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July 1, 2010

Castles, the Last Word?

When I first posted my little idea about finding a philanthropist with a spare $20 million to endow an arts-journal publication, I figured I might stir up some discussion. It worked, a bit, tho not a real tsunami of ideas, let alone dollars. Some of the respondents just wanted jobs, which is understandable in this economy in this business. Others suggested that the very idea of such a quest was naive.

Upon reflection, and with the petering out of responses, I realize now just a few, only a few, things. One is that the publication would almost certainly be on line; the Internet is cheaper than print, and less imagistically musty. Two, the premise was not wrong: most serious on line publications have serious backing. Three, just floating the idea seems demonstrably unlikely to summon forth that backing.

What a nascent publication needs is someone with enough energy, dedication, passion and business acumen to make it happen. A blend of ambition and idealism. I am not that person; among other liabilities, I haven't the business acumen. So if a philanthropist or idealistic investor is the cart, a vigorous young and smart entrepreneur is the horse. Or, if you wish, if the publication is the truffle, we need an entrepreneurial truffle pig. Or if the editor is to be a George Balanchine, we need a Lincoln Kirstein. Horse, pig, human, we need someone who is willing and able to devote their time and talent to bringing such a publication into being.

One other thing: I remain convinced that there is still a place in our brave new electronic world for real arts journalism, criticism and reporting. Sure, lively new business models and interactive, community-based publications that engage artists and arts organizations and the arts-loving public in new ways can be seductive, and maybe might work, at least as part of a new publication. But forget not the older virtues of arts journalism: reporters able to dig out solid information about what's going on in the arts today, and critics of distinction who can establish themselves in the public eye as authoritative voices in their fields.

God knows there are enough of them out there, hungry for work, or maybe just hungry. Traditional commentary and reporting have found a place on line in the political and general-interest realms -- one thinks of Salon and Slate and and Truthdig and ProPublica and Politico and many more, some of which cover the arts but only as part of a larger mandate.

Maybe a new arts publication could be an expanded site previously devoted to aggregating stories from publications that generated their own content. Maybe ArtsJournal could be that, if Doug McLennan's bloggers were paid and to some gentle extent edited, or at least coordinated. Maybe ARTicles could be that. What we need is an online arts publication conceived and edited with a vision and sufficiently underwritten to pay its writers enough to make that calling their life's work.

I remain convinced that such a serious publication, broadly diverse in its blend of the arts but not a slave to its audience, needs philanthropic backing. But instead of one rich person -- one suggestion was David Geffen -- we probably need a motor force (enough with the animal metaphors) who can drive the entire project, with or without an editorial front person (like Robert Scheer or Lewis Lapham). Any volunteers? 
July 1, 2010 6:05 PM | | Comments (6)

6 Comments

I'm disappointed. Not in this post alone, but in the way the discussion about a new arts publication has proceeded, or rather stagnated, here. (In case you missed it, I left an extended comment to Peter Plagen's last post on this topic a few weeks ago.) I mean, you're right, it sucks. You all deserve to be paid and supported and guaranteed an ongoing, viable and dynamic outlet for your work. But you need to get over it. You are too busy mourning what has been lost or what doesn't exist to see the realistic possibilities around you. We are in a new era full of endless opportunities for experimentation and innovation. Critically, however, it's also an era where self-motivation and self-empowerment is everything. And this is where the conversation here has failed. It's not in the hands of imagined super-people like "a philanthropist or idealistic investor" and "a vigorous young and smart entrepreneur" to start a new arts publication. It's in your hands, and what the posts and comments here have said to me is that you're blowing it.

Yeah, I'll volunteer.

My expertise and talents lie, however, outside raising capital. (I'll tell you in private my little saga of failing to do that with something I tried to get off the ground.) You need somebody a little less voluble and hair-trigger and, to be honest, better-dressed, than I am. But I am willing to share my experience and lessons (I think) I learned, as well as my annotated Rolodex.

What I can do is meet, discuss, plan, type, photocopy, mail, design (although distinctly as a subordinate to a real graphic designer) and, when the thing gets going, write, managing-edit (i.e., make and judge story pitches) and line-edit. I live in New York and am even willing to spend a little of my own money getting up and down the Eastern Seabord if that proves necessary.

The NAJP board should meet, have somebody make a motion to at least study the requisites*, if not draw up at plan, take a vote, and get on with it.

* I accept that a print publication is probably undoable, and I'm a little hesitant about an e-book or POD except on retrospective occasions, so I'd go with an online magazine.

Oh gee Peter Plagens, wow, you'd front your own trips up and down the eastern seaboard so we could have a serious arts publication with thoughtful professional criticism and decent graphic design of.... tah duh! the arts in basically New York and its suburbs like Washington,DC, Boston, Philadelphia and the like? Forgive me if this Pacific Northwest based, ex-New Yorker is underwhelmed. Or would those of us in the hinterlands be able to contribute about what's going on in our 'hoods? I would also like to direct the attention of AJAP members to a Portland blog which isn't exclusively about the arts--politics and family life and the like creep in--called ArtScatter. None of us get paid, all of us are pros.

I don't mean to speak for Peter, but my guess is that this extraordinarily generous man, very well-traveled in this country and outside it, was not suggesting that the Eastern Seaboard would be the limit of his or any NAJP publication's interest. I interpreted his offer to mean that that was what he would be willing to donate of his own time, and of his own money, but that he hardly expected he would be working solo. Derision in response to that is curious, to say the least.

I appreciate Laura Collins-Hughes guess that I'm "an extraordinarily generous man" (most people who know me know would say that's a bit of a stretch).

But I'm really dumbfounded by Martha Ullman West's comment. Where did I say I planned to be the ONLY volunteer? (If that's the case, I resign before joining up.) Or editor-in-chief of the publication? I'd be over the moon if Ms. Ullman West would front her own volunteer trips in the Pacific Northwest, and whatever ancillary skills she possesses as contributions to said publication. The same goes for anybody who'd do the same for the Gulf Coast, the Canadian border, the Heartland, the Deep South, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains, or Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. Any NAJP publication would need--and welcome--all the help it could get.

(Somebody got up on the wrong side of the bed on July 5th.)

I too, like MJ, feel guilty for not having responded to any of your Castles posts, John. I’m all for creating an intelligent, authoritative, lively, national arts publication. I believe the need is huge (and not just for journalists who want a paycheck). Discussing this on the najp blog – while perhaps a logical forum – is too public a place for my taste. I would like to believe we could make this happen, but it also seems rather hopeless. I’ve been stewing about trying to create a Los Angeles arts journalism site for many months but have been overwhelmed by what I think would be the enormity of the task. The economic near-depression has stopped me, too. Too scary, too much to lose.

But I don’t want the whole idea to die. I also refuse to believe that only 25 year olds can come up with creative ideas in the online age. So, based on my own experience of working inside the arts for the past two years, here are some very rough (and probably too ambitious) thoughts about what I’d like to see happen:

1. In a previous post, Doug said that local arts coverage is lacking, and I completely agree. I think this gives us our opportunity because NAJP alumni are spread out in a handful of cities, at least. What if there were a string of city arts journalism websites (another Doug idea)? Start with cities where NAJP people are and where the need is greatest. Los Angeles certainly falls into the latter category, and add cities with reporters and critics who wanted to take part and connect these sites.

2. Funding would have to be diversified. Of course we’d like one person to swoop in and pay for it all because it’s so much easier that way. But one of the advantages of covering different cities is that individual donors and foundations in each city could be tapped. There’s an arts marketing crisis and these organizations and their boards know it. With the local media cutting back on arts coverage (at least outside of NYC), arts organizations are at a loss as to where to advertise their events. They are trying to use their own websites to drum up interest with stories, videos, blogs and so on, but I would wager the amount of traffic to theater or dance or symphony websites is below what journalism websites can deliver. Plus, audiences still are seeking an outside, authoritative figure to tell them what's good and why – I know this from an audience survey that was done at a local theater. Other websites I know of sell sponsorships, kind of like advertising but not exactly the same. Then instead of shooting for one major gift, we could apply for grants in several cities. Glorya Kaufman’s foundation gave $20 million to dance at the LA Music Center; if donors like her could be convinced that arts journalism is a crucial part of the equation, then it might be possible to start getting gifts from donors like her.

3. Different levels of membership could be sold…maybe e-mails sent out to readers who wanted to know about upcoming performances.

I don’t know if any of this would amount to a substantial enough sum to get things off the ground. I volunteer to talk with the founders of several sites about what business models they used. If others did the same thing, we could get a pretty good sample, I would think.

And, it would be nice if all the shouting discourse of late was toned down. It discourages participation...not the other way around.

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