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Jo Caird: The changing face of arts journalism

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Last week I chaired a panel discussion on the changing face of arts journalism. Given that the audience at the event was entirely composed of publicists working in performing arts, it's not surprising that some of what was said was pretty niche.

But alongside the website user stats, newspaper circulation figures and tips for PRs about how to tempt arts editors into commissioning stories, there was plenty to interest lay readers too. The last few years have seen huge changes in the way that we engage with the media, and sometimes it's useful to take a step back and look at how far we've come.

The panellists on the day were Dan Pursey, founder of the PR, marketing and print firm Mobius Industries; Daisy Bowie-Sell, an arts journalist at the Telegraph; and our very own Theo Bosanquet, deputy editor of Whatsonstage.com.

Each of them made many insightful points, but as I don't want to turn this blog post into a conference report, I won't name-check who said what, but will just try to summarise the issues that we touched upon. I'm sure the panellists won't mind.

The contents of this post might seem obvious for those of you already savvy with digital media and social networking, but as last week I wrote something with you lot in mind, today's post is for readers who might be considering some of this for the first time.

The impact of the rise of digital media on traditional print journalism

While it might be tempting to think about traditional print journalism and digital media as very different models with divergent aims and methods, comments made by the panel pointed to the fact that actually there is a great deal of crossover between the two. Online platforms have the advantage when it comes to responding quickly to events, so print media has had to up its game by investing in its own digital offering.

Newspaper arts desks (along with other sections) are increasingly commissioning content specifically for online, meaning that a far greater breadth of coverage is possible by these publications. There's also simply a lot more content available online than there is in print. Whereas newspaper arts pages may have the space to run a theatre feature every week or so, there's no physical limit to the amount of theatre content that can go up on publication's website.

Traditional print publications have also taken the lead from digital media when it comes to engaging with readers, encouraging them to comment beneath articles and share content on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. So while newspaper circulation figures continue to dwindle, the number of people reading stories on newspapers' websites goes up and up.

New opportunities offered by digital

Digital media has opened up the potential of different types of content in a really exciting way. Video and audio clips, slide shows, quizzes and interactive graphs all now run alongside the written word to create an online environment that offers users a broad range of ways to engage. Having read an interview with a director or actor, we might be invited to watch a clip of rehearsal footage or a trailer for the production. The world of that particular art form is brought to life in a way that would be impossible through print media alone.

Accessing content digitally rather than through print also makes it far easier for readers to engage directly with the theatre-makers and the work they're reading about. In a couple of clicks of the mouse you could be reading more about a theatre company on its website, or in the case of a platform like Whatsonstage.com, booking tickets for that company's current show.

It works the other way around too, with artists now able to 'speak' to audiences through not just their work, but also through first-person pieces written specifically for digital platforms, as well as via the sort of multi-media content I've just described. Social networking sites – easily linked to from digital media platforms – also allow greater interaction between reader/audience member and artist.

The downside of digital

Of course there are negatives aspects to this new wave of arts coverage. The large number of online magazines that have sprung up in recent years – including platforms like Whatsonstage.com which occupy themselves with, broadly speaking, just one cultural form – means that there's an almost overwhelming amount of content out there. It can be hard to navigate this sea of coverage: while newspapers are regarded as a known quantity, trusted and reliable for the most part, independent websites can seem like a riskier proposition.

This is partly to do with the fact that many of these websites are unable to pay their writers, so the quality of the work they publish varies. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of very talented people writing for these sites without renumeration – it's quite common for example for students and emerging journalists to hone their craft and build their portfolios writing for small online publications for no fee – but it would be disingenuous to say that money isn't an issue.

The future

None of this is to say that traditional print media is obsolete, or even heading in that direction, but it's certainly true that when it comes to innovation, digital media is leading the way. There are problems to resolve, such as how online publications can make themselves financially viable, but digital media has such a lot to offer that I don't doubt solutions will be found.

As long as there are readers greedy for high-quality arts coverage and artists keen to publicise their work to a wider audience, arts journalism will thrive. Exactly what it will look in the future, I can't tell you, but I look forward to being part of it, whatever shape it takes.


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