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March 31, 2010

Not-Really-an-Editor Interview: Jasper Rees, The Arts Desk

As journalistic endeavors go, The Arts Desk is something of a conductorless orchestra. Based in London and staffed by about three dozen writers and photographers, many of them former Daily Telegraph contributors, the online publication is structured as a collective, sans editors. In the absence of hierarchy, the group put Jasper Rees forward to discuss the site. This is an edited version of our interview, which was conducted via instant message. Where messages crossed, text has been rearranged for clarity.

Jasper Rees crop.jpg

The Arts Desk, which calls itself "Britain's first professionally produced arts critical website," launched last September: 09/09/09. Why and how did it come about?

In December 2008 a number of freelance arts writers who work regularly for the arts pages of the Daily Telegraph in the UK received the news simultaneously, in the very same email -- we were all cc'ed -- that in 2009 the paper was halving its arts budget and that much of the work would be done by staffers and in-house writers. We didn't need to read between the lines to work out that our work was going to shrink, and with it our pay. Without wishing to blow our own trumpets, we felt that any such move would necessarily entail a drop in quality of the arts coverage on the paper.

Very British, that modesty.

You might say that, I couldn't possibly comment -- to quote a political satire about cynical Westminster life that was on TV a while

back. Anyway, many of us had written for it for many years, and had built up not only a large store of knowledge but excellent contacts within the arts. So naturally we thought that the Telegraph was cutting off its nose to spite its face. We got quite shirty about it, at least for a while.

But with time to think about it, and to talk to one another -- that CC list was very handy -- we pooled information about what we understood as happening around the industry in the UK and, thanks to those of our number who also work for American publications, in the US. The news was not good. Job cuts everywhere, critics being let go etc. But also column inches devoted to -- how shall we put it? -- the higher arts shrinking rapidly. It was getting harder not only to find regular employment in the arts pages, but also to write about what we wanted to write about. Britney rules, and blockbusters, and Big Brother. So after a while -- maybe three weeks of harrumphing and cursing and railing against the dying of the light -- we thought, hell, why don't we start our own arts page? The future, after all, is online. And everyone was very keen on the idea.

We got chatting and the first thing we decided on, pretty much, was that we wanted to be a collective. No other structure would work, we felt. How could we, with no actual money or product or in fact anything other than an idea, start talking about hierarchy? And we felt that as arts writers we were equals. So we started meeting, talking, planning. And pretty soon it became clear that we needed an informal chain of command that was not about having leaders but having organisers, people to direct traffic. So various people put their hand up to "hub" an art form, that is, know what was coming up, what needed reviewing and writing about, and making sure that it was covered. But we don't have anyone taking editorial decisions on behalf of anyone else. So far, it has worked extremely well. There have been no arguments, and only occasional moments of mild disagreement. But everyone is remarkably prepared to give ground at the slightest suggestion that they might be doing something against the grain.

That is remarkable. I can't imagine.

Well, maybe it helps if you don't have to sit in the same office. Email depersonalises antagonisms. And we all desperately want it to work.

Yeah, wanting it to work will help, too.

We do, I should add, have a site administrator -- a remarkable woman called Ismene Brown who is also a brilliant and highly respected dance critic. She is the one who has dragged us to the start line by sheer effort of will.

I don't want to sound self-important on behalf of my colleagues, but we feel that in the scheme of things -- coverage of the arts in the UK -- we are doing something of genuine value. We are aiming to provide overnight reviews which people can read before anything they'll find in any of the print media. And those reviews will almost always be longer and more in-depth. And in the case of one or two of the online counterparts of rival newspapers, they will be better subbed and edited and have way fewer typos. (Which sort of matters to us.)

Are you truly non-hierarchical? Is there really no one in charge? I've read that you cast "an editorial planning eye."

There are some of us who are more inclined to read everything on the site than others. Some tend to read only those areas that interest them. It's not as if everyone is canvassed on every decision. But we do have an inner quorum of about ten who I would say read most things on the site. As for my editorial planning eye, the lot I have drawn as someone who historically has written features and interviews on most of the art forms is to keep the features coming in.

There are two areas of our feature coverage that I am particularly keen to shout about. We run them, as a rule, on Saturdays and Sundays. On Saturdays, we have something we have branded theartsdesk Q&A. This tends to be a long biographical interview with a major figure in the arts, sometimes British, sometimes not, sometimes well known, sometimes not.

The thinking behind this feature is that many of us, having been around the block a couple of times, have got a larder full of interview transcripts which sit there on our hard drives, unused. It always happens that when you go along to interview, say, a leading playwright like David Hare (as I have done a couple of times), he tells me far more than I can ever use in the allotted slot in the newspaper. Basically, he told me his life story. And when the time came for his new play to open at the National Theatre in London, I crafted a Q&A which made use of much of that material. Other international figures who have had the same treatment include Mikhail Baryshnikov and, coming next week, Pina Bausch. And many more. You'd think that these features, which can be extremely long, would put people off. In fact they are among the most popular on the site.

And the other feature, which happens on Sunday, is a letter from elsewhere in the world. We are necessarily London-centric. But suggestions that we might be parochial are, we feel, well wide of the mark. We have writers based in Rome, Moscow, New York, Paris, Sri Lanka and so on. We've had letters from Berlin, the back end of Turkey, Abu Dhabi, Florida... I could go on. Next week is Lucerne. The Vatican is coming soon, and Helsinki. The one place we are not heavily represented is Los Angeles, and that is quite an interesting story. Interesting maybe not to everyone but to us at theartsdesk, having written for so many newspapers which require interviews with film stars to help sell the product. We have had only one interview with a film star: Carey Mulligan, who was nominated for an Oscar this year for An Education.

We did have someone based in LA to start with, and she did try to secure an interview with a major Hollywood director, and we were sort of waiting with semi-bated breath for it to turn up. But she turned out to have terrible problems with the relevant PR. Publicists in Tinseltown are (in)famously controlling, and if you write stuff which they deem to tarnish the brand you don't get any more work out of them. So the deal was the piece could only appear after the film opened, and the writer didn't dare say anything negative about the film, and the film -- guess what? -- turned out to be a grade-one turkey. So we said we didn't want the interview. We are quite happy not schlepping around the junket circuit, doing round-robin interviews with stars in hotels. That's what I'm trying to say. We don't think we're missing out, or more importantly that our readers are...

We are proud of the coverage we give to art forms which are being increasingly marginalised in the broadsheets. That's one of [our] raisons d'être. Classical music, dance, serious theatre, opera, visual arts. We also have very good television and comedy reviewing. And our coverage of what we have decided to call New Music (as opposed to classical) is extremely wide-ranging and authoritative. And finally, our collection of film writers (led by the hugely knowledgeable Sheila Johnston) really do know their stuff, and also how to write entertainingly.

Your writers all have excellent credits, but I wonder: How did the collective structure, and the lack of editors and copy editors, affect your choice of collaborators?

We are by no means all Telegraph freelances, first of all. We have other people who asked to come aboard, including some incredibly distinguished people like the classical music critic Edward Seckerson, and the acclaimed photographer Jillian Edelstein. And where we felt we had gaps, we approached people and asked them if they'd be interested. Our policy in most cases was to ask younger writers. For a number of reasons.

1 Important to lower the average age anyway: most of us are slightly north of 40 (though not much north in most cases).

2 We felt younger writers would be more proactive in utilising the resources of the web.

3 We feel it's very important to bring on the next generation of arts writers. Not many opportunities for them elsewhere, after all.

Does that answer the question?

I do wonder about the ability to self-edit, which seems crucial.

I'll get to that in a mo. Just to finish, some people have asked to come aboard and we've said no, either because we're already well stocked in that area, or we just didn't think they could significantly add to the mix.

But to self-editing. Good question. If by self-editing you mean writing without an editorial eye, well we trust ourselves as seasoned experienced writers to back our own judgement, both in terms of critical opinions and ability to express them.

I partly mean also the ability to write clean copy. A lot of accomplished writers don't do that. They need someone to clean it up for them.

Occasionally someone will write something that might be deemed by colleagues to be a bit off. If one or two people say so, they tend to change it without opposition or complaint. That's happened to me a couple of times. I was once judged to have written something that was slightly beastly about a nation we were at war with a decade or six ago.

As for writing clean copy, we input ourselves, edit ourselves, and then read one another the morning after. If there are typos, and there sometimes are, then we point them out to one another politely (but often also firmly). We've all got very used to the idea that clean copy is for the collective good. So no one nurses resentment, so far as I'm aware. Some, clearly, are better at cleanliness than others. But others are better at other stuff. So we all muck in.

"Clean copy is for the collective good": It could be a T-shirt.

Freshly minted. And I demand a royalty.

But of course.

When are you going to ask me about cash money?

That was coming up right about ... now. There's no pay wall on The Arts Desk, and the only advertising seems to be for the Barbican Centre, whose former managing director, Sir John Tusa, is your honorary chairman. How is the site funded? Are you seeking additional funding? And are you all being paid?

I'll answer those in order, some more opaquely than others. In the words of a soccer manager a few years ago, when asked if he had plans to buy more players in what we call the transfer market, "I've got several irons in the fire," he answers, "but I'm keeping them close to my chest." That, I believe, is a working demonstration of a mixed metaphor. Anyway, to your questions.

1 How is the site funded? The initial start-up costs were relatively low. We all chipped in money to pay for the site to be designed. We also have a couple of donations from American sponsors.

I should add that we had very willing designers who used Google open-source software to its max, and are getting tremendous attention from the tech community for the ingenuity they showed in delivering essentially a fully functioning newspaper on free open-source software.

It really is beautiful to look at.

Glad you agree. We like it a lot and it is amazingly easy to use once you learn its quirks. So hats off and worshipful noises in the general direction of 3B whose website you will find here: http://www.3bweb.com/.

2 Are we seeking additional funding? Yes. We are on the threshold of taking on major investment which will allow us to do marketing, grow the readership and attract advertisers. Thus far we have not spent industrial sums on marketing. We've driven for the core arts readership by using networking and search engine optimisation, and we are of course interested to see the effectiveness of this.

Word of mouth is the thing we have hugely relied on, and I'm pleased to say people like what we're offering and are overwhelmingly inclined to spread the word.

Sir John Tusa is indeed our honorary chairman and we are incredibly thrilled to have his advice and goodwill. It's hard to explain to a non-Brit quite how eminent he is but his CV, to put it very baldly, includes running the Barbican Arts Centre and the BBC World Service, two impeccably respectable institutions with a deep and continuing cultural relevance and importance. We are beyond lucky to have him.

3 Are we all being paid? We have set up a share structure which we hope will bear fruit in due course.

So is the Barbican a partner to the site, as I've read?

They are very happy to have their banner on the site and are extremely keen to see us succeed, as they are finding it dismayingly difficult to get coverage for the serious and highly international work they host. We definitely see eye to eye.

Does the relationship with the Barbican pose any conflict, or appearance of conflict, for the site in its coverage? That's not a question that would occur, of course, if the Barbican ad were on your site among a slew of other advertising, but for now it seems to stand alone.

Absolutely not. We are entirely free of outside influences. Categorically.

You mentioned the freedom you have to run Q&As at great length. Is there anything else The Arts Desk is able to do that newspapers can't or don't do?

Well the obvious one is that when we need to change stuff, for legal or other reasons, we can do so instantly and leave no trace.

Legal reasons?

Legal as in libel. Since September we've had one instance where we felt that a writer had stepped over the line and would land us in court. So he took the piece down, got under the bonnet, changed it and it went back up.

Oh, right: You live in the land of libel lawsuits.

I guess so. It's always wise to be vigilant against this kind of thing and most of us after years of experience know where the landmines are.

As for other stuff, we are hard at work linking with other sites, creating synergy (to use a naff word), sending readers straight through Amazon and other sites to buy tickets, releases, book online etc. And putting them through to relevant websites, posting video material from YouTube etc.

And we can react to stuff fast. The key thing to say though is that, apart from our overnight reviews, which are (almost) always in ahead of the newspapers, we don't subscribe to the ultra-competitive ethos that exists in British national newspapers (there being so many of them). I've many times been told that a commissioning editor would like an interview with X but only if it can be published before an interview with X appears in a rival publication. As if anyone apart from industry insiders will actually see both interviews. Strikes me as nuts, always has. So we take our time when we want to. We'll run an interview or feature linked to something after it has opened if that seems the more appropriate and intelligent choice. In short, we sprint only when necessary.

That must be refreshing. Is there anything else that's standard practice for newspapers that you choose not to do? And what can't you do that newspapers can?

Newspapers can usually get the interview with X if X is only doing one interview. And often it's being written by one of us anyway. Other stuff? Newspapers have a larger budget for sending critics all over the country to cover stuff, but that discrepancy will change. We are still only six months old or so. If a newspaper wants to do a massive Oscar special (we'd never do that unless we felt we had something genuinely original to say) they can throw time and money at it. But I can't think of any other area where we lose out.

As for avoiding standard practices, the key thing to say is that although we are an internet site with no print arm, we are curiously not doing what the broadsheets are making all their critics do as part of their online assault. We don't do blogs. No Britney, no Big Brother, no blogs was my rallying cry when we started. Not everyone, I have to say, came and stood with me on that one. We had a brilliant feature by our New Music writer Peter Culshaw on the rise of the female pop star in the Noughties. But we don't follow or think about or raise an eyelid for reality TV. If that's snobbery, so be it. Blogs on newspapers are space fillers. We don't need to fill space with random content. That's my view, anyway.

As jobs fall away, desperation tends to supplant love of the work as a priority for journalists. But given that enjoyment is one of the main reasons we all got into this field, I don't think this is as frivolous a question as it might seem: Are you and your colleagues having fun with The Arts Desk?

Yes, yes, yes. It is extremely hard work sometimes, but the collegiate spirit among us is heartwarming, as is the willingness to support the enterprise and help it towards a longer life. I love writing for the site, simple as that. I can write about what I want, at the length I deem appropriate. And so can my extremely talented and knowledgeable colleagues. You can't say fairer than that.

The thing I'd like to say more than anything is that we started the site as both a reaction and a speculation. Thanks in no small part to the towering efforts in site management by Ismene, it has grown exponentially into something which we all feel immensely proud of. We created it on a tiny budget, have incurred no debts, and continue to levitate on self-belief. The reason, in the end, we felt we could pull it off is that quite by accident, or as a result of the impact of the global downturn and the sudden shrinking of budgets in print media, a distinguished group of freelance arts writers have somehow found themselves in the same place at the same time. I don't imagine that, at least in British arts journalism, such a professional group will ever find itself thrown together quite so fortuitously again. So in a way we had to act on it. It may sound sentimental, but fate would appear to have pointed us in the right direction. (But that could be hokum.)

Is there anything else I should ask you?

You should ask me what you can do to spread the word about theartsdesk.com...

If I asked you that, what would you say?

Tell anyone you know who cares about the arts to check out the site, have a look around it, browse through reviews, features and interviews in the art forms that interest them, and if they like what they see, come back. And tell their friends, anywhere in the world. If you value lively, serious, thought-provoking and entertaining professional arts coverage supplied by people who know what they're talking about, theartsdesk is where it's very much at.

Or more briefly: bookmark us now.

Photo of Jasper Rees by Dillon Bryden

Rees is the author of "I Found My Horn," published in the U.S. as "A Devil to Play."

March 31, 2010 12:00 AM | | Comments (1)


Having just discovered this excellent site via Facebook, I'll be doing all I can to promote it.
Good for the lot of you. Hope you get money from it.

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