Reinventing arts journalism… by starting with a virtual summit

Sasha Anawalt is director of Arts Journalism Programs at USC Annenberg School for Communication and co-director of A National Summit on Arts Journalism.

National Summit on Arts Journalism I’m told by people who know such things that I am lousy at the elevator pitch. But the question: “Hey, Sasha, what is this National Summit on Arts Journalism?” is a natural for people to ask, especially when trying to figure out if they should pay it any attention. With the Summit only two days away, I’ve now ridden a bank of elevators.

The Summit will showcase 10 innovative online projects chosen by a dozen judges that allow us to peek into arts journalism’s future — like a TED conference, but just about journalism. We hope to explore ideas and issues that have taken unpredictable and fascinating forms by looking into these diverse digital models for keeping arts journalism alive.

This Summit is a virtual summit. Yes, there will be a live audience on Oct. 2, settled into its seats by 8:30 a.m. at USC’s Annenberg Auditorium. But the main audience is the one watching online during and after the event. How could it be otherwise? A field that’s been so deeply affected by technology must reflect that technology. The Summit is itself an experiment in form. Because the Internet allows journalists to generate, gather and distribute information and opinion from a universe of sources, shouldn’t our conference extend as far?

For the first time at USC Annenberg School for Communication, and for the first time at USC at large, online interactivity will be defined and shaped by the taping, production and editing of speakers’ presentations before the conference or summit actually begins.

We want to show the journalists’ work, their sites, their cool Flash projects, and illustrate what these 10 are talking about while they are talking. We wish to keep all presentations below the 10-minute mark. Talk about art has to be artistic; talk about journalism and financial viability should be focused and precise. The audience? A Clay Shirky here-comes-everybody one. The whole Summit? YouTube-able.

How to do all this? The solution that Summit co-director and editor of Douglas McLennan and I came up with — in concert with Jackie Kain, executive producer, and Holly Willis and her team at USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy — is what you will see on Oct. 2 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (PDT), streamed live on the National Arts Journalism Program website.

Doug will moderate the live event, which will include two roundtable discussions in the flesh: “The Art of Arts Journalism,” hosted by Laura Sydell of National Public Radio, with guests Jeff Chang (author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop) and New York Times reporter Seth Schiesel; and “The Business of Arts Journalism,” hosted by Andras Szanto, director of the NEA Classical Music Institute, with Richard Gingras, CEO, and Deborah Marrow, director of The Getty Foundation.

But why do we need a National Summit on Arts Journalism? This question quickly gets personal, and each participant will have a telling answer. I heartily invite you to log on, tune in and submit your questions, answers and ideas via Twitter (hashtag: #artsj09) and to text-message on the day-of.

Yet the same question also gets professional.

In 2008, USC Annenberg School for Communication (in partnership with the five arts schools) launched a nine-month Master’s degree program in Specialized Journalism. The program, designed for arts specialists and other kinds of journalists, this year nearly quadrupled in size — defying all expectations. We all know traditional journalism is in crisis; everything is changing. Is it possible to sustain a living as a journalist? What is journalism now, and who exactly are journalists? At this frightening, exhilarating juncture, what’s the role of the arts-and-culture critic?

These questions fill the air, and they are legitimate. Change means we can all play a role, if we care to, in reinventing the field of journalism. A university, of course, affords the possibility for time dedicated to lab work, experimentation and surrounding ourselves with experts. It also provides a space for the kind of imaginative, idealistic vision that writing about the arts requires. Yet we know, in the words of Los Angeles Poverty Department theater director John Malpede, that you cannot have change without exchange. You must give something up and exchange it; you have to engage in conversations with others who are doing something utterly unlike what you are doing, if you want to move forward.

Doug McLennan has spent the past decade surveying the arts-journalism scene; his celebrated its 10th anniversary earlier this month. The site aggregates “must-reads” in arts and culture every day, and Doug knows first-hand and better than most how many astonishing forms digital journalism takes: not only in traditional and new media, but within arts organizations and government groups, both national and municipal, grassroots and mainstream. Yet worried that too many wheels were being reinvented, he wondered what would happen if we brought new arts journalists together so they could show and share what they are doing, and hoping to do. Wouldn’t that accelerate progress in the field?

This Summit is the result. The National Endowment for the Arts, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and many schools and leaders at USC are on board (including – full disclosure – Online Journalism Review). Hewlett agreed to underwrite a competitive element of the Summit, offering awards of upwards of $2000 to five journalism “Public Projects,” ultimately chosen by 12 judges from a pool of 109 submissions.

I can’t tell you what the five “Public Projects” are (that would ruin the suspense), but I can say that I’ve seen all ten presentations (which includes five “Showcase Projects”) and from them have learned a few things. Social media, though not yet figured out and fully tapped, is central to our journalistic future. Some are making a living at this, but too few — yet in a capitalist society this will soon be figured out. Some very smart and even magnificent ideas and executions are out there. Still, critics and their future are the biggest unknowns.

I am sure that on Friday, I will have more epiphanies and puzzlements. But with each later viewing of the projects — available as separate entities at and — something more will certainly come to light. That is the may be the most valuable virtue of a virtual Summit.

Check back on OJR this Friday, when editor Robert Niles reports from the ONA conference in San Francisco.