Art Works Blog

The Human Need to Know and To Tell

January 31, 2013

Eric Newton. Photo courtesy of the Knight Foundation.

On April 12, 2012, Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president of the Knight Foundation, posted an article on the Knight Foundation website titled, "Why we need new models for arts journalism." The article coincided with the launch of the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge that we’ve written about recently on this blog. In his post, Eric asked three questions: Is arts journalism in trouble? Does it matter? Can anything be done to help?

We thought it would be interesting to touch base with Eric almost one year and one major arts journalism initiative later to see what he’s been thinking lately about the state of arts journalism.

NEA: The first question you posed in your article was, “Is arts journalism in trouble?” How would you respond to that question today?

ERIC NEWTON: Local arts journalism is still in trouble.

We’ve seen both small changes and larger trends and either could have an impact on the future of local arts journalism. People are trying things here and there but the problem is so large. There are news deserts all across the country and you can't just turn a desert into an oasis over night. It took a long time for the current model to take shape. So, we have to think in terms of larger time frames. But arts journalism will come back simply because of the human need to know and the human need to tell and those needs don’t lessen over time.

We are in what I call a Clay Shirky moment. He's the one who said, "Nothing will work but everything might." There isn't any one thing that has surfaced as the answer but we're still in the position that everything might.

NEA: How does arts journalism fit into the metamorphosis of journalism in general?

NEWTON: One thing you need to keep in mind, of course, is that the information revolution is speeding up not slowing down. I’m reminded of a speech that Richard Gringas, head of news products at Google, gave at the last Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. He noted that technology has not moved from a steady state of non-digital (one-way, mass media) to digital. We are experiencing a shift from a relatively steady state of non-digital to a constantly changing digital age.

That's frightening in some ways but it also provides opportunities again and again and again. For example, look at some countries in the Third World that were never properly wired with landline telephones. Now they can just forget about that and go straight to wireless.

The mobile and social world is just exploding. I can pull out my phone, use my Siri app (defined on Wikipedia as an “intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator”) and find the closest art museum to my location and then what Yelp has to say about it. With these new tools, it's easier and easier to lower the barriers of entry until finally somebody comes up with a new approach that works.

NEA: What do you think new payment methods might be and how are businesses going to finance and make money with future journalism models?

NEWTON: I believe there is a misperception some content people have that no one will pay for content. People will pay for anything that they want that is not available elsewhere for free. Having free e-books online actually has increased the sale of printed books. You can't get the printed one for free. If you want it, you have to buy it.

If you tracked paid content and free content you'd find that paid content exploded right along with the free content. But what kind of paid content? For example, ringtones. Standard ring tones are free, but give people other options and they will choose and pay for what they want to have.

We’ve seen this in traditional news organizations with the creation of digital subscriptions systems that make some things free and some things not. Or take digital games. It’s free but you have to contend with ads. If you don't want the ads, not a problem, but you have to pay for that ad-free game. It's actually quite sophisticated.

NEA: What other developments have you found interesting or exciting?

NEWTON: I've been surprised about the success of crowd-sourced financing. You look at Kickstarter and there’s a lot of money given to a lot of people to do a lot of creative things. Extend that to individuals and the power of small donations made many times over.

For example, rather than give $100 to one local organization, I might use products like Kachingle, a micropayment platform, and my computer would tell me what I've been paying attention to and suggest that I donate to those interests. So I’ll press a button and my $100 gets split up between the blogger I've been following and the theater company news I have been consuming.

Partnerships with educational institutions are also promising with students gaining real world experience by having their stories appear in the local newspaper. Among other things, it’s a good way to learn community engagement, by dealing with both positive comments and negative comments, and in reaching out for ideas and reporting information. It's pushing academic programs toward the teaching-hospital model.

I also see more possibilities with business professionals who, once they retire, are interested in contributing their expertise to organizations for free. They don't need to write for a living. Now they can write for pleasure. We’ve got decades of well-educated boomer volunteer power on the horizon. We read about the strain those retirees will put on the retirement and medical systems, but there's an opportunity for significant giveback as well.

NEA: Where do you think the next arts journalism model will come from?

NEWTON: Every generation in American history has grown up with a new form of media. All we can say for sure is that things explode upwards on a regular basis and if we can't get it right this time, there will be even more technology to help get it right the next time.

Also, something that you're seeing is younger journalists developing the ability to work in open, collaborative groups that might include a technical person, a designer, programmer, business person, an entrepreneur, etc. Those enterprises that have fairly equal proportions of content, technology, and business are more likely to do well.

NEA: Any final thoughts?

NEWTON: One, I think keeping our footing during this period of transition is just as important as anything else. Second, go back to what I said earlier: this is all driven by the human desire to know and to tell which increases with each generation.

Finally, five or six years ago there was a sense of crisis and being on a straight downhill trajectory but now there's hope that we will continue to make progress. And the fact that the NEA has decided that arts journalism is a meaningful component of their grantmaking is very important.


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