Camille LeFevre on teaching and writing arts journalism

The Wild West of Arts Journalism

Since launching this blog last week, I’ve received enthusiastic feedback and intriguing commentary on what this blog could be or become. Who knows? It’s an experiment, an exploration, an investigation into arts journalism for the 21st century.

As Doug McLennan said in this 2009 article (http://www.miller-mccune.com/media/will-critique-work-for-food-3878), “It’s an incredibly exciting time to be an arts journalist. We’re in a sort of Wild West of invention.”

To be a working arts journalist today–especially a freelance one–you need to continually move, adapt, rethink, reconsider, integrate and innovate. Like the artists and arts groups we cover, we need to continually assess what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and whether our work is relevant. “For arts groups, constant shapeshifting is a crucial means for survival. Applying it to arts coverage isn’t far behind,” as Christopher Blank said in this 2003 article (http://www.poynter.org/uncategorized/18407/taking-the-tweed-out-of-the-arts-journalism-wardrobe).

So: in the coming months, this blog may begin to:

*Include criticism, reviews and articles on the arts. Should this be only my own writing, or work from others as well? Would any foundations or arts organizations be willing to fund arts journalism on this blog? Should the blog accept advertising? How do we define conflicts of interest in the Wild West of Arts Journalism? Talk to me.

* Integrate arts, academia, entertainment and popular culture. As some of you know, one of my academic areas of study is dance and the transformative body in science fiction film and television. I’m eager to write about “Black Swan” and the rigors of ballet training, ballet and insanity from  “The Red Shoes” to “Black Swan,” the erotic in ballet’s fairy tales, were-swans and automatons in ballet. Curious?

* Investigate the ever-blurring lines between promotion (pr) and reporting/criticism. I do both. And the firewalls are constantly shifting. How old-school are you? As long as one provides complete disclosure and transparency, is any combination possible?

Whatever this blog morphs into, I’m committed to open, integrative explorations of art in relation to everyday life, the world and the contexts in which art is created. I’m also committed to the development of the next generation of arts journalists.

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism,” Clay Shirky wrote here in 2009 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/apr/13/internet-newspapers-clay-shirky). He added, “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”

Let’s experiment together. I look forward to your comments.


December 6, 2010 Posted by | The Wild West of Arts Journalism | 1 Comment

Final Projects: Inspiring Innovation in Arts Journalism

People truly want to engage with ideas and ways of synthesizing their arts experience and their lives.” Steve Winn, from “Taking the Tweed out of the Arts Journalism Wardrobe,” http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=54887

Last week, I left my students with that inspiring quote from an article they’re reading for discussion on Monday.

Two weeks left of JOUR 4990: Covering the Arts: New Media, New Paradigms from Criticism to Communications. And the students are crafting their final online projects. To further inspire them, I’ve invited Alan Berks (playwright and originator of mnplaylist.com) and Scott Stulen (project manager of mnartists.org), to visit the class and discuss how and why they started their sites, the kind of content they have, how their sites fill an important niche in arts coverage, and their demographic.

I’m eager to hear how the students have honed and focused their project proposals! And how Alan and Scott’s insights and experience will provide them with new ideas and/or content!

December 5, 2010 Posted by | From the Classroom | 1 Comment

Week of December 6

In addition to teaching this week, here’s what’s on my writing docket:

A recommendation letter for a colleague (we’re working on a book together, and we’ve presented papers together at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conferences)

An article for Architecture Minnesota

An A-List item on visual art for City Pages

New synopsis for super-secret project (I truly can’t tell anyone what this is)

A meeting with Ananya Dance Theatre on our media relations plan for the next year

Slow week!

December 5, 2010 Posted by | The Writing Docket | Leave a comment

More on Minnpost

Late last week, I announced on Facebook that Minnpost.com was relieving the arts writers of their duties. No more criticism (reviews), no more previews. No big surprise actually; Minnpost is clearly more of a “newsletter” (one of my colleague’s words) for politicos and public policy wonks. Still, I was one of Minnpost’s first writers. And the change marked the end of my career as a paid dance critic with a regular gig (for now anyway).

Initially, Minnpost  requested lengthy, well-researched posts on dance in the Twin Cities (my beat), and I was happy to do my part. The pay wasn’t too bad. And I was thrilled to contribute to another publication on dance. After I quit the Star Tribune as freelance dance critic (that’s another story), Minnpost became my primarily dance writing gig.

Then last summer, the editors changed the format: We were to contribute no more than 8 items a month (for miniscule pay) in covering our beats. About the same time, Arts Arena (the arts tab/format) started migrating to the bottom of Minnpost’s lengthy home page. While they allowed me to start covering architecture/design (for which I was grateful; last year was abysmal financially, and every extra hundred bucks made a huge difference for me), the end was in sight.

After I posted the news, Marianne Combs (over at MPR) started her own discussion on the topic on Facebook. The discussion thread included back and forth on how arts journalism is becoming more promotional. Here’s what I contributed to that thread:

I teach arts journalism at the U (have for several years), and one of our talking points in my current class is the fact (yes, fact) that promotion (PR) and much of arts journalism today is completely intertwined/interchangeable. Few paying outlets for arts journalism are interested in criticism anymore (thank god for mnartists.org and Susannah). Ad revenue (for publications) and arts coverage are also interdependent. The ongoing dumbing down of our culture has resulted in fewer general readers curious at all about or knowledgable about criticism, the role of criticism and the value of critical thinking and engagement (thank you, Charles) with art.

I’m glossing over the general points here, of course, the minnpost situation is indicative of all of the above: Reasons given to me for relieving specialists of their positions were: not enough page views (duh, minnpost buries its arts coverage at the bottom of its lengthy page); some writers weren’t writing anymore (duh, the pay was abysmal); the most read post on “arts” lately was one about a celebrity in dt mpls. and so on.

First responses from my dance colleagues at performing-arts institutions? they’re pulling their ads.

December 5, 2010 Posted by | On the Media | Leave a comment

Welcome to Mélange

Welcome to Mélange (working title), a work-in-progress blog about teaching and practicing arts journalism. My colleagues are already asking, “What took you so long?” Well, I’m an old-fashioned arts journalist: I built my freelance (free, as in not tied down to a 9-5 job; not free, as in working for zero money) career getting paid for my experience, insights and expertise. So writing without pay has never been an attractive, nor a financial option.

But, as we’re all painfully aware, the profession and discipline of arts journalism has evolved radially in the last year. (Really, significant changes began five or so years ago.) And in that time, I’ve also been teaching arts journalism and innovating–at the urging of Al Tims, the Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the U of M–new courses in arts journalism that explore and test the boundaries of the profession today. At the core of all my courses is critical thinking and writing. That’s essentially what I teach. Along with trends and opportunities in arts journalism.

In my current seminar, for example, titled “Covering the Arts: New Media, New Paradigms from Criticism to Communications,” we’ve been exploring where professional journalism (the department “track” selected by student reporters) and strategic communications (the “track” selected by students wishing to go into PR) overlap, conflict and enhance each other. We began the course practicing criticism.

Then we moved into PR. We created a blog for the Southern Theater’s new Southern Songbook music series–http://southernsongbook.tumblr.com–which was a tremendous success! And the students produced guerilla marketing campaigns and posts for the Northrop blog in advance of a performance by Paul Taylor Dance Company, which was again, a tremendous success. My sincere thanks to these organizations for partnering so well with us!!

The students final projects (which I assigned to my students last semester, as well): create a website or blog that addresses changes in arts journalism (which we discuss throughout the semester) by fulfilling a topical niche, and addressing that topic with an assortment of arts writing, whether criticism, previews or other articles. Key word: intention. The project must have a reason or purpose for existing.

This teaching experience got me thinking about creating my own blog, in order to more thoroughly practice what I teach. After researching (as I ask my students to) other blogs on teaching and practicing arts journalism, and discovering none, I found my niche. And as venues for paid (however paltry) arts journalism continue to disappear, I’ve been encouraged to write a blog to keep my distinctive voice, insights and expertise (I’m paraphrasing my colleagues, not tooting my own horn) in the critical mix.

Please bear with me as I explore this new media, the degree of transparency with which I’m comfortable, and the artistic disciplines in which I’ll delve. And please, spread the word, follow me, and ask me to follow you. All my best and thanks. Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre, arts journalist and college professor

December 3, 2010 Posted by | Welcome! | Leave a comment