ArtsWatch biz 5: Money makes the site go ’round

ArtsWatch revenues and expenses, and why your membership is so important

Your next  Pledge Drive installment, hot off the presses!/Wikimedia

Your next Pledge Drive installment, hot off the presses!/Wikimedia

So far, I’ve written about the importance of the arts, the specific importance of the arts here in Oregon, and the importance of renovating the practice of arts journalism to respond to the arts in a more open and useful way.

Today, I’ll talk a little bit about the business side of ArtsWatch and how we hope to keep this experiment going.

We know we are running against the drift of the culture and the trends in “journalism,” which I put in quotes simply to suggest that I don’t think a lot of what pops up on many news sites actually constitutes journalism as I define it. The national culture, at least, seems determined to reduce human experience to a series of tiny transactions that involve the exchange of money. “Slow” thinking does not fit into this matrix very well, which is why the arts don’t fit into it very well: The arts require contemplation of various sorts over time, and it’s hard to charge us for thinking now about an experience we had a week ago. And that thinking gets in the way of more transactions! Similarly, if you spend time thinking about a review or essay about the arts (or any topic, really), you aren’t clicking on new posts, which is a “transaction” in the digital world.

By running counter to the culture and the short post sites that follow it, ArtsWatch, we realized from the beginning, is in a precarious financial proposition. We WANT you to take your time with a play, concert, film, book, or art exhibition, savor it, roll it around your noggin and then talk to people about it. And then we WANT you to read what our writers have to say about it in the same way, even if it means you only click on ONE of our stories all month! Our culture needs this sort of repair, needs to resist the commodification that threatens to empty it of all value except the value of the transaction, the exchange of money. ArtsWatch wants to be a small part of that repair.

This description sounds harsh and reductive. After all, lots of people think the same way, and they are involved in repair projects, too. At ArtsWatch, for example, we find ourselves in alignment with lots of ideas about protecting the commons that is left—especially cultural heritage and history—and extending its reach. So, for example, we support public libraries and the extension of the idea to the arts to achieve the widest possible public access to both the achievements of the culture and to artmaking itself, rather than fencing them off for the exclusive use of those who can afford the price of a ticket, a class or a personal studio.

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Having argued against consumer culture and the ubiquity of financial transactions, I’m about to turn around and argue that you should make a transaction on OUR behalf.

That’s because ArtsWatch is dedicated to developing, working with and then paying arts writers for their work. That’s about the only way to ensure that the extremely interesting and also difficult business of investigating our culture—and how the arts reflect and change it—gets done. I’ve written blog posts I’m proud to have written, but I know that ultimately, the time and cognitive commitment is too great to ask prospective writers to generate them over a period of time without recompense. And I know that those posts I like would have been better with a editing “structure” behind them, to test them before anyone else read them.

The writers of ArtsWatch put in their time researching and writing stories in the public interest, and we want to pay them for it. And beyond the technology and business services it takes to keep a small journalism project going, that’s where the money goes: To the writers for their activities and to the editors who form the structure that supports the writing, something like 90 percent of it.

We don’t want to charge the visitors to our site to enter (“create a paywall”), because that defeats the purpose, really. We want as many people as possible to see our journalism, because that will amplify the discussion of local culture, which is one of the central purposes of ArtsWatch. We know that paywalls seriously restrict the number of visitors to news sites. (If no other fundraising idea works, we may try this as a last resort.)

We think this engagement is in the public interest (we do it all for you!), and so we made ArtsWatch a nonprofit, a 501(c)(3) corporation.

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So, that leaves the usual fundraising options for nonprofits.

1. Memberships/individual donations: That’s you! We’ve designed this option to look a lot like Oregon Public Broadcasting’s membership drive, and it has the same idea. A lot of you give a little money. We know there are tens of thousands of great organizations out there, including arts groups, and all of them need your support. We’re hoping that you think the work we do here is valuable, too, a little like subscribing to the arts section of a daily newspaper (in the old days), and that you’ll want to help make sure that deeply engaged arts writing about the local scene will continue to exist. And then you’ll click the appropriate box! Right now, we receive something like 20 percent of our small (around $40,000 this fiscal year) budget from our members and donors.

2. Sponsorships: Most of our money, 60 percent or so, comes from our sponsors, mostly arts groups and universities. We are grateful, because we know that arts groups can’t afford to spend a lot of money on marketing and ArtsWatch. And they don’t get any promises from us, either for coverage or the tenor of that coverage. But they believe in our mission—to establish a high-quality, independent journalism project—enough to take the consequences and the benefits of an independent press.

3. Grants: ArtsWatch got into business primarily because of a New Voices grant from the Knight Foundation, administered by J-Lab. That money is long gone. It got us up and running as it was intended. We’ve just begun to start applying for grants that will help us build the foundation of our organization. As we get them, we’ll let you know: Some of them will come with matching opportunities, I’m sure! But this year, we survived without grant support.

4. Commissions: Our friends at TravelPortland and Artslandia have commissioned us to do some journalism for them, and that’s helped us a lot, around 20 percent’s worth this year. We have plans to expand this soon: Watch the site next week!

In my ideal world, we’d receive most of our money from memberships. It’s cleaner that way: Lots of users support the enterprise with small amounts of money, and there’s never any question about why we choose to do something. We do it to serve you! Now, that’s our rule anyway, but the loss of a couple of our bigger sponsors would seriously limit what we can do here. The loss of a membership or two, on the other hand, would be sad to us, but adjusting to it would be far easier. So your donation makes us much more resilient. It means we can take more risks with story types and media we pursue. It encourages us to take on larger stories (though we’ve done lots of those already) and follow them without thinking a second about the impact on our bottom line.

All of this is just to say, really, that your membership means a LOT to us. It shapes what we can do, and finally, it means the difference between being able to keep ArtsWatch going and not keeping it going, when it comes right down to it.

We’ll continue talking about our work and where we’d like it to go with the last post of Pledge Week tomorrow. But maybe you’ve had enough! Maybe you’re ready to join the ArtsWatch bandwagon?

That’s so easy to do! For example, you can become a member, just like the big boys do at Oregon Public Broadcasting…


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And if you don’t want to work through PayPal, you can just send us a check, because that works great, too. Just don’t forget to include your email address so we can sign you up to our Newsletter.

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