Last weekend, the good folks at the Annenberg School on the campus of the University of Southern California hosted the first-ever National Arts Journalism Summit.
I entered Palm Beach ArtsPaper in the summit contest (hey, we could use the money), but didn’t win; still, we hosted the live stream from the summit on our Website for anyone who wanted to see it. (Yes, it was big of me. Spurned, but I took the high road.) The summit lasted about four hours, and I caught around two hours of it, dropping in from time to time on presentations as well as discussions.
I learned about some interesting projects and heard some good chatter from arts journalists, but in the end it came across as somewhat tentative, and lacking at least one perspective that I thought was important.
And that perspective is the idea of print. At ArtsPaper, all our revenue still comes from print advertising — and yes, I pay everyone who works for the paper; another Web site that claimed the same thing drew astonished gasps from the summit — and frankly, I don’t see print fading away as much as everyone seems to think.
I didn’t catch any reference to actually printing any of these projects from anyone that I saw; everything was Web-based, everything was multimedia. Nothing wrong with that, but ignoring print is not a good idea. People still like it, journalists still like to see their work in ink on a page, and it still has more weight than work on the Web. By that I mean that the great stream of news we hear everyday is still driven by journalists working for print media, or in the case of wire services, work that is headed for print.
That will not change in the near future because the new brands that would supply the news to more established organizations have not yet established reliable brands that everyone respects. The current media organizations whose brands dominate the news discussion today will not only continue to do so, they will get even more powerful. So look for more clout, not less, from the New York Times, the AP, and other respected brands (including relatively new ones such as Bloomberg, which is really the model for what needs to happen).
At best, the vast blogosphere will inspire many like-minded people to express themselves in print, but only the tiniest fraction of them will emerge as national figures around whom brand loyalty can be built. It’s true that a fraction of our society will get all its news from alternative media, but only a fraction. Most of the country will continue to get its information from the mainstream media because that’s where the brands are.
No matter what anyone tells you, most people trolling the Internet are not rejoicing in all the things that are out there, exploring all the reaches of the Web. They are in fact narrowly directed repeat visitors to brands they trust, which means the only hope that arts journalists have is that they create, or become associated with, a brand that means something to people.
Other than that, we’ll have to get our arts news from a very small number of sources, and it will stay that way until someone builds a sustainable brand. And that brand will have to include print in some way, because media companies are going to have to give their customers their product across multiple platforms.
Everyone at the summit seemed to be interested in how journalists would make money at arts writing, and it’s quite difficult. The business model that made arts journalism possible has fallen on hard times, and that leaves us with only two options: Charitable foundations step up to fill the gap, or the media takes another look at the old model and finds that it still has life in it yet. The second of these two options is much more likely; we’re in a period now where this line of work has become totally devalued, and that means arts writers will work for cheap for some time to come.
But eventually, the economy will bring arts writers back to established brands when surviving media companies look to diversify their offerings and say: Hey, what about the arts? The challenge for newer media companies is to follow in the footsteps of someone like Michael Bloomberg and build a brand, and if you are an arts-journalism startup that doesn’t have a broadcast network at your disposal, you’re going to have to supply some of your work in print.
It’s early in the morning, it’s been a long, frustrating day, and my argument is not as coherent as it could be were my brain firing on all cylinders. But I think the direction ahead is clear, and it’s not going to be all that different than what we had. It will take some time, but ultimately arts journalists will be able to make a real living at this work again. People still want it, they always will, and one day the lean days will be just a memory.
I think we’ll need a second stimulus plan to get there, but I’m betting we’ll get one — later rather than sooner, but I think it will happen.