The founder of ArtsJournal talks about arts and new media

Seattle journalist Douglas McLennan is a leading national figure in Web journalism. Here he talks about his venture, the imperiled state of newspaper arts coverage, and why Seattle and Portland orchestras are not much noticed across the nation.
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Founder and editor Doug McLennan and ArtsJournal.

Seattle journalist Douglas McLennan is a leading national figure in Web journalism. Here he talks about his venture, the imperiled state of newspaper arts coverage, and why Seattle and Portland orchestras are not much noticed across the nation.

Douglas McLennan is a Seattle-based arts journalist and critic and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal, the Internet's most comprehensive resource for news about arts and culture. Prior to starting ArtsJournal, McLennan was arts columnist and music critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He has written on the arts for numerous publications, including, Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, the London Evening Standard, the Tacoma News-Tribune, Seattle Weekly, and Crosscut. McLennan has been a music critic for NPR and a guest commentator on the BBC and CBC. He is a recipient of several awards for arts criticism and reporting, including a National Arts Journalism Program Fellowship at Columbia University and a Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for music journalism. He is also the director of the National Arts Journalism Program.

McLennan is a graduate of The Juilliard School, where he studied with Beveridge Webster. He has taught at Juilliard, the Peabody Institute, and Cornish College and was artist in residence at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1992-93. He has performed in the U.S., Canada, China, and Europe. McLennan recently performed as the guest pianist with the Lake Union Civic Orchestra in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," a piece which he first played at the age of 16 at the Banff Festival of Music. He spoke recently with James Bash of Crosscut.

What made you decided to launch

I was columnist with the Seattle P-I and had previously worked at the Seattle Weekly. I had a stint at the News-Tribune in Tacoma. While at The P-I, I visited the Philadelphia Inquirer Web site one day and found a story about the Barnes Foundation having financial difficulties, and the story was already several days old. I thought that I should've known about the story but was unaware of it. Gee, I thought that there are probably a lot of stories every day in local papers around the country like this one that I should've known about. If you could put these stories in an arts section of your own, it would be really interesting.

So I came up with the idea of ArtsJournal on a Tuesday, came up with a name and registered it on Wednesday, and bought some books on HTML, because there were no blogging platforms — this was back in 1999. I designed the Web site over the weekend. I didn't know much about design, so it was pretty crude. On the following Monday morning, the site launched and has been going ever since.

How many publications do you look at every day?

I'd say about 250 in all. That means any publication about the arts that has a Web site worldwide in English. And we host 52 bloggers on the ArtsJournal Web site. The most recent blog posting from them is on the front page of the Web site, as well. The good thing about ArtsJournal is that it's a curated service. We define what the territory is and then pick out the most interesting things. The curation aspect of ArtsJournal is its strength, but it is also a weakness because the curation reflects mostly my taste.

As users have more access to more information on the Web, the sheer amount becomes overwhelming. So increasingly you have to depend on curators — other people — to find the good stuff that you want to see over time. So you find the curator whom you trust. That way, you have a way to navigate through a lot of information.

What time do you start looking through all these Web sites?

We start at about five in the morning Pacific time, and I have one person who helps me out by doing a couple of shifts each week. My second person just left to take another job. Usually it takes two to two-and-a-half hours to do a morning shift. That does all of the American papers. In the afternoon, I collect up things and start looking for European papers, African papers, and other papers. So it varies from four-and-a-half to six hours a day just in looking for stories.

How many visits does get every month?

That takes a bit of explaining. I've spent the good part of the last six months evaluating the next version of Artsjournal, because I've redesigned the site about five times since it began. I've come to the realization that ArtsJournal is not just a Web site anymore. Only 25 percent of our users ever come to the Web site, the rest get it through newsletters. We have 35,000 newsletter subscribers. Others get ArtsJournal through "newsbeats" that we provide on other Web sites. Some people get ArtsJournal through RSS feeds. In the course of an average day, there are 45,000 to 50,000 visitors — people who use Artsjournal every day. The unique visitors per month is probably 250,000. We probably get 500,000 to 600,000 visits a month and a few million page views. So ArtsJournal is not huge by the scale of large Web sites, but it's substantial. It's been my full-time job and supporting me for several years now.

Do you plan to keep adding bloggers and more links to stories?

The value of a service like ArtsJournal is that it looks a great number of things and with curators, it narrows it down to manageable numbers. But when you start adding more and more, then the curation changes. It may be easy for people to look at 20 stories every day, because they have time for that, but if you give them 30 stories, that takes more commitment. So the challenge is how do we make it easy to offer a lot of information and keep it highly curated enough to so that it is valuable for people who appreciate our judgment in choosing one thing over another.

The idea with the blog is to expand it to hundreds of bloggers, ultimately. But we have to install more curation. With 50 blogs there's more to offer people. With 200 we have to curate it, to get the best of the best. Every time you add something you have to add another grade of curation.

The kind of mystery here is that as arts journalism disappears out of the traditional media, what replaces it, and how do you build a business model that supports people to do blogs? How do critics on the Web make enough money to sustain themselves? If you had a big network of arts blogs and sell advertising across it, advertisers are able to leverage the content that the bloggers provide across a lot of platforms, and then there's a business model that emerges that can support someone to earn money from writing an arts blog.

How many visits do you need to become commercially viable?

The critical mass if you are a stand-alone is probably 4,000 to 5,000 visitors a day, which very few arts blogs get. This is a very targeted and valuable audience. However, even if you have a blog that gets 300 to 400 people a day, there are advertisers who would love to reach those people. You might get a small advertiser to advertise on a blog that gets 300 visitors a day, but put that blog together with 50 other blogs and you are looking at selling thousands of views of that ad every day, then suddenly the pool of advertisers who want to reach that highly targeted audience increases enormously.

Are you going to hire reporters for ArtsJournal?

That may be a viable model for us in the future. But I'm not willing to speculate more about that right now.

Where are we now in arts journalism? Newspapers have been dropping critics right and left.

Newspapers have not been the newspapers that I remember for quite a number of years now. The day of many competing papers and views in a city is gone. But the classic newspaper model was not built on a mass-media vehicle. It was a collection niches. People don't buy a newspaper because of its coverage of city hall. They buy it for the comics section or the crossword puzzle, etc. After they get through their favorite thing, they will read the city hall coverage. But the genius of this model is that none of the niche contents can support themselves, but if you aggregated them altogether, then you have enough readers and enough revenue to sell to advertisers.

In the '60s, '70s, and '80s, the newspapers increasingly looked to TV as the mass media model. The mass market mentality is not niches at all. It is not excellence of product as the key to success. The mass market strategy is to find the place in the middle so that what you produce appeals to the most people. Editors I worked with at newspapers told me to write at an eighth grade reading level — the mythical, average, mass-market consumer. As soon as you do that, and when you assume that every person ought to be able to read every story in a newspaper, then you are not talking to those who are interested in the niches. Then the classical music reviews in a given city are not intended for people who know a lot about classical music. They are pitched to those who don't know much. So you end up getting this content that isn't very good. It isn't very satisfying to the audience that ought to be your core audience, and you get this erosion of leadership of arts coverage. There are lots of exceptions. I try to post them every day in Artsjournal. But the majority of arts coverage is not very good.

Also, newspapers have never been able to cover community arts in an interesting way. Things like dance or jazz get really minimal coverage. However, now with the ease and the different ways that you can deliver information, we may discover a new model and improve the way that we cover culture. Right now we are in between the two models. The old one no longer works and the new one hasn't been established.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. I just spent a week in North Carolina with dance critics from around the nation. Like music, dance is hard to write about. You are trying to describe things that are not easy to describe. What would happen if we tried to describe an event in a new way? I broke them into three teams, and signed them up with blogger accounts, and gave them a Flip video camera, which has a convenient USB port with which to upload movies to YouTube. I asked them to use the video to compare dance styles, or show what you mean, or talk to critics, the audience, or the choreographer. So they had a day and a half to expand the palette on which they are working, to find something that is not so linear in form with which to describe this artistic experience.

Since you travel around the country and talk to critics and people in the orchestra business, how are the Seattle Symphony and the Oregon Symphony viewed nationally?

They think that Seattle and Portland are exciting cities. Their perception of the Northwest is very favorable. People in North Carolina were rhapsodizing about Portland, in particular. There's a lot of money and resources in the Northwest. It has a highly educated population. There's a lot of civic pride in the community. But given all that, the Seattle Symphony and the Oregon Symphony have practically no national profile.

People in Seattle say that we are one of the best regional orchestras in the country. That may be true, but when you look at the dynamic cities in the U.S. — the places where things really happen — you don't think of that for Seattle or Portland when you think of the orchestra world. Why is that? What is the missing ingredient that prevents that from happening?

In Seattle, we have this great concert hall. That's not to say that the Seattle Symphony is a bad orchestra. I just wonder if the ambition for them is not sufficient. Cleveland or Pittsburgh (among the top orchestras in the country) are not in communities that you would think can support such orchestras. Cleveland has lost half of its population in the last 20 years. But the Cleveland Orchestra continues to be a major, major orchestra.

The ambition to really excel at the first level has not been in Seattle or Portland. Maybe people here are so far away from major arts cities that they have nothing truly first-rate to compare our arts organizations with. But it is just strange, given the money, education, and arts involvement of this region, that the orchestras in Seattle and Portland have been left behind.


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