and the National Arts Journalism Program with “significant support” from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Here’s a summary of the project from the recent press release:

…Ten innovative models of the next generation of arts journalism will be presented at the Summit. Five of the projects, chosen from among 109 submissions in response to an open call earlier this summer will be in competition for a total of $15,000 in prize money, courtesy of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. These five will be announced on the day of the Summit. The five other “demonstration” projects will not be in the competition; they offer ideas both from inside and outside arts journalism that touch on issues in finding new models to support arts journalism.

…Primarily a virtual event, the Summit will be streamed live from Annenberg Auditorium in front of a live audience, and viewers from around the world will be able to participate via text messaging and Twitter.

All ten presentations will be archived and available after the event on the Summit website: www.najp.org/summit.

Earlier this summer, an open call went out for arts journalism projects for the Summit awards, and 109 projects were submitted from across North America. Three arts journalists winnowed the projects down to 31; seven judges reduced the list to a Top Ten, and two more judges were added to reach consensus on a top five. Each of the five projects will be awarded $2,000 for participating and each is eligible to win a first, second or third prize of $7,500, $5,000 and $2,500, respectively.

Five of the projects, incidentally, have already been chosen as “showcases.” They are:

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  1. Sophie: A new authoring tool for multimedia developed by the Institute for Multimedia Literacy that suggests new possibilities for presenting critical response.
  2. 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.
  3. InstantEncore.com: 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Gazette Communications, Cedar Rapids Iowa: An example of a local media company that is trying to reinvent the idea of what is news and how it might be gathered and presented.

So far so good, right? I think so. I also think it’s well past the time arts journalism’s high priests began to take the crisis — and opportunities — in and of the genre more seriously. We have to tackle fundamental questions: How do, and how should, arts bloggers derive income (or even a living) from their toils? How do we persuade publicists, producers and traditional-media gatekeepers that arts bloggers must be viewed as professionals? More and more such gatekeepers are lifting the gates, true. More, however, must be done — and business models need to be discussed and debated. So this summit is a fantastic idea.

Yet there are one or two real issues. Consider the text, dated Sept. 9, on the summit’s website:

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Today we have notified representatives of the five projects chosen to present at the National Summit on Arts Journalism. If you haven’t heard from us by the time you’re reading this, then your project hasn’t been chosen. We apologize for the delay. We had expected 30-40 submissions but then got 109, and it took much longer to thoroughly consider all the submissions. Details of the judging process are below.

We had intended to announce the names of the five projects we have chosen here on the website. Instead, we have decided, based on the protracted process of selection, that we’ll wait to announce those selected until the Summit itself. We’d rather change the previously-announced plan than announce the names without the proper context for why they were chosen. Here’s why.

Our intention has never been to choose a definitive “best” arts journalism project. There is no such thing. Just like culture, journalism about culture is specific to its task at hand. Comparing a well-written blog with a highly-produced documentary is impossible; they’re built to do different things. The purpose of the National Summit on Arts Journalism is not to declare a “winner” but to shine light on compelling ideas and issues being addressed by the myriad projects that have been made possible, in part, by the digital revolution. In other words, our goal is not to end the conversation with these choices, but to start conversations by showcasing projects that might give us a peek into the future.

…Rather than reveal a list of projects outside of the context for why they were chosen, we’d prefer to present the case for them at the Summit itself. Why this magazine over that blog instead of this other radio project or that interesting community website; these choices demand explanation and demonstration.

The stated reasons for withholding the identities of the chosen projects are absolutely, unquestionably disingenuous. And please don’t attempt to argue that the otherwise foresighted and distinguished Doug McLennan isn’t aware of this fact, of this naked bid for publicity. At its core, it defeats the idea of the summit itself. Indeed, if the summit’s purpose isn’t to declare a winner but to “shine light on compelling ideas and issues being addressed by the myriad projects” and to “start conversations by showcasing projects that might give us a peek into the future,” why not reveal all projects, no matter how detailed or sketchy, online? Think of it this way: What if the five showcase projects and the five now-secret projects turn out to be simply unworkable as business models? And what if one of the unchosen projects is the next Google or ArtsJournal or key to a better future for arts journalism? As the organizers of the summit are quick to point out, the goal here is not to “choose a definitive ‘best’ arts journalism project.” I do not see anywhere in the press materials a suggestion that the judges of the competition are going to stand behind their choices as the most superior examples of innovative arts journalism or proven business models. So, being that the organizers are arts journalists themselves, have they no ethical responsibility to ensure the process is as transparent as possible? Indeed, why have the names of the judges themselves been withheld? I can understand keeping those identities a tight secret during the submission and deliberation process, but to continue to do so now raises real questions about the legitimacy of this effort. Something so simple, so obviously, is running the real risk of resembling a needlessly jerrybuilt farce. (In the interest of full disclosure, I did not participate in the competition and therefore have no stake in its outcome.)

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While Chloe Veltman’s blog, Lies Like Truth, has a five-point post on why she’s excited about the summit (and I don’t think she wrote it because she blogs under McLennan’s aegis — I think she’s genuine), a comment below her post nails the point:

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I also find the secrecy a bit overdramatic. The judges should be named and identified. Mr. McLelland [sic] said that 27 of the submissions were agreed by the judges to be strong. Why not at least identify those 27 strong ideas and let’s have a real dialogue on how we can forge a future for arts journalists. Why travel to participate in a 4 hour forum when you can do it from the comfort of your office?

Precisely. And there are precedents for full-disclosure approaches. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, I reported on the Goldman Sachs Foundation Partnership on Nonprofit Ventures, a contest held with the Yale School of Management. Most of the proposals were at least abstracted on the website and in the press materials. The summiteers should think about it and not dig their heels in. They must know on some level they’re making a mistake. What a shame to incur an unforced error when the summit itself sports such marvelous and necessary potential.

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