ArtsWatch biz 4: The principles behind the experiment

We started ArtsWatch to experiment with new ideas about how to do "journalism"

Albert Robida, 1882, "A Night at the Opera in the Year 2000"

Albert Robida, 1882, “A Night at the Opera in the Year 2000”

For those of you joining us in midstream here (welcome aboard!), I’ve been attempting to explain the rationale of Oregon ArtsWatch, starting with the importance of our subject—the arts. A discussion of principles and history nearly ALWAYS seem in order and our “business model” (that term is SO freighted, yes?) depends upon you and your financial support: We’re hoping for just a little bit from a whole lot of you who are deeply engaged in the arts of the state. We figure if we can’t convince you to support our project, then we can’t convince anybody!

Usually, I use the word “Journalism” to describe the activities at ArtsWatch, though I use the term broadly and loosely with the full knowledge that the term itself is in disrepute these days, especially in younger generational cohorts. In my definition, journalism is about helping to develop that group narrative, that shared story, that common sense, that we need to function as a culture, especially in a democracy. Journalists are part of the culture they cover. They have the responsibility to help make it better. They do this by doing their best work and then listening to their readers as they add data, make better sense of the painting (or dance or political decision) than the journalist and make better arguments about it all. And then take THAT into account in their next story. The understanding of journalists has to progress just as the understanding of the culture does. It’s the only way we stay relevant.

I had and continue to have my issues with mainstream journalism, even during my long professional encounter with it at The Oregonian (a full 26 years, which makes me light-headed just to type). You know the criticisms of it at least as well as I do: Its narrow definition of “news,” its over-reliance on “experts” and “spokespersons,” the “objective orthodoxy” that serves as its intellectual basis, its reluctance to describe things itself or test the descriptions of others or build new descriptions from new evidence, the limited palette of story forms in employs, its fear of being scooped or getting caught straying from the conventional wisdom. We could go on…

Those problems still attend the attempts to renovate journalism online. So far the biggest adjustment that the old regional newspaper has made is to become “thinner” in its coverage of events and issues, by and large, and to rev up its search for the hits it thinks will make it relevant again. By thinner, I simply mean reliant on fewer and fewer sources for its stories, and by the search for hits, I mean snarkier, more knee-jerk in its story frames, and more sold-out to the clever headline. Obviously, these changes weren’t the ones we hoped for, were they?

To me, the product itself, the journalism, needed to improve a lot before we could reasonably expect the culture as a whole—meaning simply you, at this point—to support our efforts. So, we started ArtsWatch nearly three years ago in order to start trying to improve that journalism and, we hoped, to earn your trust.

The principles that guided us then, still motivate us.

1. We acknowledge that we are part of the larger culture and that we want it/us to do well. We aren’t remote aesthetic philosophy bots, just as happy to see our local culture circle the drain as not. We live here, we have a stake here, and our writing is all about being useful to the culture as a whole, and specifically the arts part of it, as we can. Of course, we know that “useful” is far from an absolute term, and we count on you to let us know how we’re doing.

2. We understand that our writing is subjective, the product of particular writers at particular times, and by its nature, it is contingent and incomplete. That doesn’t stop us from trying to describe the world around us as accurately and usefully as we can, though, as we come to grips with the art and artists who are our concern. We just have to be available for the inevitable corrections of our descriptions, and we should always be reaching beyond ourselves, to places and sub-cultures we don’t usually go.

3. That involves openness. I’m not sure that needs much elaboration. If you sense that we were not “available” enough to encounter a concert or a play in a constructive, creative way, then we’ve goofed.

4. Things are connected, especially the arts, where so many cultural strands entangle, and our writing should reflect that, as we follow those strands into various knots. And, going back to #1, we are one of those strands ourselves. (So are you!)

5. The culture is exciting and heterodox and occasionally dark. Our writing shouldn’t back away from any part of it, even the parts we think are self-destructive. Maybe especially those parts.

6. Because we understand our subjectivity, we need to be as transparent as we can be. We need to tell you what our premises are and where our information comes from. We trust our own observations, but only up to a point! And then we should check them against the observations of others.

7. We are in the interpretation business, too, implicitly (sure!) but also explicitly. We should understand that what something means to us won’t mean the same thing to you, and that’s part of the fun of it all, this comparison. We aren’t going to be “right,” but to go back to that old term from Pragmatism, we can be useful. And we can’t default to the old stereotype of the “snooty critic.”

8. The old journalism verities—accuracy, fairness, clarity—are essential to making our arts reporting worth considering.

9. As critics (when we are critics), we need to figure out creative ways to jostle ourselves out of the “received opinion” that is as much a default as the snooty critic is. Our criticism strives to be creative, in much the same way as the art we consider does.

10. Connected as things are, it’s difficult to be honest. The consequences can be dire, especially for a small, financially dependent nonprofit such as ArtsWatch in a relatively small community. But ultimately, that’s what we are here for: Our best reporting, descriptions, interpretations and writing. We won’t back away from that.

I could go on, because this is a subject dear to me. Each point has a dozen sub-points, at least! But that should give you some idea of what ArtsWatch is about. Not that we aren’t open to suggestions…we are! Just try us.

Next, I WILL get into the business model part of ArtsWatch, and why your support is so critical to the project. But maybe you’ve already decided to plunk your cold hard cash down and buy some arts writing, good as we can make it? I love the sound of THAT. If so, pick out a level of support below, and please proceed. Our memberships start at $35, but you can donate any amount you like. Or maybe you need some more convincing? Stay tuned…

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