Critics, bloggers weigh the future of arts coverageby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The movement of arts coverage from traditional media to online arts blogs and independent writers is changing, not only the conversation of arts coverage, but how organizations promote and market themselves.
A new form of promotion
It's becoming standard practice for local arts organizations to have their own blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, but some groups have been slower to adopt these tools.
Members of the Minneapolis experimental theater company Off Leash Area have their hands full just putting together productions. They're only just beginning to get a handle on all the new media applications that have sprung up to promote their work.
But they realize the days of the traditional public relations campaign are gone. When Off Leash co-founder Paul Herwig looked at the box office results for its latest production, he couldn't find one main source where people found out about the show.
"We felt that all rules were off, and it was really a kind of 'anything goes' marketing situation," Herwig said.
Herwig reports there were also more people requesting comp tickets right before show time. When Off Leash Area's other co-founder, Jennifer Isle, asked who they were, they said they were bloggers, there to cover the performance.
"I followed some Twitter threads later, and they had said in some thread that 'hey, we scored these press passes for the show,' " Isle said.
Isle said the bloggers did write about the production, but it was nothing like the standard treatment Off Leash Area gets from local critics.
"What they wrote was just kind of more of a personal sort of opinion, rather than anything that was like some big professional thing," she said.
Which Isle said is fine, given Off Leash's interest in reaching younger audiences. But Isle said it also has older fans that don't read blogs but rely almost exclusively on newspapers like the Star Tribune.
Arts blogs vs. traditional media
Longtime theater critic Graydon Royce writes at the Star Tribune. Royce himself seems sadly resigned to the tremendous growth of arts blogs.
"It [would] be kind of like a buggy whip operator in 1905 saying 'man these cars are killing me and I wish they'd stop,'" he said. "But it's the changing times."
Royce sees more voices talking about the arts as a good thing, and he's noticed some smart writing in the blogosphere as well. But at this point, he doesn't think the Star Tribune is in danger of being surpassed by blogs in terms of comprehensive arts coverage.
"You know, they kind of poke at us and they can make life difficult sometimes," he said. "At other times they take note of us. They keep us sharper perhaps. So maybe the sense of competition might be the one way that it makes us better."
So what distinguishes critics like Royce from the typical arts blogger?
"A high level of expertise and credibility," Royce said.
But Royce also accepts the changing times, and admits that five years from now, he may be working at an arts blog. If traditional media art critics such as Royce begin to disappear, what do we lose?
"We lose an institutional memory," said Max Sparber, a playwright and former alt weekly theater critic turned blogger.
Sparber said several newspaper critics have been writing for decades and know the history of the disciplines they cover better than anyone. Sparber also said a number of arts blogs feature artists writing about each other, so they're less likely to be painfully honest.
"We are losing the voice that says maybe this was ill-conceived, maybe this actor isn't very good at their job, maybe that was a bad accent," he said.
Most agree there will be significant trade-offs as we continue the transition from print to online media. But Susanna Schouweiler feels the movement toward Web-based arts writing is definitely the right direction.
"I think it's better," Schouweiler said. "I think the possibilities that one has when publishing online far outweigh what we're losing when we lose print."
Schouweiler edits mnartists.org, an online data base, community hub and news provider for artists throughout the state. She said with a print article you get text on a page, and maybe a photo. Online you get text, photos, video, audio and links that either expand on the stories or place them in a wider context, and more.
"You have this web of information that you can neatly organize and present to an interested reader, and they can delve those layers of information as much or as little as they want," she said.
Schouweiler said what we need now is more filters, more aggregators who can sift through the mountains of content that are piling up online. She thinks they're coming, and so is a business model that can make it pay a living wage.
"Somebody smart will figure out how to make money off of all of this," she said.
Meanwhile, artists and arts writers will continue to make their way through the somewhat awkward phase of learning all the skills required to make the internet work for them.
Arts blogs on the rise
People used to depend heavily on print media for arts and cultural news, but no longer. Arts blogs are exploding on the Web.
In fact, online art observers are beginning to overwhelm their print counterparts, not just in numbers but in volume of content produced. According to the blog monitoring Web site Technorati, there's an estimated 300,000 arts blogs right now, with more than a few covering or commenting on Minnesota art.
"I would argue that there's more arts coverage going on in the Twin Cities now than I've ever seen in my life," said Max Sparber, an arts blogger. "And [they're] covering a wider and broader spectrum of arts than I've ever seen."
If the arts blog universe looks like the Wild West, then Sparber is one of its gun slingers. He's a Minneapolis playwright and former City Pages theater critic who moved over to the web as an independent cultural commentator.
"I would say that the biggest transformation is that I can write whatever I want to whenever I want to," he said. "The beat is whatever I create."
You can see what he means when you visit his blog. There, you can learn how his one-man show about performer Tiny Tim came together, watch his interview with outgoing Playwright's Center director Polly Carl or become one of his 749 followers on Twitter. Granted, when he posts on his blog, he no longer has the chance to reach City Pages' estimated 125,000 readers.
"Now if I do a piece and I put it online it's only seen by a couple hundred people," he said. "Well it's only seen a couple hundred people the day it goes up. It can be seen by thousands of people over time. There's a longevity built into it that never existed before in criticism."
The way Sparber views his job as a critic has also changed pretty dramatically. Now, he only writes about things he likes. He's not interested in watching out for the theater or art consumer anymore.
"The arts critic as the voice for how you should spend your money, should I go see this movie, should I go see this play, that's no longer necessary anymore because social media has completely taken over that role," he said.
When people want to find out whether something is good or bad, Sparber said, they increasingly bypass critics and check in with their Facebook friends or tap into Twitter feeds.
Connecting to new audiences
While Social media may be forcing critics to re-define their roles, they've been revolutionary for arts groups trying to connect to audiences. Doug McClennan, founder of the daily online art news compendium, Artsjournal.com, said arts organizations no longer have to depend on the press to get the word out.
"The Chicago Symphony for example has 10,000 Facebook friends, and when they want to be able to get out an offer for tickets or they have a piece of news to convey, all they have to do is post it on their Facebook page and all those people get it," McClennan said.
But direct contact with an audience is a two-way street. McClennan said now that communication paths have been opened online, arts groups have lost the control they used to have over discussions of their work. If patrons loved a performance, or hated it, they can immediately register their reactions.
"And if they didn't like it, now you know about that," he said. "But you also have the ability to talk back. You also have the ability to try and do something about it."
McLennan said arts groups are learning what other businesses already understand; some of your most loyal patrons can be people who approached you first with a complaint.