Thinking About the National Arts Journalism Summit

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NSAJ_logoWhile the National Arts Journalism Summit was last Friday — that’s roughly about a century in blogospheric time — I am still interested in the fallout, which has been considerable and enlightening.

For now, let’s offer congratulations to the five “public” projects that were selected.

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These five projects, below (I cribbed the videos and some of the text from the Summit site), are in addition to the five “showcase” projects previously selected.

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Departures – Community Storytelling
http://kcet.org/local/departures/la_river
Presenter: Juan Devis
KCET
Los Angeles, CA

“Departures is a multimedia site that can seduce with its panoramic landscapes but deflects attempts at immediate payback. It imposes its own pace on users’ explorations. The slickness of the beautiful design suggests an expensive, resource-heavy and lengthy production process, but the projects were designed and produced inexpensively and are replicable in templates. Departures suggests a different way of telling the stories of cultures that haven’t found voice in traditional journalism. Artist Juan Devis has developed what he believes is a more interactive form of journalism that gets closer to the cultures of a neighborhood.”

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Glasstire – State-wide Visual Art Website
http://glasstire.com
Presenter: Rainey Knudson
Houston, TX

“Glasstire is almost nine years old, operates as a non-profit, and has developed a core of 35-40 writers around the state, all of whom are paid for their work. How is it a new model for arts journalism? Founder Rainey Knudson says the site is stable and self-sustaining and its traffic has continued to increase. Online, the site has far better reach and ability to connect to an audience than if it were a print publication. And because it doesn’t have to carry the cost of printing pages, the economics of an online art magazine work. This is, she believes a model that could be replicated in other states.”

FLYP Media – Digital Magazine
http://www.flypmedia.com
Presenter: Jim Gaines
New York, NY

“Even though its physical form is ephemeral electrons, FLYP’s origins are anchored in the physicality of the traditional magazine. Each story is a small multimedia production project in itself. Text is important on this site, but image, sound and video aren’t just supporting media; various media take turns in the lead, depending on the story or idea. FLYP tries to combine the high-design richness of a glossy print magazine with the dynamic potential of a media-rich website in ways that suggest that a general-culture publication can be a compelling window on culture. Editor-in-chief Jim Gaines was formerly managing editor of People, Life and Time magazines.”

San Francisco Classical Voice – Regional Classical Music Website
http://sfcv.org
Presenter: Patty Gessner
San Francisco, CA

“The site offers comprehensive local coverage and has become the go-to resource for finding out about artists, organizations, venues and events. Its news section consistently breaks stories and has become essential reading for anyone who cares about classical music in the Bay Area. The site offers clips of music being performed locally, program notes for upcoming concerts, access to concert ticket and dinner reservation services, and free music downloads. Writers include a mix of expert academics, journalists, and artists, who are paid for their work.

The site is a 501 (c)3, supported locally by donations from foundations, corporations and individuals, and by ads and memberships, and is self-sustaining. As an example of a website covering an art form in a region where newspaper coverage has been cut back, executive producer Patricia Gessner says that Classical Voice demonstrates that more comprehensive local coverage is now possible than in the traditional press.”

Flavorpill – Arts Guide
http://flavorpill.com
Presenter: Mark Mangan
New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, London, Chicago

“Revenue comes from advertising, but Flavorpill also sells pages on its sites to venues and allows them to write about their own events, alongside Flavorpill’s editorial staff . The venues are chosen by Flavorpill, and Mangan says that ensures a level of quality. He also says that transparency is key; readers can tell the difference between a Flavorpill recommendation and a venue pitch. The news business badly needs to create new models to support itself; is this blend of editorial and paid content a viable way of doing journalism?”

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Impressive, hm? Obviously. But I do have a number of concerns — and it has been extremely heartening to find them echoed, in far more articulate ways than I’ve had time to devise, out along the Intertubes. For example, Tyler Green, on his blog Modern Art Notes (part of NAJS poohba Douglas McClellan great set of blogs), had already questioned the integrity of the event back on Sept. 14. He wrote:

….the NAJP project’s request for proposals sought commercially “sustainable” projects, and stressed that NAJP was “looking for viability, both as a business and as a journalistic enterprise.” I criticized that as a misreading of the current journalism environment, noting that in recent years niche journalism and related innovation had overwhelmingly come from the non-profit sector. The NAJP request for proposals, with its unambiguous emphasis on commercial sustainability and business viability, explicitly rejected the non-profit approach. (This approach was all the more unusual because one of the foremost champions of new journalism models, and non-profit journalism in particular, is Geneva Overholser, the director of the journalism school at contest host USC.)

However, in last week’s announcement NAJP admitted that it changed the rules while the contest was underway (and apparently told no one), thus stranding potential non-profit-focused applicants who took the organization and its RFP at its word (and who chose not to apply). Strangely, NAJP’s recent release indicates that non-profit projects who ignored NAJP’s RFP and applied anyway will be considered. NAJP tried to explain this away in last week’s announcement:

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.

If the organization was going to change the rules in midstream, it should have announced that while non-commercial applicants could have participated. If it was going to devalue journalism as the raison d’etre of the exercise, it should have announced that too. Moving the goalposts after the entrants were in strikes at the integrity of the enterprise.

But in the aftermath of the event, some of the concerns and criticism were intensified. Paddy Johnson, over at a site called Art Fag City, confessed that she didn’t even watch the event as it was being streamed live (a mistake, frankly) yet maintained that there was an air about the Summit that seemed to indicate ambitions falling short. Indeed, what is a viable business model in 2009 journalism and to what degree do any of the 10 projects chosen serve as a blueprint or an emblem of that question? Nothing against Flavorpill, which is a great site, but not every arts-journalism project is going to become Flavorpill, even if you simply swipe their model and try doing the same thing. Not every site can be Gawker. Not every site can be Gothamist (or any of the other ists). Not every site can be Perez Hilton. Not every site should be.

Meanwhile, the increasingly brilliant Chloe Veltman, over at her site, Lies Like Truth (also a part of the McClennan empire — if only I had her luck! — maybe Doug hates me?), splits the difference:

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….the main question on everyone’s lips — the one about business models — ended up being avoided almost entirely or trampled on.

The truth is that even the heads of the innovative and supposedly sustainable arts journalism-oriented projects presented at the summit don’t see a clear way forward. Business models, which range from paid advertising to foundation support to subscriptions, are hardly secure. When project presenters proudly declared — as several of them did — “we pay our journalists!” during the course of the morning, I felt my spirits sag. No one cared to admit how much they pay. To my mind, 150 dollars for an 800 – 1000 article is a pittance and, frankly, unacceptable if you’re looking to publish quality work by professionals rather than the hokey ramblings of amateur art enthusiasts. But I suspect that this sort of level of compensation is at the top end of writers’ pay for the projects presented at the summit.

Least satisfying of all was the final roundtable discussion between Richard Gingras, the CEO of Salon.com and Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation. Gingras basically said that arts journalists shouldn’t expect money for their endeavors until they build huge capacity and attract advertising and investment. But his success story examples had nothing to do with the arts. It’s one thing for a top political blogger to attract upwards of a million eyeballs a day, but even the most widely-read arts blogs can’t hope to gain this sort of traction….

So what, exactly, was the point here? Not that consensus was promised, and not that consensus could be expected. But from the looks of the 10 projects, it seems that a clear majority of them are already off-the-ground endeavors, already driving public and perhaps even venture-capital interest, and, in various cases, revenue. It seemed when the Summit was first being proposed that if you had an idea, a concept, you could submit something. Come one, come all. But, in fact, it was come few and far between. This was an opportunity for businesses to self-promote, and self-promote they did. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but not what was promised. And so the depression in arts journalism — exponentially worse than the Great Recession — grinds on. So while I stand behind the criticisms I made previously about the Summit, I also have hope, now that it’s over.

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Doug, if you’re listening, I’d love to be in touch.