In a dramatic shift in the way cultural institutions communicate with their audiences, arts groups across the country are increasingly cutting out the middleman and publishing news stories written by in-house journalists.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra published a story on its Web site about young composers using crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, while the Web sites of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center featured profiles of pianist Yuja Wang and actress Tovah Feldshuh.
The tactic acknowledges a basic truth of the information age, arts leaders say.
“We can’t wait to be written about anymore,” says John Schreiber, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. “We as arts presenters understand that we can’t depend anymore on third parties to tell our stories.”
Deborah Rutter, who became head of the Kennedy Center in September, was at the helm in Chicago when the orchestra launched “Sounds & Stories” in December. The “online multimedia destination” is run by a former arts editor, and features stories, videos and audio clips about “all things CSO,” according to the Web site. It is funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mellon Foundation.
“The ability to tell one’s own story is really important,” Rutter says. “It’s about deepening relationships between audiences and performing arts organizations.”
Arts organizations are following the lead of the business world, where there are many successful models. Red Bull has a stable of writers who cover extreme sports and entertainment for the company’s print and online publication, the Red Bulletin. LinkedIn and Facebook have news staffs, and Dell and Human Rights Watch hire professional writers to cover material related to their core missions. And now, theaters, orchestras and other arts organizations are joining the effort to redefine the rules of engagement with audiences.
Rutter says it’s too soon to say whether she will replicate such outreach efforts here in Washington. But it sounds like change is on the horizon.
“I believe our presence online needs to continue to be enhanced. It needs to be more than transactional,” Rutter says. “We do a great job selling tickets. The next step is to tell the stories of the Kennedy Center itself and the artists who come here and get that to a broader audience. We’ll be looking at ways to use our Web site and Facebook pages.”
There are several reasons for the shift. With cuts in coverage at newspapers and other traditional media outlets, arts organizations’ stories are reaching fewer readers. Meanwhile, an explosion of arts blogs and Web sites is providing arts groups with new ways to cultivate patrons and supporters.
Having a professional writer on staff ensures both quality and effective targeting of the message, arts leaders say.
“To have a journalist as part of the team assures me the quality is first rate, and then it’s up to us to be enterprising, to get those stories out to the public,” says Schreiber of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which about 18 months ago hired a former arts editor as director of content. “There are plenty of outlets where good stories can be told and shared. The better the editorial, the more chance to get out on those platforms.”
That fact that journalists thrive on deadline also helps.
“I’m looking for a way to literally translate the spirit of the institution,” Schreiber says. “To keep the arts center on top of mind is a 24/7 job.”
Engagement is a priority for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which launched “BSO Stories” in March. A separate section of the orchestra’s Web site, “BSO Stories” is written by Ricky O’Bannon, who was hired in July for a year-long “journalist-in-residence” fellowship.
A former government reporter with a master’s degree in arts journalism, O’Bannon is responsible for writing several pieces each week; musicians and other BSO staffers contribute pieces as well.
“It’s an interesting balancing act, for sure, because on the one side you have all resources available to you, but you want to be doing journalistic work,” O’Bannon says, adding that he feels less like a trailblazer than like a guinea pig.
“BSO Stories” takes a slightly different approach in that it focuses more on classical music and less on promoting BSO concerts and events. Recent stories: A musician’s first-person account of getting her child to practice and an O’Bannon piece on whether modern concert halls are intimidating to audiences. In the spring, a quiz titled “What musical instrument are you?” went viral.
“We like to have some fun,” says Eileen Andrews, the BSO’s vice president of marketing and communications. “It’s unexpected content. It’s not always self-serving. You could easily read it somewhere else.”
The BSO also uses social media to extend the reach of the pieces, and Web traffic shows the experiment is working.
“On a day we have posted a good story, I see the traffic increase two to four times a regular day,” Andrews says, though she declined to share exact numbers.
These organizations are pioneers, but more will surely follow, says Gabriel Kahn, professor and co-director of media, economics and entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“I see a flowering of high-quality journalism content coming from organizations that aren’t first and foremost journalism organizations,” he says. “Arts organizations are understanding that there is value in supporting arts journalism because it helps people understand and value the artifacts of that industry.”
But, Kahn adds, there are challenges. Arts organizations need to have rules “to separate church and state” so the content has credibility.
“It’s one thing to do marketing, and another thing to foster lively conversation and debate about a topic,” he says. “We still have to become comfortable with the structure that supports that, but I think it is happening.”
O’Bannon senses that tension, noting that his work is perceived differently in Baltimore. “It’s read in a different context,” he says. “You have to be aware.”
Joseph Yoshitomi, director of marketing and communication at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, is hiring a full-time journalist to write all kinds of pieces, from major stories on new productions to tweets and brief posts. It’s a simple case of math, he says.
“There are more stories than ink being offered,” Yoshitomi says, but he adds that “it’s more because of the Geffen’s growth than any shrinking media landscape.”
The new staff writer will complement — but not compete with — local media.
“Certainly if a national outlet wants to interview Tarell Alvin McCraney [whose play ‘Choir Boy’ was at the Geffen last month], we would not post a competing story. That’s a waste of resources and an easy way to make an enemy.”