I went to the discussion on arts coverage at the Wells Theatre last night expecting there to be, well, a discussion about arts coverage in this day when mainstream media like The Virginian-Pilot and The Daily Press are in a deep decline.
Instead, a good bit of the hour was devoted to things like the “golden price point” for attracting an audience, who to contact and how to get your press release read, and why black audiences, by and large, don’t frequent the arts.
Oh, there was one lone voice literally in the back calling for a regional arts website, mostly to list jobs and auditions. A great start and more on that later.
What’s clear is the dramatic and continued decline in local arts coverage by the big players means arts organizations will have a harder time getting out their message in the old ways. The Virginian-Pilot, slashing costs as it dismantles Pilot Media and tries to sell the paper (or slowly euthanize it), cut loose two longtime arts writers last month. What’s left is a features staff of four that includes a food writer, a music writer (who apparently will be pressed into more general arts coverage), and a couple of others. The Daily Press has gone from seven feature writers to three and it’s Peninsula-centric.
The fact is the local newspapers no longer have the staff or the space to feature much of anything, especially not every worthy arts story. Even the very limited space they do have is sometimes devoted to trivial coverage, hoping to seem relevant to young readers, things like a full page in last week’s Pulse, the increasingly thin entertainment section, about the odd faces made by Haim’s bassist. Sorry Mr. Little Theater of Virginia Beach who complained about not getting ink, The Pilot is desperately trying to attract readers under 65. You’re out of luck.
The other media outlets represented on the panel can’t do much either. AltDaily, which was swallowed by Pilot Media earlier this year, is essentially an unedited volunteer publication where contributors write for free about what interests them. The New Journal and Guide is another publication with a limited audience featuring stories written gratis.
Veer, where I contribute a few music stories for fun, is a monthly so it’s not always easy to be timely. It has tripled in size over five years and is probably the best bet for arts organizations looking for coverage. But it only has so much space.
So what’s the answer?
Content marketing to an online hub, a local arts media cooperative.
I’m not talking about press releases. With few exceptions, they are a waste of time and energy that will only go into the trash bin. I’m talking about journalism. Stories, question and answer pieces, essays, galleries of photography, videos (or links to videos), previews, reviews. All the cool kids are doing it. The mainstream media gatekeepers are dead (or on their deathbeds).
Create the content and then market your performance, exhibit, etc. through a web site and all the attendant social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. The bonus is marketing your organization in this way also appeals to the younger audience arts groups so desperately need to attract (WHRO’s Bert Schmidt noted last night that he’d never seen such a young audience in the Wells Theatre).
Technology has opened this window to your audience. Seize it.
There’s no way around it: this will take money and talent, cooperation and organization.
Here are a few ideas how to accomplish it.
— Create an umbrella web site with funding by arts organizations from the seven cities. Hire an editor and probably a social media assistant to assign and edit stories by writers, photographers, and graphic artists who would be paid. Yes, paid. Paying writers is the only way to get attractive, consistent content. Organizations that did not have the money could contribute material they generate, but it would be edited to ensure a good product.
The site could provide material — for a fee — to the media outlets listed above. Ads could be sold although online advertising is notoriously unprofitable. In addition, each organization could use the material on its site. Yes, having the same story on multiple sites could be annoying to some readers, but the benefits of attracting more views outweighs that issue.
The site would be organized by genre — movies, plays, music, art, etc. — so browsers could quickly go to their interests. (It might look something like No Depression, a roots music site with editors and paid and unpaid contributors).
There could be a calendar component, a Wiki which arts organizations would maintain. As Bert Schmidt said last night, having a staffer maintain a calendar is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Yes, arts leaders, we know you rely on volunteers and this would add to your load, but if folks don’t know about your event, your volunteer work is going to waste. The site would also have a component for local artists listing auditions, jobs, open mics, etc. as suggested by the guy in the back last night.
Again, the jobs and calendars components would have to be contributor-driven. Some of these things are being done. Bob Batcher mentioned that Norfolk arts folks get together monthly and go over their schedules. Several musicians maintain a web site and Facebook page about local events, open mics. etc. Tapping into those resources would be key.
If arts organizations each threw in some dollars and arts patrons in the cities added more, the funding might be easier than it seems. Or not. What’s the budget? I don’t know. Creating one would only be worth the time if the organizations were serious about creating content and collaborating.
— An alternative would be to make Veer the arts publication for the region and support it with grants, ad sales, etc. to increase coverage and circulation. I’m not saying this because I write for Veer. Trust me, Jeff Maisey doesn’t pay me enough to pimp for him. It’s the only print/online alternative that has the space and a crew of professional writers. Maisey and I have not discussed this idea so he may not embrace it. Veer is a very small operation and may not have the capacity to meet the need.
— Finally, arts organizations could go it on their own, creating content for their sites and marketing it online. Some folks in town seem to do this very well. Alchemy NFK comes to mind. But this would not be nearly as effective as a collaborative site. By working together, arts organizations will increase the overall size of the pot and the individual size of their audiences.
Reading back over this, I’ve definitely been blindly optimistic. I’m sure the idea has more than a few flaws. The scope is so big it will be unwieldy (not to mention there will always be people who think they’re not getting the coverage they deserve).
Can this work? Sure. Initiatives like it have succeeded in other areas, albeit more narrowly-defined regions with a single city center. Will people dig in and make it work? I’ve no idea.
What do you think?