Green shoots for arts journalism

light-at-end-of-tunnelI am going through new online ventures submitted for the National Summit on Arts Journalism, scheduled for Oct. 2 at the University of Southern California, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication and the National Arts Journalism Program, with support from the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations and the NEA. Web broadcasting and satellite events at schools and cultural institutions around the country promise to make this something of a benchmark moment in our ongoing narrative about journalism’s transformation from a top-down, dead-tree medium to a digital, democratic, diffuse, dialog-oriented domain that bears less and less resemblance to the news media of old.

The agony of print journalism’s attenuated demise continues to dominate pubic discussion about journalism in general and arts journalism in particular. Nonetheless, as I argued recently in The Art Newspaper, we’re seeing the emergence of new communication and business models, some of which may not look anything like the journalism we used to know, but which are filling the void left behind by imploding newspapers and struggling magazines.

When the idea of the summit was hatched, it was hard to predict how many projects would come out of the woodwork. But after this week’s deadline, the tally has topped one hundred—a remarkable number, in my opinion, and a sign that at long last we have entered a new phase. (Winning projects will be presented during the summit; top projects will receive monetary awards.)

Many of the best projects are hyper-local, narrowly focused, and totally at ease with being medium agnostic, seamlessly blending images, text, video, and radio (that surprise success story in the Darwinian winnowing of distribution platforms in the new-media age). The ventures are also revenue-source-agnostic, pulling support from wherever and whoever they can—advertising, nonprofits, venture capital, big media, private donors, and a lot of sweat equity from enterprising volunteers.

These projects hold great promise for all arts, including the visual arts, especially for specific cultural niches and geographic regions. Check them out here, and share your opinions.

3 thoughts on “Green shoots for arts journalism

  1. With over 100 proposals, it struck me personally as better to focus on the responses to only one of the answers in each as my response. Rather than critique the content of each proposal (other than to say many of them seem to be simply online versions of print approaches, far too many seem very geographically narrow, and that the notion that you can encapsulate responses to events or media offerings that people can take their time to experience, as opposed to encapsulate responses to events people are witnessing/participating together in live time [live blogging the State of the Union address being one of the most relevant/popular of these efforts] misses the point of immediacy), I thought I’d respond to what I think is foremost on the minds of journalists I talk with who are very happy to work in which ever medium emerges from the fray eventually: that is, how will they still earn a living writing? With that in mind, I’ll limit my response to the proposed business models question: “Explain (briefly) your business model [Please be specific – this is an important question].” I’ll admit to not having had the time to read through them all, as well, so this response is limited to the first 30 proposals, but that was plenty to find a few noteworthy trends:

    A scary number of the applicants seemed to skip or not understand this question, despite its “this is an important question” qualification.

    To my mind a “business model” is perhaps most easily thought of as identifying three things: 1) who your target clients/markets are, 2) what their needs are, and 3) what you’ll do to meet those needs so that you’ll receive money in exchange (and how). The last part is what makes it a “business” model, and not having a very clear and realistic idea of where the money will comes from means you don’t actually have a “business” model. Also, it is not enough to identify only one or two of the three.

    Several proposals asserted that non-profit status would be their business model, which is a step forward, but even non-profits need to explain (for grants and such) why they’re more deserving of the increasingly-more-difficult-to-attain available funding (i.e., how they’re meeting their target clients’ needs in a better way than other potential funding recipients).

    Among those who were refreshingly frank and/or innovative about their business model were

    #3. ArtSceneAK: good example of the scrappy, piece the funding altogether, model that I think will lead the way forward in the immediate future.

    #6. Wildlife Art Journal : targets the most wasteful parts of most current models “printing and distribution” although I’m not convinced the “subscription plus advertising” plan is more than simply hoping.

    #7 3-Minute Egg: apparently their combination of government and foundation grants while also raising money through sponsors, individual donors (and, soon, memberships) has been working so fair. Again, I think spreading the income net far and wide with realistic expectations is the best immediate path forward until the dust clears.

    #10. Adobeairstream.com: not so innovative as highly detailed and seemingly realistic.

    #11. Alternative Audio Tours : not so detailed, but innovative in their use of iTunes as a revenue channel.

    #16. Triple Canopy : a good example of a model that includes fund raising. Not sure I like the way this model associates arts journalism with charities, but it is realistic for the foreseeable future.

    #20. KING FM Arts Channel : not sure it’s the best combination of channels, but their “mutimedia” approach to revenue growth seems the right kind of thinking for the brave new world

    #24. The Omniscient Mussel : not at all sure how many takers this proposal will get (outside of this particular prize potentially, that is), but I love the honesty of the declaration : “The only business model I see as viable is a venture capitalist supplying a year’s salary”

    #25. ArtPhile.com : very well considered, if not entirely innovative, business model, with five-pronged approach: 1.) Lead generation 2.) Ecommerce – (offers from partners such as airlines, art shippers and framers); 3.) Premium Content; 4.) Content Licensing; 5.) Advertising.

    I highlighted these from the first 30 as they seemed to reflect what I suspect is the new reality for arts journalism: There is no one source of revenue that will pay journalists what they’re worth in the foreseeable future, and so the best current business model seems to be to cobble together a variety of high potential channels. Further, anyone not realizing that printing and distribution are the twin anchors that will drag them down represents a tragedy waiting to happen. Catering to those dwindling numbers of dinosaurs who like to fold their reading material is grounds for commitment among new business people, unless you’re independently wealthy.

    Finally, grasping, in practical and realistic DETAIL, the potential of the various channels is key to surviving the next phase of arts journalism. Putting all one’s eggs in one basket, closing one’s eyes tight real hard, and hoping is the best short cut to the unemployment line. The future does not belong to those with ADD.

  2. Ed’s onto something, but there’s something missing here: a business model requires that one take account of income AND expenses. No one is talking about expenses in any meaningful way. Being a non-profit is not a business model; getting 2$ for iTunes downloads is not a business model; the many-pronged approach to revenue generation or fund raising is not a business model; not unless one measures all of these revenue streams against the REAL costs of doing the work that goes into these ventures is anyone getting down to the concrete question of what it means to do this work for real–i.e. what do “you” cost and how is doing this work going to pay you (your rent, mortgage, groceries, utilities, travel, entertainment, etc.); and if it’s not, who is paying you?

    Of course, many of these proposals have no business being asked the “business model” question at all. The Rothko with Reservations proposal is an interesting one, insofar as it raises what I’m sure will become an increasingly important question regarding the status of “independent” vs. “institutional” research and legitimation. Using Facebook as a platform to reach out to scholars and supporters is an interesting one, and probably just the kind of thing the owners of Facebook like to see; but using Facebook is not a “business model,” it’s just a platform for connecting with people whose interests may be similar or adjacent to one’s own. The only business there is Facebook’s own.

    On a different note, more in response to Andras’ comment, I question the notion of whether any of these new media outlets, initiatives, etc.–and here I’m speaking with regard to specifically “arts” related journalism and criticism–are emerging in response to the demise of print; it seems to me we would be seeing all of this happening even if the newspapers were still going strong, no? In other words, everyone’s a critic (or at least has always wanted to be at one time or another) and now we’ve all got megaphones.

  3. I take both Ed and Jonathan’s comments to heart. It will be interesting to see how ArtPhile succeeds in earning income from leads generated by their arts coverage on actual sales. I wonder how ensuring such commissions is to be managed. Murky as well is the thought that this same site will not be “[increasing]levels of detail [of specific galleries] because that does not serve the reader[/targeted collector audience].” Tricky stuff.

    Yeah could maybe learn from Hamilton Arts and Letters and become a co-op – being volunteer and fundraiser-based sticks in my craw a bit, but I’m not familiar with how this works among musicians. It’s a matter of what makes a strong stakeholder.

    And there is always a little exploitation. ArtPower expects to receive thousands of dollars by charging a dollar a ticket for performances, but “staff members and student contributors will provide the bulk of coverage, adding little to no writing fees.” ArtPower, indeed.

    Avoiding the issue of money altogether also seems to be the new ethos of arts journalism, Recess in fact mistakes the business question for one regarding different strategies and qualities for participation, with the noble aim of furthering discourse.

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