7 things you need to know about the future of arts media and how you can influence it

The arts sector is not well equipped for the digital era.

At least that is the general conclusion that can be drawn from SAMAG’s seminar ‘Is Arts Journalism Dying?’ Arts media is just a more concise way of saying arts coverage in the media. This can be with text based content, such as reviews, features and interviews, or with video and audio content, such as podcasts and vox-pops. Despite the shift in new technologies over the past two decades, arts organisations are still largely dependent on traditional media outlets to build new audiences (and then question why the arts is not more widely embraced and advocated for).

Arts journalism isn’t dying, it is evolving. Into what and why is an interesting conversation that changes daily.

It is a daunting task to expect everyone to keep up with this rate of change, which is why it is essential for the arts to start investing resources in those who are. This is a conversation that the arts should have been having yesterday. Today, the conversation should have been about how the media and arts administration will evolve with aid of artificial intelligence. Alas, here we are.

Here’s the low down on what you need to know…

Print or digital

… as a digital consumer: 

  1. Your behaviour online is having a drastic effect on the nature of the media. How you consume the news online (Facebook, on mobile devices/desktop) and the demand for immediate content are having greater implications on the content you read. Remember this content is ultimately produced for you – the audience. Word of mouth recommendations are premium and feedback can be actioned much quicker online than it can for print publications.
  2. Digital News has resulted in a democratisation of current affairs. Have you noticed how there is an increasing amount of handheld footage used in news stories? This has contributed to the rise in citizen journalism. Anyone who has access to the tools and a stable internet connection can be a reporter. Freelance bloggers and Instagram personalities are also changing the way we consume advertising. Brands are willing to pay for personalities to promote their goods and services in a peer-to-peer style of advertising with digital influencers at the forefront.

… as an art producer: 

  1. The Future of Work is favouring a gig-economy. Freelance journalist Elissa Blake spoke to the reductions in full time staff at Fairfax over the last five years. What used to be a whole level dedicated to specialist journalists by art form has been reduced to 3 staff for the whole country. Steph Harmon concurred that at the Guardian there are two arts journalists for national arts coverage. This means that it is harder for editors to justify covering independent, greater suburban events because of the brand’s national reach. The New Work Order is another wider trend that the arts has failed to effectively engage with, but you can read more about it’s broader context here.
  2. The Solution? There is now an underemployed labour market, and potential to develop hyper-localised specialty publications that speak to specific audience content needs. (Ahem – Hi – that’s part of the reason why we exist.) The panel agreed that art organisations need to band together and back independent media. Meaning they collaborate to make independent titles sustainable – it’s a win-win for jobs and brand awareness.Kate Edwards Quote
  3. Arts Organisations are asking for the wrong data. This means that expectations of readers are misinformed. Instead of asking about social media following (quantity), they should start asking about overall engagement (quality reach). Instead of focusing on social media data, that need to start asking about the percentage of direct website traffic and the behaviour trends of this traffic. Think about your own online behaviour. Acknowledge that user behaviour can change from month to month. Art organisations in partnership with the media outlet, are continually going to have to adapt and test engagement strategies. What works tomorrow, won’t necessarily work next week. This is the new relationship between the arts and media in the digital age. It is mutually beneficial if done properly.
  4. Who is arts journalism produced for? Audiences. So realise that building their trust means that your advertorial content may include some criticism. If a writer over praises what was obviously not your best work, readers will notice. Building trust means there needs to be some writer’s freedom to call it like it is. This credibility supports your ability to build and share audiences with other organisations and to continue unbiased coverage of your programs.
  5. Stop asking the wrong questions when comparing the arts to sport. Whether it is about investment or media coverage, the arts continues to ask the wrong questions and it’s frustrating. Not only because it is repetitive, but because it isn’t advancing the conversation. I would argue that it starts with the fact that sport organisations take themselves more seriously as businesses. A topic that goes beyond the scope of this article, in short when it comes to news coverage, sport has better embraced its place as entertainment in society. Generally speaking, the arts still scoff at the thought of being considered entertainment, despite the Australia Council’s research that 98% of Australians consider the arts to be a part of their everyday lives.
  6. Use social media properly and avoid digital litter. Audiences are tired of ads and being bombarded with content that services no purpose. Be known for consistently producing high quality content.
  7. The arts needs to invest in digital media and journalists.
    a) The rise of independent free bloggers is not sustainable. If you aren’t paying industry standard rates, you are stopping the writer from being paid properly, which is not in your best interests.
    b) When publications don’t have travel budgets, getting programs covered means there needs to be a writer on the ground in your locality. It is as simple as starting to network with your local writers.
    c) A wider trend in advertising is that brands are capitalising on the rise of Instagram personalities to reach audiences. Perhaps not as subtle as it was at first, but the arts needs to start paying attention to these shifts and trends if they are going to keep up.
    d) Invest in publicity agents who will advocate for your programs. If you aren’t pushing them out there, how do you expect people to find you?
    e) When space in print media is shrinking, it seems almost too obvious to turn to the internet where space seems infinite, but it must be used correctly.

The arts wants to be known for innovation, but as a sector it is incredibly risk adverse. This is not how innovation happens and ultimately how we ended up having a dated analogue conversation.

While the arts sector fears the disruption occurring in journalism, others are embracing artificial intelligence in the workplace. It isn’t even really disruption, it is just a sector that has failed to keep up with the capacity of technology to reach and appeal to audiences. The arts continues to stumble with the uncomfortable label of being elitist. The democratisation of the media means more opinions can be heard and the true subjectivity of art can be embraced, not limited to those with the “authority” to speak about it.

The way forward is to start having a serious think about the relationship between the arts and the media as a tool to build new audiences. It is in their mutual interests that the other is financially sustainable, they need to start coordinating better.

This article was first published on State of the Arts media on September 3, 2017. 

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