Sunday, March 25, 2012

Quick reflections on a changing media landscape

Just a few thoughts on the changing landscape of arts journalism...

Content aggregation vs. reporting.
As newsroom staffs are being cut, an alarming number of original source reporting outlets are shifting to content aggregation. Very few media outlets now have dedicated full-time reporters that are assigned to the arts. With an increase in content aggregation and a decrease in original reporting, editorial power is shifting to the fewer outlets that are creating content which in turn feeds the increasing number of aggregators. Just a short time ago, it used to be that a significant story would be covered by several local and national outlets, allowing a well-rounded view of the story to emerge. Today, whatever the view of the originating source becomes the defacto view of aggregating outlets, thereby often times giving a single reporter the responsibility of judge, jury and executioner. That said, I have found that there are some journalists who aggregate content, and then editorially expound upon amassed content. I have found that in doing so, these journalists feel the pressure to produce original editorial based upon what others have said, but they do not view themselves as primary source journalists, meaning that they will comment on previous work, but will not expend the energy to actually conduct interviews or investigate if forgone conclusions are accurate.

The rise of "gotcha" journalism. It used to be that purposefully snarky reporting was the realm of the social blogosphere, or at best, the weekly alternative paper. In a surprising turn of events, the Washington Post, one of the most respected new sources for arts journalism in the country, sent out the following message in late February: “Got a grievance to air about the Washington arts scene? Is complaining your favorite form of catharsis? Our Sunday Arts section is seeking critics like yourself, who are interested in giving our local and cultural scene some tough love.” Why would such a reputable news source specifically solicit grievances and nothing else? Wouldn't they want a balanced view from the community on the impact of the arts in our nation's capital? particularly at a time when arts funding is getting slashed? I fear that ill-conceived attempts at gaining readership will result in using tactics that just a few years ago would have been laughed out of the newsroom. Quality arts reporting, as it rapidly diminishes in communities across the nation, should become a strong competitive advantage for those that continue to invest in it. For another viewpoint, please check out Howard Sherman's excellent post here.

Pay to play, and the abandonment of journalistic ethics. I have a feeling that even prehistoric publicists had to deal with "news outlets" that refused editorial coverage unless advertising money was attached, but it used to be that these outlets were few and came with tarnished reputations in their communities. Today it is almost as likely that a marketing director will arrange an editorial feature via an account rep as it is a publicist via an editor. And outlets aren't shy about it. Previously a publisher might say to you with a wink that he would see what he could do, but now they flat out tell you if you want to be reviewed, you need to buy an ad! If a feature article, and much more so a review, is attached to an advertising buy, journalistic ethics have been thrown out the door. Just on principle, even when I did have the resources to make an ad buy, if an offer was made, I walked away from the table. There has to be a line.

To tweet, or not to tweet? If you are an executive of an arts organization, and you are considering joining Twitter, here are a couple of things to consider:
  • Twitter is a community. If you do not have the time to adequately nourish online relationships in Twitter, don't join.
  • You are always on the record. It is an open community in which anyone can ask any question at any time. Don't let the relaxed environment fool you. Every 140 character response is on the record. For a good laugh, please refer to the top 10 celebrity Twitter scandals. It is easy to understand why journalists encourage joining, as many a good story have come of it.
  • Silence speaks volumes. Thinking about joining, and then side-stepping the tough questions? Often times what you don't say communicates even more than what you do say. You should be prepared to answer questions that you won't want to. And in this environment, "no comment" doesn't go over quite so well.
That all said, if you have the time and are comfortable with complete transparency, then a Twitter feed can provide for strong relationships between you and a wide audience.

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