Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Effects of Social Media on Traditional Journalism

In my role as Director of Communications at Arena Stage, I supervise media relations in addition to marketing and a few other areas. As originally intended, this blog was developed to discuss arts marketing, however from time to time, I stray a little and write about topics that affect media relations, as will be the case today.

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself participating in a very interesting discussion via Twitter with Howard Sherman, Peter Marks, Trey Graham, Nella Vera, David Loehr and Kris Vire. This impromptu panel discussion was centered around the affects of social media on traditional practices in arts journalism. With both publicists and journalists recognizing that the traditional media landscape is changing, it made me think about what's next. Below are my thoughts that formed in the weeks since.

For a primer on the subject, may I suggest the following articles:
"Should Theater Critics be Allowed to Tweet an Opinion Before Writing a Review?" Washington City Paper, 10/20/2010
"Hey, Broadway-Based Spiderman Boosters: Twitter's Not a Supervillain" NPR, 12/1/10
"Will the Embargo Hold?" 2amt, 7/12/11
"Stop Telling Me What to Think About Your Show" The Craptacular, 7/12/11

From my point of view, the affects of social media on...

New Play Development
The days of developing new work under the watchful eyes of millions of New Yorkers may be over. And the Broadway tryout in major metropolitan areas could be as well. Why anyone would make the choice to develop new work directly on Broadway itself baffles me, as there is no room for error. I couldn't imagine a worse place to develop work. To be extraordinary, one must be able to take risks. With the rise of social media, every risk taken (and failure made) is a potential headline in the now influential blogosphere. In the past, producers and publicists had to concern themselves with crafting stories for professional journalists and preparing for traditional reviews, but in today's world, before the first review hits, public opinion can be persuaded by millions of tweets, Facebook posts and blogs. In some cases, by the time the impartial and professional critic walks through the doors of a theater, the verdict in the court of public opinion has already been rendered. As information travels at the speed of light to every corner of the world these days, it would not surprise me if the major development work for high profile, Broadway-bound productions starts to occur at smaller and smaller venues in more remote areas of the country. Even major regional theaters in large metropolitan areas may become too "exposed" to be able to shelter the development process of new work. My prediction: Places like Virginia Stage Company, a LORT D theater in Norfolk, VA which just recently produced a highly acclaimed pre-Broadway run of Bruce Hornsby's SCKBSTD, will become the new go-to places for development of high profile projects.

Preview Performances
A production is never fully complete until it is performed in front of an audience. Preview performances used to be a testing ground that allowed creatives the ability to make adjustments to a production and then try them out in front of an audience. Previews are handled differently depending on the company. I have worked for companies where previews were very rough, often times being obvious that the creatives and the cast were still in the process of creation. However, I have also worked for companies where in most cases, the first preview looked as polished as opening night. As marketers, we know the most powerful marketing tool is word-of-mouth, and social media allows for the development of instant word-of-mouth campaigns. These days, artists and administrators have to be prepared that the first preview will bring instant feedback, and that feedback will have a direct impact on sales. Some administrators, as mentioned in the aforementioned article entitled "Stop Telling Me What to Think About Your Show," try to appeal to audiences to halt or slow social media. However, as a paying member of the audience, patrons have every right to say what they think to whomever they want using whatever means they want to. Trying to control social media is a waste of energy, and asking audience members not to discuss the play is like telling a teenager not to do something. Even more ludicrous are the producers that are charging $150+ for previews, and then asking patrons not to share their experiences. Whoever advised them to do so obviously has very little understanding of the value of transparency which drives so many social media mavens. My prediction: Producers will forgo long preview periods, and will in turn rely more heavily upon the developmental runs as discussed in the previous paragraph.

In his excellent blog referenced above, Howard Sherman predicts that the embargo "has begun to crumble and that erosion will only accelerate as every single person who cares to becomes their own media mogul and true stars of the medium begin to achieve influence akin to that afforded by old media." I couldn't agree more. As of today, traditional journalists are expected to hold back on reviewing until a producer settles on an opening date and then invites the critic to see the production. In the meantime, "citizen reviewers" are blogging, tweeting, posting on Facebook and Yelping, thereby allowing everyone except the professional critic the opportunity to weigh-in. However, to pull a line from Spiderman, with "great power comes great responsibility." Professional critics are expected to act with journalistic integrity and to honor embargoes as they are the arbiters of culture for, in some cases, millions of readers. But there are grey areas. What happens when the same producer that requests an embargo from professional critics invites Oprah Winfrey to attend a preview, and then Oprah tweets her thoughts to her 6.7 million followers weeks before critics can? or when an advertising firm uses pull quotes from comments on Yelp or Twitter to promote a show in ad campaigns weeks before a show is officially open to review? My prediction: The use of embargoes between producers and the media will change in the next few years as social and traditional media will compete directly with each over for prominence.

For some reason, when Washington City Paper theater critic Trey Graham tweeted a response to a show that he was reviewing from the theater, it caused a little bit of a brouhaha. To get the facts straight, he was an invited reviewer attending a production that was open to review at the request of the theater. I guess a couple of actors who normally like to avoid reading reviews encountered the tweet, and were upset because a review caught them by surprise as it was delivered via social media, thus leading to a complaint. From a publicist's perspective, Trey was well within his rights to tweet his thoughts. Theaters can (as of now) embargo reviews based on time (when shows are available for review), but it is amusing to think that any institution would expect to be able to embargo based on delivery method. Social media is just a delivery mechanism, just like a newspaper is. Critics have every right to deliver their criticism via whatever mechanism they like. Journalism is a very competitive field, and often times being able to weigh-in first, or before others, creates a competitive advantage. As such, I am not surprised at all that critics are now sending immediate, albeit 140 character, responses. Although I disagree, Howard Sherman developed a well reasoned argument as to perhaps why critics should not tweet responses in his previously mentioned blog. That being said, as a publicist, I would argue that whether we think critics should or shouldn't tweet their responses is a moot point, as it isn't up to us. The fact is, they are doing it and we don't have any logical reason to ask them not to. My prediction: Many more traditional critics will start tweeting immediate critical reactions so that their responses are competitive in the fast paced environment of social media.

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