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March 9, 2009

Survival Tip: Talk to the Media

Ever since Wall Street began its free fall last September, arts organizations going under have hardly needed to give a cause for their demise. The popular, rarely questioned assumption -- even on the part of many journalists -- is that the economy did them in.

Which is what makes Milwaukee Journal Sentinel theater critic Damien Jaques' blog post about the recent death of Madison Repertory Theatre remarkable. "According to the Associated Press," Jaques writes, sounding a little miffed at having gotten wind of the story via the AP, "the news was disseminated in the same inept, clumsy way the company has conducted much of its business for the past five years." The decision to shutter the 40-year-old Madison Rep was made last month, but it seems the theater didn't bother to mention it to the media at the time. Which, Jaques implies, was unsurprising.

"The Madison Rep's financial and public relations problems began long before the national economy tanked," he writes. "Even a beautiful gem of a new performing home in the Overture Center could not save the company from itself. The Rep has provided a template on how not to run a theater company for the surviving state arts groups."

Alas, Jaques doesn't anatomize how Madison Rep brought about its own downfall, but one can hope he'll do that later in a larger piece. For now, it's enough that he's refused to let what he sees as fatal mismanagement go unremarked, and particularly satisfying to see him draw a line between bumbling PR and going belly-up.

Arts organizations love to crow about the "free publicity" they get from the media, but too few of them grasp how crucial it is to engage in real communication with journalists: editors, reporters and critics. If journalists can't get close enough to organizations to try to understand them, it's unlikely we'll fully comprehend their value, let alone reflect it in the quality or quantity of our coverage. It's also probable that we won't detect any signs of trouble until they're screaming for help. That last might be fine for the people in charge, who'd rather keep their organizations' problems out of view, but it's not so great for employees or audiences or communities.

It's also, frankly, not so good for media outlets that still have actual journalists at their disposal to provide coverage. This is an ecosystem, after all. Which brings to mind Matt Holzman's argument this week in "The Business Brief" on KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, Calif.

With the Los Angeles Times reconfiguring its coverage of Hollywood, he says, the paper could use some help from the entertainment industry. "A lot of Hollywood's disdain for the paper is everyone's disdain for the paper and it has been well earned," he acknowledges. "But it hasn't made it an[y] easier on the Times that in general, folks in show business would rather see their names in the New York Times than in the 'local' paper." Holzman makes a good case that the LAT has to -- and is trying to -- change some of its ways of doing business, but he also says this:

[H]ow about we agree to do our part to make our home paper the go-to source for Hollywood? Instead of bitching and moaning about the Times, why not call them with your breaking story or your anonymous tip? If they do something great with it, the [T]imes will become known as the go-to place for the Hollywood low-down and you'll have helped save our newspaper.

Like I said: It's an ecosystem.
March 9, 2009 9:56 PM | | Comments (0)

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