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How Arts Service Organizations Can Fill the Void in Arts Journalism

Several forces have contributed to the erosion of sustainable models of journalism, and arts writers and reviewers have been hit particularly hard. This has affected theatres that depend on third-party coverage for promotion and professional reviews. In addition, the cry for more diverse voices writing theatre opinion pieces has become more urgent, in light of the controversy surrounding the Hedy Weiss review of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over.

To explore ways in which arts service organizations (ASOs) can help alleviate the compound problems affecting arts journalism, the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations (APASO) held a working session entitled: “Arts Service Organizations and Arts Journalists: Working Together.” Journalists and media experts worked with over twenty-five arts service organizations to crowdsource viable ideas to help fill the void in arts journalism.

A theme dominated the conversation: the need to shift from a transactional mindset to a human-interest mindset when working with media to promote arts programming in our communities.

ASOs provide a wide variety of services to arts organizations and artists located in specific regions or that share similar missions. Some ASOs are membership organizations, others are less exclusive. Some cater to one discipline such as theatre, others cater to multiple disciplines. They offer audience development, professional development, advocacy, capacity building, ticketing platforms, re-granting, tech support, and more. APASO has been meeting annually for thirty-five years, and this year we made sure arts journalism was on the agenda.

It was a hot Friday in May in Asbury Park, New Jersey, APASO’s chosen location for the 2017 conference, hosted by New Jersey Theatre Alliance. About eighty people were present, representing ASOs and arts organizations from cities and regions across North America, such as Boston, New York, Toronto, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, Austin, Los Angeles, and Edmonton.

The day began with a panel discussion moderated by TV arts reporter Stephanie Simon of NY1, which included Scott Heller, Deputy Director of Arts & Leisure and Theatre Editor at The New York Times; Howie Shapiro, former Philadelphia Inquirer theatre critic and now critic at NewsWorks; Christopher Kelly, Managing Producer for Entertainment at NJ Advance Media (The Star Ledger/ nj.com); Steven Leigh Morris, Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance; Diep Tran, Associate Editor of American Theatre; Molly de Aguiar, Program Director of Informed Communities at Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; and Zachary Stewart, chief critic at TheaterMania.

Kelly assured the crowd, “No one on this panel wants to see theatre coverage go away. We want to see ourselves as partners. What can we do together?” The panelists began to answer this question with tips for working with journalists. But soon a theme dominated the conversation: the need to shift from a transactional mindset to a human-interest mindset when working with media to promote arts programming in our communities. We wanted to share our takeaways with the HowlRound readership.

First, The Tips
Diep Tran encouraged us to share journalists’ work—even when it’s not about our members’ productions—to inspire discussions in our communities. Kelly explained that for many newsrooms, metrics govern where resources go. Morris noted his disapproval of this reliance on algorithms to guide editorial decisions, making news coverage a popularity contest. He proposed we start with what we think is valuable and lead our audiences to that, instead of chasing them down.

Heller suggested we pitch to writers who have an interest or track record in the subject matter, and refrain from submitting blatantly promotional material. Simons recommended proactively pulling out our smartphones at an event, taking a video, uploading it immediately to YouTube, and sending it to our media contacts. Heller agreed that having a video is a necessity.

Kelly advised: “Think about what you, as a consumer, are interested in. Did you look at the news article, or the cat video? We’re interested in something off-beat.” Shapiro said one of his most popular pieces was an article about stage blood, including a recipe. There were three shows going on in Philly at the time where people could see stage blood. “That’s the kind of human interest story people want to read,” he explained. “They want to feel they’re doing something with the theatre.”

Simons recounted running into an 80-year-old concession vendor at a theatre when she was covering an event. She wanted to interview him, but the hosts refused, saying that the story was about the event. “It might not lead to ticket sales,” she remarked, “but we know it will attract readers.” Tran encouraged us to take risks, noting that when she writes something out of anger and makes a broad judgement, the piece gets more clicks than something she spent months researching.

People sitting on a panel.
Left to right: Stephanie Simon of NY1, Scott Heller of The New York Times, Chris Kelly of The Star Ledger/nj.com, Diep Tran of American Theatre, Howie Shapiro of NewsWorks, Steven Leigh Morris of LA Stage Alliance, Molly de Aguiar of The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania discuss arts journalism at the Association for Performing Arts Service Organization's annual meeting, May 19, 2017, Asbury Park, NJ. Photo courtesy of Ruth Zamoyta.

Cultivating Writers, Sustainable Business Models, and New Audiences
The conversation evolved from quick tips to the larger issues of cultivating writers, sustainable business models, and new audiences. A representative from the Theatre Development Fund asked about how to capture new audiences. When Kelly noted that theatres are selling to an older audience, Tran took the microphone and said to the crowd: “The people seeing theatre are old and white and wealthy. If we can’t solve that problem, we won’t survive.” She noted that people want to see stories about people who look like they do. “I try to reach those audiences through my writing. I am trying to tap those audiences and you need to do the same.” The crowd applauded.

Along with fostering diversity within theatres, programming, audiences, and writers, finding a sustainable business model was a top priority. Stewart said: “If there is a writer you care about and you can’t offer a paid position, send them to someone who can. We need to get away from the unpaid internship model.” Morris recalled that when he was the editor of LA Weekly, in response to the elimination of theatre coverage, he looked into employing writers on the community-funded Stage Raw blog. “I promised it would not be a volunteer site,” he said. “If we couldn’t pay our writers, we would shut down.” Now Stage Raw is in its fourth year and has become the LA theatre destination. Tran mentioned that Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Oregon Shakespeare Festival hired laid-off or voluntarily bought-out writers to write for their in-house publications, and those publications are successfully promoting ticket sales.

When a representative of The Arts Alliance in Ann Arbor noted frustration in finding writers for her app, de Aguiar, who is exploring new business models for small news rooms, said: “You are the experts and can create your own community. Content should not be transactional. It’s not about how to get ‘butts in seats,’ but what issues do you wish we would talk about.” She noted that there are people in the community who want to have a voice, and programs like Curious City on WBEZ in Chicago provide that opportunity. On Curious City, people ask questions about anything they are interested in. The topics are then voted on, and the person with the winning question works with a journalist to find the answer. “They learn the journalism process, and it’s more in touch with what the public wants,” said de Aguiar.

Arts organizations and journalists need each other. Yet, to work together effectively, we need to change the mantra from “butts in seats” to “civic discourse” and work with media and the community in a mutually beneficial way.

After the panel discussion, attendees divided into four break-out discussions tasked with generating viable ideas that ASOs could take back to their offices and implement. They reported back to the larger group with the following conclusions:

Partner with Journalists
Arts organizations and journalists need each other. Yet, to work together effectively, we need to change the mantra from “butts in seats” to “civic discourse” and work with media and the community in a mutually beneficial way. We can be conduits and facilitators, a constant resource to journalists, giving them the ability to experiment. We need to ensure our organizations are building relationships with journalists, editors, bloggers, and influencers, and researching media outlets before pitching. A representative from one ASO noted that they arranged a successful “speed dating” session for theatres and media reps. We need to remind journalists that ASOs can give them a bird’s-eye view of the field and encourage them to contact us regularly for information. We can stay on top of publications’ editorial calendars and propose that they add theatre information to articles about ballparks and restaurants. Heller, who sat with the group, advised that organizations must create a voice that understands the consumer. Kelly noted that we need to be willing to settle for the post-event story. He said one his most shared articles was entitled, “The Concert of the Year Just Happened in Someone’s Basement.”

Cultivate Writers
The best criticism is a conversation; not marketing or PR. Also, a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion must accompany any attempt to foster writers. Be mindful that writers need stability, and don’t assume the general public is as aware of the disappearance of arts journalism as we are. Fostering writers and critics is not just about training, but about expanding the pipeline and removing ceilings. We should ensure that schools include art criticism in the curriculum and we can consider developing a “young critics program.” Shapiro mentioned a program sponsored by WHYY called Everyone’s a Critic, where theatre attendees were invited to write 400-word critical pieces. Select pieces were displayed on the NewsWorks website. “It worked beautifully,” said Shapiro. “People wanted to write and they had something to say. When you do that, the audience is engaged, you’re fostering knowledge of what a critic does, and you teach people to look critically at what you are directing.”

A “classroom swap” program was proposed, based on a suggestion that playwright Paula Vogel once had that critics take her playwriting class, and playwrights take a criticism class. Stewart suggested a “critical buddy” program, whereby established critics bring an emerging critic to a show. This idea could be expanded into a more formal apprenticeship, and perhaps ASOs could collaborate on securing funding.

a community meeting
Chad Sirois, Digital Marketing Manager at ArtsBoston, leads a working group discussion during the working session "ASOs and Arts Journalists: Working Together," at the Association for Performing Arts Service Organization's annual meeting, May 19, 2017, Asbury Park, NJ. Photo courtesy of Ruth Zamoyta.

Be Our Own Media Company
For the most part, ASOs cannot directly facilitate reviews of our members’ work, but feature content is OK. New media should be at the forefront of content creation and distribution, such as video, podcasts, and Facebook Live, and paying freelancers competitive fees is imperative. Tran warned that ASOs need to build brand trust in the audience, and suggested asking a media outlet if it would partner on a story. Morris found that ASOs were timid, didn’t always see where the tension was in a story, and didn’t know how to ask a question. This needs to be learned. When reporting back, the group reiterated Tran’s remark “Don’t be afraid to offend,” emphasizing the appeal of stirring and disruptive content. They recommended that ASOs co-write stories and urged us to look outside our disciplines for human-interest stories, which could open us to new publications, new writers, and collaborative stories across productions.

Provide Technical Assistance
ASOs can empower art organizations to develop their own features with their own resources. The group suggested we host video-making boot camps, marketing workshops, social media workshops, and writing contests. We can provide training on communication strategy, union restrictions on content, and how to make content available, findable, and shareable. We can offer social media curation, a content hub, and a social-media distribution hub. Some specific ideas were: video diaries of rehearsals, time-lapse photo sequences, first-person stories by the artistic staff, and content that crosses from art into other topics. When it comes to social media, ASOs should position ourselves as a voice to trust among arts patrons in our regions. We can arrange group subscriptions to tools such as media databases. We can help members connect dots with other arts organizations in order to collaborate. A representative from ArtsBoston noted that recently in Boston, there were a play and a museum exhibit that both dealt with the perception of violence in Islam, running simultaneously. “No one noticed except us. We created a cross conversation.”

Ideas big and small, easy and hard, new and old swirled around the room. But we went home to dozens of cities throughout the continent, planning how we would implement these ideas in the months to come. HowlRound readers are invited to contact me if they have ideas or experiences to share, or if they are interested in joining APASO. We especially welcome organizations serving underrepresented communities.

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What a valuable article - and one that points to the need for arts organizations to start thinking about their own value to their communities. Not so much by assuming that they think they know what their audience values but by asking them directly.

Since I am referenced in this essay, it's important to clarify that I was never laid off - I took a very attractive (voluntary) buyout offer from The Denver Post and was recruited to work for the Denver Center. Big difference (to me anyway). And even though my work proves quality journalism content does sell tickets (somewhere around $625,000 in less than three years), my mission at the Denver Center very intentionally does not include a revenue-goal component because that would compromise the integrity of the journalism. My mission is not to promote ticket sales, it is to cover the Colorado and national theatre communities according to the same journalistic principles I abided at The Post. That sets what I do apart, too: The coverage of the entire state, outside of the DCPA.

John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist
Denver Center for the Performing Arts
Former Denver Post theatre critic and reporter