Experiments in Online Arts Journalism: Reflections from the NEA Fellowship Program for Theater Writers

The following post is by Arizona Republic reporter, Kerry Lengel.

Kerry Lengel is the theater writer at The Arizona Republic. In his 16-year career with the newspaper, he has held a variety of positions, including arts and entertainment editor, and has moonlighted as pop-music critic, film critic and beer critic. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona. Photo by Michael McNamara.

Ten days in Los Angeles to see cutting-edge theater, rub intellectual elbows with critics from around the country and launch a “pop-up newsroom” as a no-rules experiment in online arts journalism: Last month’s NEA fellowship program for theater writers was a “dream” gig and a highlight of my career. But for me, the dream ended slightly ahead of schedule.

On day nine, my iPhone started buzzing with news and rumors about a nationwide wave of layoffs at Gannett Co. newspapers. While the other fellows were enjoying a celebratory dance lesson from choreographer Ryan Heffington (of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” fame), I was frantically texting to find out if any of my colleagues back at The Arizona Republic would be affected. (Some of them were.)

It was a rude awakening, but it was also a reminder of why we were there in the first place. Online journalism is only a hot topic because print journalism is on the financial ropes. The digital revolution has changed the rules for reporters and critics – just as it has, and will continue to do, for artists and performers as well.

The 2011 fellowship – formally, the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater – was a radical departure from previous programs. In past years, the writers traveled together to performances and lectures and enjoyed lengthy discussions on the nuances of criticism. They wrote reviews of the shows, but only for an audience consisting of each another, as well as the top national critics on hand to serve as mentors.

This year, it was more of a working vacation. The 21 fellows, with help from a similar number of professional editors and support staff, launched a Web site, Engine28.com, to cover two major theater festivals (RADAR L.A. and the Hollywood Fringe) and the Theater Communication Group’s national conference.

The site was live, but the emphasis was on process, not product. The fellows – journalists from daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, radio stations and online-only publications – were encouraged to step out of their comfort zones. So in addition to writing traditional reviews, I also shot video, talked on camera  (gasp!) and produced a podcast review.

With 21 journalists working 15-hour days, Engine28 was chock-full of lively content, including some interesting experiments in non-traditional journalism ranging from a podcast debate about the characters in The Last Five Years to a blog post consisting entirely of text messages.

But, at least in my opinion, some of the best and most meaningful work looked suspiciously like old-school journalism, such as Willamette Week editor Ben Waterhouse’s article on the vexing art of supertitle translations and Salt Lake Tribune reporter Ben Fulton’s piece about cultivating the next generation of theatergoers.

Indeed, our postmortem discussions underlined the fact that the new “Wild West” of online journalism is an exceedingly difficult landscape to navigate. We all know, for example, that video is huge on the Internet. But on Engine28, videos were among the least-viewed items. Apparently, just because millions of people watch and share clips of kittens on YouTube doesn’t mean visitors to a news site are enticed by video. The reason? You can’t skim it, or stop halfway through to click on a related link. To commit to a video, you have to give up your netizen’s autonomy, if only for 90 seconds. As Doug McLennan, Engine28’s online-journalism guru and editor of ArtsJournal, put it, “There is a social cost to clicking.”

Journalism is a for-profit industry, but the challenges it is dealing with are remarkably similar to those facing the not-for-profit arts-and-culture sector. The Internet, especially the advent of social media, has toppled the old monopolies of cultural production and introduced new competition for those all-important eyeballs, or, in the performing arts, the proverbial “butts in seats.” For both journalists and artists, the challenge of the 21st century is learning how to turn what used to be a one-way conversation into a true dialogue, to meet the audience on their own (virtual) turf in a relationship of equals. (This was the theme of McLennan’s keynote address at the TCG conference, which was streamed live online; you can watch it here.)

This is a hard reality for many journalists to face – and not just because of the natural human resistance to change. The new opportunities of the Internet age come with some serious downsides (Gene Weingarten’s recent rant about how “branding” is ruining journalism made a big splash among my colleagues). But like it or not, the world has changed, and all of us – artists and arts journalists alike – have to change with it.

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