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A Manifesto

May 4, 2010

daydream.jpegAs part of a recent editorial job application for a web-based media startup, I was asked to put together my "blue sky vision" for coverage of the Bay Area culture scene. I didn't get the gig, though I was told the reasons for this are not to do with my ideas but rather the fit with the job; "I don't see you as a career editor," the person in charge of hiring for the position astutely told me last week.

In any case, I thought I would take this opportunity to share what I came up with, ideas-wise. Some of what follows in my "Bay Area Cultural Coverage Manifesto" may come across as hopelessly idealistic or ridiculously naive. But, hey, a gal's gotta dream...

1. Always keep the "why should anyone care?" question at the top of the editorial agenda

I believe that great arts journalism should focus on engendering high-quality conversations about the world around us. It's about connecting people to the important ideas in our lives. As such, the one single-most valuable principle that should guide culture coverage in the publicaton is that there should always be a reason for why we are telling our readers about something. A simple news peg like "we're writing about SFMOMA because the institution is celebrating its 75th anniversary" or "Amy Tan has a new novel out so we're writing about her" isn't a good enough reason to give something coverage. We constantly have to think about why it's important for our readers to know about a cultural concept or event - why should it matter / make a difference to their lives? This motive should govern our editorial decisions wherever possible.

2. Do away with the traditional categories under which media organizations cover the arts

Silos like "high art" and "low art" are meaningless today. Also, due to the proliferation of a vast quantity of hybrid formats like computer game soundtrack symphony concerts and interactive hip-hop choreography soirees involving live painting and bunraku puppetry, the standard classification boxes like "theatre", "film", "music" and "visual art" are also becoming quite useless. Instead, I would organize events by date and use tag clouds to help people search for what they're looking for. Columns and features, which would likewise range across traditional boundaries, would have their own easy-to-remember and descriptive names to help identify and classify them. Hopefully these content items would eventually come to possess as strong a brand image as something like Tim Grieve's "War Room" column in Salon. There should also be room for articles that range beyond what is traditionally considered "art". Where it makes sense for us to do so, we shouldn't be afraid to find ways of connecting cultural goings on with other aspects of life e.g. an article about the Barbary Coast aesthetic that's sweeping the cocktail lounge landscape, infusing everything from the drinks themselves to the way the bar tenders dress, the art on the walls of the bars and the music that's being played on the sound systems; a piece on the acting/performance styles employed by different local politicians.

3. Take a curated, rich-media-oriented approach to "listings"

I am a fan of the way in which Flavorpill and The Onion's AV Club do arts listings. The idea would be to put together something similar each week, so that our readers have access to a wide-ranging but carefully selected crop of not-to-be-missed cultural events. Where possible, it would be good to embed video and audio into these blurbs as well as include a short paragraph of well-written, snappy prose which not only explains what the event is about, but also tells the reader why they should go check it out. This section would also provide a good opportunity for ticket giveaways, competitions and cross-promotions. The section need not only include arts experiences that have to be experienced outside. Alongside a weekly "big night out" concept which allows readers to plan their cultural activities ahead, we could also run a daily "big night in" feature which gives readers a short extract form a great new book by a local writer, a short snippet of a wonderful newly-released DVD by a local documentarian, a stunning YouTube clip by a local creator or one track from a fabulous local indie rock band's new album. The feature would also encourage users to visit iTunes, Amazon, CDBaby or whatever to make relevant purchases, which could introduce a small additional revenue stream for the publication.

4. Dig into the corners of the culture in addition to covering the more obvious stuff (and combine longer- with shorter-form pieces)

Writing about the major arts institutions is of course important. We should follow what they're doing closely, provide commentary on what they're doing well and not be afraid to criticize them when they're letting the side down. However, I think it's equally important for the publication to get out and write about less well-known parts of our region's incredibly rich and diverse culture scene. I would like to see in-depth articles about the local hula and underground Cantonese opera scenes, the latest developments on the Bay Area Venezuelan percussion front and how the area's arts education offerings are serving (or failing to serve) our student population. To that end, I'd like to work with two or three smart columnists with wide-ranging interests who can draw connections between what's going on in the art world and our lives and dig deeper into issues and cultural nooks than is generally the case in news organizations. It would be good to see some "longer-form" journalism (up to 2000 words) in this regard each week. But I also think there's room for a few "diary"-like blog entries every day (up to 500 words) which consists of a few short and not necessarily connected observations about a range of interesting underground arts events.

5. Find ways to encourage people to get out and experience culture

I'd like to see a short feature each week on the website which provides a roundup of some of the most interesting free and low-cost events happening around the area, such as the free art parties being thrown all over the place (eg the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Big Ideas nights), free walking tours, and theatre companies like ACT offering steep discounts on theatre tickets to educators. The publication should also regularly host competitions and giveaways and host its own cultural tours and events. For instance, we could get a local art maven - perhaps a collector or a curator to lead a Thursday night art tour around San Francisco's galleries, or a singer-songwriter to lead a tour of a few folk music clubs.

6. Keep the editorial tone and style intelligent and rigorous, but allow the individual voices of the writers to come out

Great arts writing is an art form in itself. While adhering to the strictest rules of ethics, communicating through erudite prose and maintaining the high-quality house style, the culture section should also give its writers license, within certain parameters, to express themselves in their own voices. Culture writing should never be hokey or dumbed down. It should also steer clear of jargon and cheerleading. It's really just like well-reported news journalism but with more verve and sparkle.

7. Put local artists in the spotlight

Highlighting the work of great local artists is a great way to expose readers to new names of which they might not have heard and generate a bit of civic pride. The idea is also to create fast and easy context around an artist's work so that we see how they connect to the art scene more generally and to the world as a whole. To that end, It might be fun to run an occasional or even regular column that briefly describes the artist and his or her work (including a photo and any relevant audio or video and links that show readers a sample of their output) and then a list of, say, five arts events, artists or works that the artist being profiled is excited about. These could be works or artists that have influenced the person being profiled, and/or stuff that's going on in the Bay Area or beyond at the time of publication. Or maybe the artist could create a "virtual art tour" for readers in their medium e.g. a San Francisco painter might suggest five of his or her favorite local galleries and explain why. The only caveat here is that I would want the artist who's being profiled each time to declare personal affiliations to any of the influences / institutions or works they mention at the time of creating the tour and where possible avoid conflicts of interest in this regard.

8. Maintain a world view

One of the problems of local (arts) journalism is that it can be very parochial. We should be promoting San Francisco as one of the great world cities both to residents and visitors. In order to do that, we should look for ways of connecting the local with the national and international cultural scenes. Instead of always looking to tell intrinsically "Bay Area stories," we should also put effort into informing readers about the exciting global artists that visit the Bay Area on a regular basis as well as endeavoring to provide a national and/or global context on the local stuff we cover.

9. Find ways to interact actively with readers

The site should obviously provide room for reader comments. Though this is a very common way of soliciting feedback, it's still a great one. I think our writers should be asked to keep a close eye on the comments feeds they get for articles they write (can we set up an alert system for writers to receive all comments sent to their content online?) and, where sensible, make a point of writing back to every person who posts a comment. Writers will need to exercise their own judgment about this: There are a lot of nutters out there who are best ignored. But genuine comments should always receive a response, even if only an acknowledgement ie "thanks for your comments about my article. I'm glad you enjoyed it" or "thanks for weighing in on the issues raised in my blog post - I am taking your criticisms on board." The publication should also cultivate other ways to engage readers beyond comments. Organizing art tours and giveaways will help to create more experiential relationships with readers. Another fun feature might be to have a reader-generated online gallery where readers can take photos of themselves at arts events and post them on our website (instantly through multi-media messaging perhaps?) with comments about what they thought of the cultural experience.

10. Cultivate a stable of writers that includes career journalists with broad interests and (preferably) arts backgrounds, editorially-savvy career artists and a few famous names.

I like the idea of getting "behind the stage door" in order to give readers something deeper and more unusual than they might get from the standard approach of the "journalistic outsider." This essentially means collaborating with a mixture of: a) discerning and fearless professional arts journalists who aren't afraid to look under the hood at what's going on in cultural organizations, forage into the very farthest corners of the local arts landscape, and where possible, have practical experience in the arts themselves; and b) erudite career artists with good writing chops and the ability to take a step back from their work to see the bigger picture. Having more of an insider take will have to be managed very carefully from an ethical perspective. But I believe that if you get the right writers on board, the strategy will pay off in terms of the color and depth of the content we can offer readers.

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