Results tagged “USC Annenberg School for Communication” from ARTicles

October 2, 2009 8:21 AM |

The pressure is on to design a viable new business model for print journalism. At USC Annenberg School for Communication, I spend the better part of my day worrying about how students are going to get jobs, earn a living and make a difference in their chosen field: arts journalism.

Freaks me out to contemplate. But yesterday, I found, if not God, then a social entrepreneur who offered insights and possibilities. 

Adlai Wertman.jpgAdlai Wertman joined USC's Marshall School of Business this fall as a professor. Having  spent 19 years as an investment banker on Wall Street, he knows his money angles. In a conversion of what might be faith and responsibility, he spent the past seven on Skid Row in Los Angeles as President and CEO for Chrysalis, an organization that trains and employs the homeless. Chrysalis identifies and concentrates on the 1000 of Skid Row's least-likely-to-be-employed. Wertman knows from goodness.

Considering that the street and a cardboard condo seem a real possibility for some in journalism, I paid attention to Wertman at Annenberg's director's forum. He drew a strong distinction between a mission-driven business and a business.(Arts journalists are mission-driven, I reasoned, let's follow that route. I had earlier this semester taken my students to spend the day and night on Skid Row.Call it the Steve Lopez effect -- though this field trip has been an integral part of my Annenberg work for seven years, which is to say it's governed by authenticity and not airy fancy.) 

He said, "The money is always going to win. The money is chasing digital media and the money doesn't care about anything but the bottom line."  (True. We know that. So, we arts journalists may not "win." Now, lead me to our Mission.)

Wertman quoted economist Milton Freidman who said, "Business and mission don't belong together," adding, "I'm not sure I disagree with him because I'm not sure I trust business with anything else." (Okay, so if you are mission-driven, as the new arts journalism business in my imagination most organically would be, then you are really, really best off not even trying get a return on investment for whomever is fool enough to sink money in your mission.)

Wertman called these so-called fools, "Venture Philanthropists." Sweet. Has a ring to it. Part of his revolution or subterfuge is to steal the language of business. Social worker = social entrepreneur.  Executive director = CEO. Non-profit organization = an enterprise. He views the present as a time of unprecedented integration, seeing in it opportunity for social change. But, how to play into the old business model without "playing into its definition of success?"

This leads him to qustion the word "profit"?

The non-profit model in journalism, Wertman suggested, is closely aligned with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, which, at present, supports a consortium of more-than-decent staffed journalists who are breaking stories and focusing attention on human rights --  and they are not paid advocacy arms for HRW. The journalists write the truth about what they see and learn about human rights across the world. Just because they help HRW achieve its mission does not mean the journalists lose their integrity. A firewall exists. Their stories are also often published on Huffington Post.

Profit in Wertman's world is measured by making a difference to people one bowl of soup at a time. (Or one story, which in the case of Lopez at the LA Times, radicalized city policy on homelessness, not all for the better, but at least attention is now being paid.) 

"If people don't know about a subject, they won't care about it," Wertman argued, therefore it is in the interests of non-profits to get the word out about their mission and allow trained journalists to seek the truth without influence.

(What arts organizations are out there, I wondered, that care enough about good writing on the arts to staff journalists? Moreover, is it possible for a consortium of arts journalists to seize the opportunity in this border-blurring, bubble-popping digital world to frame a mission that is in alignment with a non-profit arts organization or foundation?)  

If the mission is to provide informed arts stories and reviews that helps an arts organization or foundation achieve its mission, then it could be a win-win.

Here's the deal: I never met an arts journalist who was in it for the money; most are in it for the art. Success is not measured by making bucket-loads, but by making a living and a difference -- one story at a time. We are, to this degree, more like the artists we cover. Wertman is training students to think differently about folks like us. We'd better be ready, stop fretting, moping, freaking out and get active (I thought to myself). Opportunities abound.

Any joiners out there? Venture philanthropists? Arts journalist missionaries? Ideas? 

October 22, 2008 11:41 AM |

This morning we learned that Christopher Page, theater critic and editor at the East Valley Tribune in Phoenix, Arizona, died. His was a suicide.

Three weeks earlier he had been laid off from his job, which in January of this year had come with a promotion, placing him in charge of online features. Chris was one of the brightest, sharpest, kindest and most outrageous critics to participate as a Fellow in the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater its first year, 2005.

Then he was 23. We called him "our NEA baby." It helped that his overall impression was round. His eyelashes were long. You wanted to hug him on sight. Chris had this effect on all of us. By "us" I mean the 24 other Fellows (who had bonded instantaneously, sustained by wicked senses of humor that live to this day on an active Listserv where sardonic musicals, often inspired by Chris, are jointly created on a fairly regular basis) his writing instructor, Barbara Isenberg, our program coordinator, Rachel Uslan, and myself, director.

Chris is the first and, to date, the last Fellow on any program I have ever run in seven years who missed the bus. He missed the bus. And just like "Home Alone," we didn't realize it until we had arrived at A Noise Within theater in beautiful, downtown Glendale -- and had sat down. I think the uncustomary silence, or the sheer lack of Chris's ebullient presence, alerted us immediately: We had left him behind. Chris was missing!

I jumped into my minivan and performed a rescue. Chris was mortified, and so funny about it. From there on in, and for the rest of eternity, we had a Buddy System for the bus. Chris Page and Chris Blank, his fellow Fellow, called themselves "Blank Page." Apt for critics, and a testament to Page's wit and willingness to accept full blame, when he needn't have. "Our NEA baby" was our responsibility.

Who knows why people kill themselves. There is a readiness here to connect his fatal action with having been laid off. But we can't invent a reality like that. Yet, Chris's death is an additional heavy burden on our arts journalism souls. The worry mounts, and it's tempting to make him emblematic.

Here I am about to launch a new Master's program in arts journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication. This same day that I learned Chris died, I heard from another teacher at the NEA Institute. She's one of the lucky ones. A full-time theater critic in the Pacific Northwest. But, she's sitting in an arts newsroom that has 12 desks, eight of which are completely empty, unused, and with no expectation of ever being used again. Her colleagues were laid off or took the buyout. Ghost town -- maybe she is not so lucky.

Alan Rich, 83 years old, who has given his life to writing about music was let go by the L.A. Weekly and a week or so ago was told that "No, he would not receive severance pay," as he had been promised. Without a contract, he hasn't a leg to stand on.

But this is a human being. A life. A life dedicated fully and solidly to writing with surest integrity for us.

Today, I heard from a journalist questioning the intelligence of starting an MA program for arts journalists, when there are "no jobs."  Her tone was hurt, pained, frantic, and it gave me pause -- as if I haven't paused enough to question the future myself.

What right does optimism have to exist? My eye is on the artists and the arts. Will they stop? Is art going to stop being made? Will we be able to stop being interested in the arts? Stop loving and obsessing over them not just for artistic reasons, but for moral ones? Can we help writing about them?

I take my cue from the artists. Writing chooses you, you do not choose it. Dancers move. We must move. Actors act. We must take action. Artists paint. We paint with words. Architects build. Let's build arts journalism programs together where there were none.

I see in this time the opportunity to redefine and shape journalism for the better for the arts and culture. Can I guarantee a salary and health benefits and a job as we know jobs to have been? No. But I honestly believe that we can do better than we have done.

One by one by one. And a place to begin is to call for humane action when writers who have given their lives, literally or figuratively, must be let go. Supply a net, counseling, severance, comfort, whatever it takes, but we must not accept the lack of respect.

Speak out. Ask publishers and editors-in-chief to lower the blade, if they must, with awareness that for some critics their work is their lives.

May 28, 2008 3:44 PM |


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