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March 24, 2010

Editor Interview: Anne Bothwell, Art&Seek

In Dallas, KERA public media's nearly two-year-old Art&Seek initiative combines radio, television and online cultural coverage, much of it by former print journalists -- among them reporter/producer Jerome Weeks, a 1999-2000 NAJP fellow. Anne Bothwell, the director of Art&Seek, discussed the project in an e-mail interview.

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The team you lead at Art&Seek includes journalists who, like you, are former arts staffers from The Dallas Morning News, which drastically cut its newsroom -- and, consequently, its arts coverage -- in 2006. What did, or does, the absence of strong cultural coverage in the local daily paper mean for Dallas, a city of more than a million people? When Art&Seek was launched in 2008, was that an effort to fill the void?

Like so many other newspapers, the Morning News covered local arts as an almost exclusive franchise. But like so many other papers, the cutbacks in staff affected that franchise. Similar cutbacks at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have led both papers to 'share' coverage, underscoring their dwindling, now-sometimes solitary voice in the community. As coverage waned, artists, presenting and performing organizations and other cultural institutions found it harder to get the word out about their work. Art&Seek was launched in part to fill that need.

Exposure to information about the arts makes it more likely you'll be inspired to pick up a paintbrush or join a dance class. And the theater, dance, music and visual arts we support as a community say a lot about who we are. At their best, cultural coverage and criticism provide a framework to reflect on and talk to each other about what this means. A city without robust cultural coverage is also full of folks missing many opportunities to engage with the arts -- and with each other.

That said, many of the stories Art&Seek has put on radio and Web probably wouldn't have been done at The Morning News, even when it was fully staffed. I don't think it was the only newspaper with a pretty rigid beat structure and pressure to be comprehensive within those beats. A lot of things that didn't fit neatly or that crossed genres -- arts education, grassroots efforts to build community through the arts, emerging arts and artists -- often didn't get covered. I'd certainly love to have more reporters and critics on my team. But being a light, tight group has freed us up: We can't do everything, so we focus on telling the best stories, or the ones less likely to be told elsewhere.

Now you're working in radio, in television and online, rather than in print and online. How does the change of media affect your coverage? And what has the learning curve been for the print veterans among you?

Well, we ink-stained dinosaurs are still on that learning curve and will be for some time. But it hasn't been as difficult a transition as you might think. Our team is really fortunate to be working with public broadcast veterans who have been extremely generous with their time and their knowledge.

The biggest challenge: shifting from telling a story that's read to one that's heard or watched. Radio is a much more intimate and conversational form of storytelling, a voice in your ear. With radio and television and our Web videos, we're learning to resist the urge to "explain" and let the visuals and audio do the talking. Sounds simple enough but to folks who've been writing for the page for years, it can sometimes feel like putting your pants on inside out.

There are plenty of tricks and shortcuts that newspaper writers learn over the years. (I'm sure this is true of radio and TV, too; we just don't know them yet.) Letting go of these fallbacks has made my team more creative, and forced them to focus on telling a story, particularly tricky when it's, say, a visual arts story for the radio. Paintings don't talk much, so we have to get people to open up.

I'd say, too, that our average radio or television piece takes longer to produce than the average newspaper piece. Because of this, and because each medium we're using now offers such different opportunities, we spend a lot more time talking through which pieces will work best where. I can't speak for the two main reporters I work with, but I feel like I'm talking about ideas and helping shape stories far more than I was able to at newspapers. That's a really gratifying and enjoyable part of my job.

Art&Seek is a project of KERA public media, which describes it as a "community-based arts initiative." Tell me about that community component. And how does your mission at KERA, a nonprofit media company, differ from the mission you had in covering arts and culture at the Morning News, which is owned by A. H. Belo Corporation?

Another really fun and gratifying part of my job. There are lots of different pieces of this community component. Here are just a couple examples:

- Our project originated with discussion groups in the community: educators, artists, arts leaders. We consider their needs when we design our projects.

- Our calendar on artandseek.org is generated by arts groups. In less than two years, we have more than 2,000 arts groups in North Texas represented on the calendar and more than 1,200 events to browse daily. We're in the calendar business, but we don't think arts groups should have to be. So we're willing to help any arts group customize and share this part of our calendar on their Web site. For example, the Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs' web site has a calendar of its partner events. That calendar is powered by Art&Seek.

- Our blog is open to any artist, arts group or arts educator who has a perspective they'd like to share. We literally hand over the keys when we give them the password. That's a level of trust that isn't so common.

- Our partnerships extend beyond broadcast. One example: our partnership with the Dallas Museum of Art and La Reunion, a fledgling artist residency, centered on artist studio spaces and inspired our Artist Studio Tour online. We also participated in panel discussions and events, and linked to winners of the museum's contest to create studio spaces using Google SketchUp. And we contributed to a book about the project. Another: our media partnership with Art Conspiracy, a grassroots fund-raising project by local artists. In addition to covering the event, we created a station where the 2,000 attendees could make their own artwork, hang it immediately in a "gallery" and have their photo taken with it.

At newspapers, I found there was a lot more talk than action about community involvement and partnership. It just wasn't a part of the newsroom culture. There is the reporter's normal fear of becoming "too" involved in the community. And editors rarely had time to be present at key community events. Newspapers can be good corporate citizens, but traditionally, they haven't looked at the community as potential content partners. I do believe this is changing now, as newspapers look at new models in their struggle to survive. 

Is there anything about working in newspapers that you particularly miss, something that isn't replicated in other media?

I miss the cast of characters, the camaraderie, walking into a huge room full of irreverent storytellers every day. Of course, I'm still surrounded by smart and funny journalists, filmmakers, producers and engineers. But there were simply more of them in a newspaper newsroom.

Nearly two years into Art&Seek, and more than three years after the major downsizing of the Morning News, what's the state of arts journalism in Dallas?

I am more optimistic than ever about arts journalism in North Texas. We jumped into the pool early, but others quickly joined us. We now have a local Web site on all things theater in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, TheaterJones.com. D Magazine recently launched a blog devoted to arts and entertainment criticism. There's a weekly podcast called This Week in the Arts out of Fort Worth and many, many blogs. I'm also fascinated by the content that arts groups are creating for their Web sites and I'm interested in sharing that and helping push it to a broader audience. New leadership and the economic times are inspiring more collaborations and conversations about how to support the arts community here -- and many of those conversations include sustaining local arts media as well. And we're working on a redesign of artandseek.org, and creating interstitials for television, so our service is evolving too.

I believe that all of this activity is at least partly responsible for renewed attention to arts coverage at The Morning News. The paper's Sunday feature section has been particularly strong lately, and arts news is again showing up on the front page and in the business section. Even Belo's Dallas TV station, WFAA-TV, now has a full-time 'arts reporter and movie critic.' This is great news. 


Photo courtesy Anne Bothwell

March 24, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (3)

3 Comments

As a former newsroom reporter (now freelance), I was particularly interested in Anne's answer to Laura's question about the shift in work environment:

Q: Is there anything about working in newspapers that you particularly miss, something that isn't replicated in other media?

A: I miss the cast of characters, the camaraderie, walking into a huge room full of irreverent storytellers every day. Of course, I'm still surrounded by smart and funny journalists, filmmakers, producers and engineers. But there were simply more of them in a newspaper newsroom.

The "edge" of a newsroom is hard to find or replicate in other settings, particularly the nonprofit scene where many of us are landing. I wonder, Anne, if you've found that the opportunity for "edge" in the writing (blogging, recording, shooting) is being pared back as you connect more closely with community groups? Do you find yourself and others being slightly more cautious?

Hey Alicia,
That's a good question and there are lots of facets to it. Spend five minutes on "Overheard in the Newsroom" on Facebook, and you quickly realize that the edge of a newsroom is unique. But, especially toward the end of my newspaper career, I didn't see enough of that character and personality coming through on our pages. If anything, I feel much less constrained now in the stories we choose to pursue, their subject matter and the way we present them. (I am, after all, working for a public radio/television station and we have an irreverent newsroom here.) Yes, we work closely with the arts community. We also critique it. So far, it's working. Also, should say we have a sense of humor on Art&Seek, but we'll probably never be known for the snarky side of edgy. I find that entertaining sometimes, but it's just not our thing.

Thanks, Anne. I know exactly what you mean about the loosening of constraints -- and, btw, I've never fully appreciated a steady diet of snark either.

I wonder if some writers have struggled with moving thoughtful print voices to an online platform. I notice with my journalism students that they cannot bring alacrity of tone to "written" papers they hand in, but our class blog is lively, funny, well reported and sometimes deep! When I really need to work through an idea, I go to my "paper" journal, rather than to my computer. (So I'm guilty of siloing my creativity, too!)

In any case, the movement between the two formats is fascinating: what we carry with us, what our perception of the format does to our style and how we achieve the best writing possible, regardless of platform.

Thanks again for sharing your work and thoughts.

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