Knight Foundation’s Challenge Offers New Models for Arts Journalism

Click above for the video describing the finalists of the Knight Foundation’s Arts Journalism Challenge, or click here to watch it at Vimeo.

Several years before the 2008 explosion of the current global financial crisis into public consciousness, sensationalists were hyping the death of journalism, or at least of print media. By 2011, austerity measures meant asking the question of whether funding arts initiatives was wise. Generally, there seems to be real anxiety about whether arts journalism can survive where resources are lacking.

In a post titled “Why Arts Journalism Matters” this past summer on Art Works, the official blog of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rainey Knudson, founder of the Texas arts website Glasstire, wrote that, “There’s probably a reason that that brand of arts journalism is dying, and it’s not solely that advertising dollars are migrating away from print. Arts journalism in the heyday of the daily newspaper got concentrated in the hands of too few people.” In September 2011 Adam Martin wrote in the Atlantic Wire on “The End of the Career Food Critic”: “More and more, as newspapers shed their longstanding reviewers, those reviewers go on to write independently about food generally, and their jobs get folded into the paper’s general food-writing staff …. The days of the all-powerful critic have already been declared over, but there will always be a need for smart people to write about food in a way that makes you want to eat it or not.”

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has made it their mission to go out and fund projects that try to find or train these smart writers. In July 2011 the foundation, in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts, announced the Community Arts Journalism Challenge, which invites applications proposing new models for arts journalism in the digital age. Each proposal had to focus on one of eight places: Akron, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Macon, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Miami, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; San Jose and the Silicon Valley area in California; and St. Paul, Minnesota. In October five proposals received $20,000 to develop and enact their models; one, two, or three final winners will be awarded up to an additional $80,000. Six projects designated honorable mentions, including one from Macon, received $1,000.

The Miami-based Knight Foundation aims to promote democracy by advocating for journalism and the arts. The foundation was established by the Knight family, owners of the Knight Ridder media company, which at one time was the second-largest newspaper owner in the United States. Knight Ridder was bought in 2006 by the McClatchy Company, which sold off several former Knight Ridder publications.

The five finalist proposals vary in how far they distance themselves from traditional arts journalism. On the safe end of the spectrum, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte will partner with major local media outlets to create the Charlotte Arts News Alliance. Through the university, the alliance will offer formal training to prospective arts journalists, who in turn are to cover local arts for the alliance. Alliance partners such as the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Viewpoint, an independent website about local arts and culture, will publish this coverage.

The alliance sounds like a newswire—a service selling syndicated copy to newspapers—that specializes in local arts news and is sponsored by some of the leading cultural institutions in the city. The major digital component of the proposal is the creation of an application that will make alliance writing available alongside “interactive features.” Incidentally, lead partner the Charlotte Observer is owned by McClatchy, which bought the paper from Knight Ridder.

A similar proposal was spearheaded by Jason Wilson, a food and spirits writer for the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Daily News and the author of Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure and the Overrated in Spirits (no, seriously—find him @boozecolumnist on Twitter). The project will team Drexel University community members with the Daily News, which will publish the new coverage.

On the other end of the spectrum is iCritic Detroit, a collaboration between two former New York Times employees and the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts. The mobile iCritic video booth will travel to different arts events around Detroit—anywhere from museums to theaters to just sitting on the street—where anyone will be free to record an impression or critique of what they have just seen or experienced. These videos will then be curated and shared with the community via the iCritic website. The booth can be tracked via an app.

If there’s one thing most of the proposals share, other than getting the general population involved in arts journalism, it’s apps. Silicon Valley Arts Technica, a proposal from San Jose, will create a map of cultural happenings in town that aims to crowdsource relevant information such as reviews or pictures. This app will help identify “potential art hubs” in Silicon Valley.

ArtSpotMiami also aims to integrate mapping tools and mobile technology into a sort of Kickstarter for arts coverage, where citizen journalists pitch stories that are funded by the community based on such criteria as location and content. The citizen journalists will be assisted by the Miami Herald (another former Knight Ridder paper) and the University of Miami’s motion picture program.

Three of these five proposals intend to combine traditional journalism and arts training with new media publishing platforms; the iCritic Detroit project intends to eschew them. Although Drexel University has a strong arts community, the Philadelphia proposal seems barely engaged in digital platforms. Only one model, ArtSpotMiami, is clear about how journalists will be paid for their work outside the Knight Foundation funding.

These proposals share the belief that the singular, formally trained critic model is dying, and new voices, perhaps ones with little to no art or media background, will begin to take its place. The winners will be announced later this spring.


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