Family business: The state of Oregon ArtsWatch

If  journalism is a public service — and that’s exactly what we at Oregon ArtsWatch believe —  we should be better about telling you what we are doing and why. It’s only fair.

The Oregon ArtsWatch website has been open for business since July, and during the past month we’ve added — or at least experimented with — some of the other components of the project. We issued our first two eNewsletters. We generated a couple of podcasts. We staged our first ArtsWatch special event. We created stories and calendars for Artslandia and TravelPortland.

All along we’ve been tweeting and Facebook-ing on our Facebook page.All of this has been part of our pilot year because we wanted to sketch out  some of the possibilities of ArtsWatch going forward. But it also might be confusing. What’s the thinking behind all of this activity?  OK, here goes. From the top.

The importance of local culture and arts: We believe that local culture — our values, practices, technologies, economies, experiments in self-government and expressions of various sorts — is crucial to our health, both as individuals and as people who have found their way to this particular place.  The arts are central to the culture. They model creative responses to the world. They help us develop shared values and experiences around difficult questions. Without this sharing, democracy itself becomes more difficult. They lift us out of our work-a-day world for a moment and encourage us to consider our place in the world, our duty and obligation to look forward. They give us a moment of respite, of pleasure, of something we call “beauty.”

The practice of arts journalism is important to the culture: At its best, arts journalism provides a independent, reliable, open-minded, transparent (!), fair, accurate and useful account of the artists and arts organizations of its area. That account is available to be corrected by the rest of the community, but it’s a good way to start to draw attention to developments in the culture that could turn out to be important for everyone. Simone Weil has written that culture is the formation of attention, meaning that what we pay attention to becomes who we are. Journalism is a way of forming attention around the things that matter.

Oregon ArtsWatch is an attempt to improve journalism practices: It’s a non-profit, meaning that our only responsibility is to you. We want to take traditional journalism values, apply them with even more rigor to the culture we encounter, and then figure out creative ways to communicate what we’ve discovered to you. We want you to help us shape what we do. We hope you’ll comment and add your observations to ours, and let us know how we might cover the Oregon arts scene better.  Again, we see ourselves as the beginning of discussion, not the last word. And we believe that discussion can have far-reaching consequences, for us as individuals and for the culture as a whole.

Because arts groups connect to their audiences so directly, ArtsWatch went to them to help us reach our audience: Before we started the project, 11 arts groups (they are listed on our home page) agreed to help, primarily because they saw the value of an independent arts journalism project. Without them, we wouldn’t have started ArtsWatch, because it is so difficult for a new website to gain traction, especially one that isn’t about national celebrities. The success of the project is partially contingent on our ability to connect with the large number of committed, informed, arts-involved audience members of the arts groups.

ArtsWatch has two primary ways of connecting to that audience: The first is this website. You’ve clearly found it! That makes us happy! This is the home base of the project, after all, the clearest expression of what we’re trying to do.  The second is the newsletter. You can subscribe to it on the form to your right. We’ve only had two issues, so you’re really getting in at the start. It’s definitely a work in progress, as we figure out what you want and what we can do with that format. So far, we’ve used it to offer some ticket deals from our arts partners, invitations to our special event, links to our work and a general account of the “state of the arts.” Please sign up!

We wanted to do more than just a website and an eNewsletter:  Social media allows us to reach out in new ways, and so we have a Facebook page and Twitter feeds (though for now, I’m using my own Twitter account to get the word out — at some point soon, that will change). Not everyone is a subscriber to a season of an arts organization, after all. We’ll be using both of those in more creative ways in the future, primarily to help us figure out what we should be doing, rather than just letting you know what we’ve done, and we hope to set up forums on various topics of the moment.  And we also want to do special events, like the experiment in showing how different theater directors approach a script and their actors we just conducted at Portland Center Stage.  These are intended to deepen the understanding of everyone involved — we as journalists, artists, audiences and members of the community.

The money part: Ultimately, we are committed to paying professional wages to professional journalists. We don’t think journalists should work for free, and outside of the editor, the other journalists whose work appears here are paid. We think that’s the only way to make sure that the activity of journalism can continue in the culture, except as a sideline for people otherwise occupied. Good journalism requires a little “subculture” of its own, one devoted to providing accurate and contextual descriptions of the world, one that’s independent and possesses a healthy skepticism, one that makes its arguments carefully and transparently, one that serves its community above all. It’s the discipline of a profession and requires a lifetime of preparation and creative thinking about its practices.

Traditionally, news organizations (newspapers, radio stations, television) were supported by advertising, but that model has cracked. Traditional media still attract advertisers, but far fewer than they once did. ArtsWatch wants to test a different model. We are hoping to find some paying sponsors, sure. And as a nonprofit, maybe get some grants (a Knight Foundation New Voices grant has helped make ArtsWatch possible). But ultimately, we want to test the proposition that you — the users of the site, the readers of this post — will be willing to pay a little bit each year to keep us going.  It’s similar to the model that Oregon Public Broadcasting uses.

So, next Spring, after we’ve given you a chance to see some of the things we can do, we will pitch you: Is this something you want to support? We’ll have membership levels a lot like OPB does. You will get our eNewsletter in return, which we hope by that time will be jam-packed with good deals and invitations to various activities, enough to compensate for your membership, we hope! And, of course, you’ll get the satisfaction of knowing that you’re responsible for keeping this little slice of journalistic activity — and ultimately, the arts we spotlight — in business. Except that instead of a pilot project, you’ll get the real deal — more writers and audio and video journalists, more forums and events, the chance to engage with and shape the culture we share at deeper levels.

Right now, we’re just getting used to the “controls” here: Believe me, figuring out how to design an eNewsletter, edit a podcast or stage an event weren’t part of my journalism experience until now. I need lots more practice! By January, though, we’re hoping to add more journalists to our roster and expand our journalism, just so you can get a little better sense of what we’re hoping Oregon ArtsWatch can be. Part of that is geographical, because so far we’ve been mostly Portland ArtsWatch. But part of it is just doing more journalism and doing it better on whatever “channel” we use. Journalists around the country are trying to figure out how to cover the arts in a rapidly evolving new economic and technological context, and no one is doing it quite this way. So we are learning as we go.

That’s it: A pretty simple experiment really, though, as I’ve learned, it does have a few moving parts. In the meantime, please stay tuned: We know we have a lot more convincing, and listening, to do! Thanks for joining us at the beginning.

NOTES

Want to take a look at our second newsletter?  And, of course, you could subscribe!

A few (ahem) words about our first special event.

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