A bi-coastal conversation on arts journalism and social media

DSCN4132.jpgOn October 20, 2011, the USC Center on Communication Leadership and Policy (CCLP) hosted preeminent arts organization leaders and journalists in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., in a bi-coastal conversation that centered on the increasing role of online social networking in the arts industry. Organized by CCLP Director Geoff Cowan and CCLP senior fellow Adam Clayton Powell, III, the event was part of an ongoing discussion among arts leaders that focuses on how technology is changing the nature of arts institutions and arts reporting.

“There’s certainly a cultural shift happening right now where there’s more interest in being a participant in the creation of the arts, rather than a passive observer of it,” said Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Program Innovation with the National Endowment for the Arts, “and I think it holds true in journalism as well.”

The participants acknowledged that greater public interest in the arts is a boon to both arts journalists and organizations, but new questions arise with the influx of participation via Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and crowd-sourced review platforms. Arts organizations wrestle with the distinction between inviting critical thought and marketing, as they fill an advertising role previously filled by newspaper publications, and strive to meet the needs of diverse communities.

Professional arts journalists must compete within a vast field of opinion-writing, producing content alongside un-credentialed “citizen journalists” posting reviews on public blogs and social media sites. The parallel online discourse blurs the line between formal arts reporting and casual commentary.

It used to be that “a critic would go to a show, file his or her review and then go home,” said Jon Fischer, arts editor of the Washington City Paper. “Those days are gone.”

DSCN4139.jpg “While the citizen critic may not be less qualified or less informed” than a credentialed journalist, observed Powell, “there is no way for the consumer of that criticism to know anything about his or her background or biases.”

Los Angeles panel moderator and USC journalism professor Tim Page agreed. “It becomes kind of an embarrassment of riches, just trying to figure out exactly who to listen to.”

Participants discussed the recent emphasis on customizing artistic offerings and engagement efforts so that social media platforms, citizen journalism, and professional criticism are effectively assimilated into individual arts communities.

Brenda Barnes, President of KUSC classical radio service in Los Angeles and KDFC in the Bay Area, remarked that communities as near to each other as California’s Inland Empire and Coachella Valley have different arts organizations and arts communities in different places. “You think of arts communities as one-size-fits-all,” she said, “and they really are not.”

St. Louis American publisher Donald Suggs suggested that arts journalism, in particular, has to embrace a more diverse audience that is America, to broaden its appeal and to give some attention to what is “bubbling up” in different communities across America.

The National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, recently staged the Community Arts Journalism Challenge, aimed at addressing these concerns on a local level. Participants in eight cities–Charlotte, North Carolina; Detroit, Michigan; Miami, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Jose, California; Akron, Ohio; Macon, Georgia; and St. Paul, Minnesota–were invited to investigate the community’s arts infrastructure and create news platforms that better serve citizens’ needs. Five finalists, revealed in October, will receive up to $20,000 to establish an “Idea to Action” plan, and in 2012, three will be chosen to receive additional funding of up to $80,000 to fully implement the proposals.

DSCN4141.jpg“This specific effort here was really about community journalism, how we create sustained conversation in communities, particularly communities outside of the major metropolitan regions that do have a lot of journalism, like New York,” says Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Program Innovation for the National Endowment for the Arts. “I think one of the most fascinating things, in looking at the amalgamated set of ideas, is that [the participants] were all cognizant of this citizen journalist movement and they all incorporated it in some way.”

Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Art Commission and director of the Master’s in Arts Management program at Claremont Graduate University proposed the use of platforms that broaden public participation through active online interaction, in the same way performing arts organizations create participatory arts events.

“It would be fabulous to hear around the [Los Angeles Pacific Standard Time art collaboration] Beatrice Wood exhibit, people who knew Beatrice Wood, people who actually add to the knowledge and the context for the exhibition as opposed to just writing criticism,” Zucker said, “because I think there’s more available here as a resource than we have previously delved into.”

Chad Bauman, director of communication at Washington’s Arena Stage, challenged the group to consider the lessons learned from social media missteps, as well as successes. “We found things that are successful, which is great. But a lot has been learned from failures.”

Before the two cities broke off into groups for further discussion, Powell revisited the challenge issued by Geoff Cowan at the start of the meeting, asking participants to consider, “What happens next?” He went on to suggest possibilities for website platforms that integrate professional journalism and crowd sourcing, or collaborations with the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, based in Washington, D.C.

This discussion is part of an ongoing series bringing together policymakers, journalists, nonprofit organization leaders, and researchers to examine important issues in communication, leadership and policy. The series will continue throughout the year in Washington and Los Angeles.

Learn more about the National Endowment for the Arts Community Arts Journalism Challenge initiative here.

This article was written by Leslie Velez, MA Specialized Journalism (The Arts).