Update: CJR has its doubts about the deal.
A few years back a local arts exec was wondering aloud what could be done about the News & Record's dwindling coverage of GSO culture.
The obvious answer: Roll your own.
Things were only going to get worse on Market Street, and while creating a meaningful online arts presence would take some work, new media is better than no media.
Flash forward to this week and we see ArtsGreensboro finally taking some ownership of its media needs by raising money and...giving it to the News & Record.
For a reported $15K, the paper will write 70 stories about the local arts scene over the course of a year, in addition to its regular arts coverage.
This unusual pay-for-play arrangement has drawn attention from national press-watchers and outrage from a local competitor. A concerned citizen interrupted my dog-walk yesterday to ask me about it. People want to know how the N&R reviews and profiles can escape the realm of advertorial happy talk, and if a critical eye can still be directed at the arts institutions themselves, and what other parts of the news hole might be up for sale. Good questions, all.
But let's also look at the value proposition for the arts community. Assuming all purchased articles are, as promised, additive to arts coverage the N&R would do anyway, that's about six new articles per month. Depending on the length, placement, and quality of these pieces, that could be a pretty strong bump in arts coverage.
I'm not convinced, though, that it's the best investment for ArtsGreensboro. My guess is there's a lot of overlap between the existing audience for arts institutions and the readership of the print newspaper and its stunted online presence (which raises more questions: Will the paid-for articles be available online? Promoted via Facebook? Etc.). That doesn't mean the articles will be without impact, but it probably limits their contributions to outreach and brand-building.
What if that $15K was being spent instead on digital media that cut out the middleman? The N&R rate comes to $214 per article, which, sadly, will buy a lot of freelance work in this town, especially for things like reviews. Assume some costs for design, hosting, and management, and you've still got plenty of money for content that is shared via channels that people under the age of, well, me, actually use, and that potential visitors to the area can find easily.
Meeting the needs of smartphone nation seems preferable to purchasing space in a shriveling organ read largely by the people who already know what you're doing -- especially when the purchase itself diminishes the credibility of the paper. And since the arts articles are subsidized by donations, the digital strategy would not be constrained by the same economics that make online publishing so tough.
Back when I had that conversation with the arts exec, this stuff was still new enough that wishing for the old days was sort of understandable. And that mindset wasn't limited to GSO -- at about the same time I did a consulting gig for a PR shop that wanted more coverage in the New York Times for its museum clients, and their response to my roll-your-own rah rah was similarly unexcited.
But that was then, and this is now. It's past time for fresh thinking. Paying off the local daily is a new approach, but it's not the long-term solution to the probelm of anemic arts coverage.