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.

Newspaper columnists ought to be the perfect bloggers. So why aren't more doing it well?

Newspaper columnists ought to be the perfect bloggers – the best write in a lively voice and forge a strong connection with their readers. Their work build an ongoing conversation with the communities they cover. Frankly, they’ve been blogging (in print) since long before anyone other than academics and soldiers went online.

So why aren’t more making a successful transition to online publishing? Why are so many columnists living under the same fear and uncertainty that’s consuming their newsroom coworkers? Those are a couple of the questions that I sought to address last weekend when I spoke to the annual gathering of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

This year’s conference theme was “Survive and Thrive.” (Well, we’ve drilled down to the basics now, haven’t we?) My talk was “Tips on Branding Yourself,” and I was joined by Erika Stalder of ABC Family.

I told the group that your brand in the Internet era is the public’s perception of its relationship with you, a sentiment that Erika concurred with, citing a similar quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: “Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room.”

Anyone writing online needs to come to this understanding: That what matters most in determining your online success is how your work is understood and acted upon by its audience – more than what your intention with the work was or the process that you used to create it. You can do work you believe to be great, but if no one reads it or no one who does cares, what was the point?

We talked during the session about Twitter, Facebook, discussion forums and website comments. Several columnists expressed their frustration with the number of tools that they’re now being asked to wield – and the the time that’s taking away from reporting and writing.

“Why should I spend half my time updating a Twitter feed if all that’s reaching is, like, 27 readers?” one columnist asked. “I’ve reached hundreds of thousands of readers in print. Has my audience shrunk to this?”

If you have fewer than 100 Twitter followers, you have a problem. But it’s not with having too many social media tools to manage. You’ve not developed your audience into an online community, one that can sustain your “brand” online even if your print gig fails.

You’ve got to start where you are at. And the same principles that apply for print columnists apply to all online and offline writers, as well. Start by explicitly inviting your readers into an ongoing conversation – then give them multiple avenues through which to contact you. These can include a Facebook page, e-mail account, blog comments and Twitter account. Your columns should include the URLs of your blog (if your column appears elsewhere, such as in print), Facebook page and Twitter feed. (Alternate them to keep the shirttail fresh, and short.) If you haven’t registered and made it the home of your blog, do it now.

But simply asking readers to a conversation won’t be enough to engage them. You must initiate the conversation with engaging questions. Smart columnists have been doing this for years, so it shouldn’t take much effort to get these flowing. Ask your readers questions about their own lives – what are they doing and seeing that affects the community around them?

I warned the audience against asking readers what they think. The Web has more then enough places for folks to vent their opinions. What you want to elicit are experiences – first-person accounts that other readers might relate with, drawing them into the conversation as well.

Another columnist asked about time management – a very valid concern for anyone writing online. Heck, I almost never watch TV anymore, and can’t imagine having to give up an hour or two each day to the commute I made when I didn’t work at home. I held up my iPhone and told the audience how I use it to check e-mail, read Tweets and monitor comments in every down moment I get, whether I be waiting to pick up the kids from school or in line at the grocery. True downtime is a scheduled luxury in the online publishing business.

So, I said, you’ve got to be writing about a passion. Find issues within all those in your community about which you are most passionate, and write about them. Solicit first-person accounts from your readers, and reward the best of them with a personal public response and follow-up questions. Soon, your audience, which craves your attention, will learn to deliver the quality and insight that you want. Only writing about a passion will elicit the energy and stamina that you will need to remain relevant in a hyper-competitive online information marketplace. And only your passion will animate your voice to level required to help your work stand ahead of others’.

Finally, don’t be reticent about joining other, established online communities in order to expand your audience beyond what you’ve attracted via your existing newspaper or website. One audience member commented about the trouble of getting health insurance as an independent writer (one that I share). Given the current politics around that issue, I responded that a great place to write about that would be in a political community such as DailyKos. A following developed in those communities eventually can be lead to follow you on other sites and in other forums, as well.

Social media tools are just that… tools. Don’t become so obsessed with learning the latest and most fashionable that you forget the job you’re trying to do with those tools – to build your audience into an online community.

Once you’ve engaged a few readers in a meaningful conversation on a topic about which you are passionate, you’ll find continuing that conversation across multiple media a engaging pleasure, not a time-sucking chore. Readers will see that, and want to jump in themselves, if only just to watch. Your success will elicit more success and your online community will grow.

That’s how to brand yourself online. Share your passion, and ask your readers to share theirs with you.

Editorial pages look to adapt as their communities converse online

A generation ago, the local newspaper editorial page provided the highest-profile forum for discussions about community issues. Editorial writers would research opinion pieces, staff and guest columnists offered their thoughts and local residents would add their voices in the letters to the editor section.

Then the Internet arrived, and the civic discourse shifted, as readers turned to local discussion boards, political blogs and community e-mail lists to talk about the issues affecting them. The newspaper-sanctioned forum grew up, moved out, and became a true community conversation. Now, some newspaper editorial board leaders are responding, seeking Web-friendly ways to restore their opinion sections’ relevance.

Editorial writers from papers big and small, from Wausau, Wisc. to Washington, D.C., locked minds in downtown L.A. last weekend to kick off the Knight Digital Media Center‘s “Best Practices: Editorial and Commentary in Cyberspace” conference.

The overarching questions Sunday: What does it mean to be a catalyst for an engaged society? And just what is the ideal balance between editorial autonomy and community conversation?

“Am I making too large a leap of faith here in drawing this conclusion that community involvement is indeed part and parcel of what we should be about?” asked moderator Michael Williams, Associate Professor of Interactive Media at Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial writer Kevin Horrigan wasn’t quite sure:

“The definition of the role of a newspaper is to print the news and raise hell. The assumption here, within this group, seems to be that you’re leading a community conversation. That in itself is a change from the traditional role of the newspaper. I think it’s a good idea, but I’m not sure the newspaper industry as a whole is totally grasping that.”

Begetting this retort from The Portland Oregonian‘s George Rede:

“I guess I would say, without giving up the traditional role of ‘reporting the news and raising hell,’ this is another layer. If you aren’t doing it already, you have to do it. Given the changes in technology, there’s no excuse for not going down some of these paths. We might be stumbling along the way. We may not see exactly where we’re going to wind up. But the means to engage our readership have changed, and I think changed for the better.”

From monitored blogs to cartoon caption contests to reader/columnist programs, folks in the room did offer promise. That said, when Williams polled the room to gauge whose sites have employed some form of video, only half the hands went up. And of those, none could own up to running anything that was actually shot and edited by an editorial writer, a process one writer described as a “very labor-intensive” endeavor. Not surprising, per se, but perhaps a telling anecdote about the generational status of most editorial board members.

Show And Tell

The most compelling, and telling, answers in the opening session sprang from a best-practices share session, where the 20-odd newsies unveiled their range of active editorial-page endeavors.

A sample:

  • In November, The Portland Oregonian asked readers to nominate themselves for the paper’s op-ed board. Rede said they selected 12 of 250 respondents, based on résumés and writing samples, and asked them to write one opinion piece a week, on the topic of their choice, for 12 weeks.

    “We have our own soap box seven days a week,” he said. “We would like them to be able to bring issues to conversation that matter to them.”

    Those who have shown their ability to write professionally and meet deadlines have earned the right to blog directly to the Oregonian, unsupervised and unedited. Want to get to know these “citizen journalists” a little better? No problem: They’ve posted video interviews with each of the “community writers.”

  • In Wausau, Wis., Peter Wasson at the Daily Herald is writing the Sunday editorial five days in advance, on Tuesday, and opening it up for pre-publication feedback.

    “At the end of the day Tuesday, I send it to a panel of 15 or 20 readers who have volunteered on our Readers React board,” explained Wausau Wasson. “And by the end of Thursday, they send responses to our editorial.”

    Wouldn’t that compromise timeliness, you ask? “I’ve got six other days a week to be timely,” he said.

  • Miriam Pepper said her Kansas City Star‘s Unfettered Letters section dishes out its print-published letters as individual blog posts, allowing readers a forum beneath each of them for replies; unedited, unmonitored and sans-length limit.
  • At The Charlotte Observer, “You Write The Caption” invites readers to whip up their own wit for cartoonist Kevin Siers’ Monday cartoons.

    Challenges remain

    A selection of notable quotes from participants:

    Editorial Page Editor Gina Acosta of the Washington Post: “Unless you’re a columnist, no one knows who is on the editorial board, what their expertise is, where they came from, what their experience is. There’s no interactivity between the editorial board and the community. And we get letters and calls from people all the time asking, ‘who’s on the editorial board? How can I set up an editorial board meeting?’ And it’s a very closed, hidden process.”

    Deron Snyder, Editorial Writer, Fort Myers News-Press: “There’s always been community conversation. The fact is that we’ve never been involved in it. Once we printed our paper, we would let the community talk about it and we were done; we were working on the next day. What I like about the way things are going now is that we remain a part of the conversation that we start. We start the conversation by our stories and editorials… We can help foster that conversation. It doesn’t mean we have to change our views, necessarily.”

    Tonya Jameson, Online Columnist, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer: “I think we’ve always… had that opportunity for the readers to respond, because everybody has a Letters to the Editor page. So people still have that discourse within the newspaper, but now we are moving forward with blogs and having these ways for people to actually go back and open up a conversation. I do agree, though, that it’s an arrogant attitude that we put the news out there, we put our opinion out there, and readers are supposed to accept it and we go from there. I think that’s what turns off younger readers from newspapers.”

    Laurence Reisman, Editor, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers: “It’s one thing to bring people to an editorial board meeting and have them talk about it with us. But I think it’s much more powerful to bring readers on sides of all issues together in a forum—whether it’s an online forum or a meeting room like this—where they can discuss the issues. And if it changes our opinions after listening to some of these things and doing more research, that’s great. But I think helping to bring the community together is an important thing.”

    Michael Landauer, Assistant Editorial Page Editor, The Dallas Morning News (on cross-pub linking): “News isn’t going to do it. Our front news site is not going to link to an investigative report at the [Fort Worth] Star Telegram, ever,” said Michael Landauer of The Dallas Morning News. “But we’ve done it several times where I’ve linked to an editorial out of the Star Telegram. And nobody blinks at that.”

    Kevin Horrigan, Editorial Writer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “That’s not the role of the newspaper. We’re supposed to say which one is right.”