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As arts writers disappear, Grand Rapids organizations band together to connect with audiences

From left, Corey Lipsey, Ashley Roberts, and Adrienne Brown.

The steady extinction of full-time arts reporters has left arts organizations in a quandary over how to make up for lost coverage. One local “supergroup” of marketing professionals is working to come up with solutions, but quick fixes don't come easy.
This article is the third in a three-part series from Rapid Growth Media on journalism and media in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Part one focused on different perspectives on contemporary journalism and how business changes have impacted the practice; part two dealt with diversity and the representation of different groups in the new media landscape; and part three will focus on how arts organizations in the community have responded to media layoffs and declining press coverage of events.

Back in February, when Rapid Growth Media first spoke with local leaders and thinkers about the state of media coverage in our city, Grand Valley State University journalism instructor Len O’Kelly remarked that it was difficult to even assess the kinds of stories that were being undercovered because of what he saw as major gaps in our media landscape, left by laid-off veterans and underpaid, overworked young reporters.

“I think a lot of the stories that we’re missing, we just don’t know, because they’re not even being covered in the first place,” O’Kelly said.

In some areas, though, like the arts, it’s easier to assess the aftermath of shrinking staffs. Ask any marketing director for an arts organization in Grand Rapids and they’ll tell you that they’re keenly aware of exactly which stories aren’t being covered.

Events in the performing arts — symphony and opera concerts, ballet performances, museum exhibits, and more — are no longer being previewed and reviewed like they once were, and arts organizations are struggling to come to terms with the changes.

Ashley Roberts“There’s a lot of anger, I think, from our patrons and performers who really miss seeing the reviews of our performances,” says Ashley Roberts, the marketing director for Opera Grand Rapids. “Not only are we missing the pre-show coverage but also the reviews, which are helpful for a lot of arts organizations to see — just for casting or to get a sense of how things are going, and also for people [in the public] who are deciding whether they want to go to the next show.”

Adrienne BrownAdrienne Brown, the marketing and events manager for the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, says the effect has been similar for museum exhibits, and she adds that her colleagues from other performing arts venues express similar frustrations.

“Without that review and without a reliable reviewer people have come to trust, a lot of the performing arts groups are saying that their second weekend of shows aren’t getting that big bump they used to when someone would come to review the dress rehearsal or reviewed their opening night,” she says.

Roberts, Brown, and Marketing Manager Corey Lipsey of the Grand Rapids Ballet all point to the same moment when local arts coverage fell into a tailspin. In January, Grand Rapids lost perhaps its foremost voice in arts journalism when longtime arts and entertainment reporter Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk was laid off from his position at MLive — along with 28 other statewide reporters, editors, and photographers — as part of a company restructuring.

Corey LipseyLipsey sums up the changes in Grand Rapids arts coverage since that time in succinct fashion: “The changes are that we don’t have an arts writer,” he says.

“As a performing arts venue, we really kind of look for that review,” Lipsey adds. “That thing where we can show people that we worked really hard on this and it’s really good, so you should come see it. And that’s a pivotal aspect that’s kind of been lost now.”

However, Kaczmarczyk — who reported on arts and culture for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for almost 24 years before he accepted a position as the public relations manager for the Grand Rapids Symphony after his January departure — says he doesn’t blame MLive Media Group or its parent company Advance Publications for a lack of dedication to arts coverage.

Jeffery KaczmarczykIn fact, he says, MLive held out longer than many other similar publications in employing senior arts reporters and devoting space to serious reviews of symphony concerts, ballet performances and other fine arts events.

“This issue is everywhere,” he says. “It’s not unique to Grand Rapids. Other outlets in other places gave up on this stuff a long time ago because they couldn’t figure out how to make it work. Nobody could figure out how to make it work.”

Although organizations like the American Society of News Editors have made an effort to quantify shrinking newsrooms via census data, statistics documenting the job losses among arts reporters specifically are hard to find. Almost every written reaction, anecdotal account and layoff headline from the media world, though, matches up with Kaczmarczyk’s assessment.

The National Arts Journalism Program, in fact, concluded back in 2004 as part of its “Reporting the Arts II” study that arts coverage in most news outlets was “flat or declining,” even as arts were proliferating nationwide. Reports that would indicate a reversal of that trend have been practically nonexistent over the ensuing 12 years, while the list of prominent art, music, and theater critics who have departed from longtime staff positions continues to pile up.

Speaking with the New York radio station WQXR last August, music critic Scott Cantrell and ArtsJournal.com founder Douglas McLennan agreed on an estimate regarding the number of full-time classical music critics at U.S. newspapers: 12, down from about 65 in the 1990s.

Kaczmarczyk, though, says he and his colleagues still didn’t quite see the January restructuring coming. His own stories, he says, had always met the data-driven performance objectives set forth by MLive — based on metrics like pageviews and the number of photos and videos taken for stories — and he still felt in control of his fate as an arts writer.

“Whether we were naive or hopeful or whatever, I think the majority of us thought we had pared down so lean, and we were getting reports of growing readership — I think most of us thought that as long as we worked hard and did a good job, all would be well,” he says.

Kaczmarczyk’s story as an arts reporter and newspaperman, as he tells it, seems to unfold with a gentle sense of destiny: He remembers being 12 years old and poring over the local newspaper until the moment his parents ripped it from his hands and kicked him out the door for school.

A former music major and aspiring high school choir teacher in college, Kaczmarczyk added a major in journalism to his studies after he became unsure he had the passion required to succeed in music. He later worked as a general assignment reporter and a freelance arts writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette before his music background landed him a part-time position as an arts and entertainment writer at the Grand Rapids Press, which later blossomed into a full-time career that seemed to end too soon in January, even after 23-plus years at work.

“I very much enjoyed being a reporter,” he says. “One of the reasons I stuck with it so long is that nothing ever came along that I wanted to do more. So, I didn’t leave the profession — the profession left me.”

As the public relations manager for the Symphony, though, Kaczmarczyk now has to deal with some of the ripples that declining arts coverage creates in performing arts organizations, where he says the loss is felt most acutely.

While readers can turn to Facebook for a take on last night’s performance or to Wikipedia for background on the production, he says, cash-strapped arts organizations have to find ways to make up for the lack of press support, which historically came at no direct cost and provided a reliable way to get information out to the public.

“The people who miss the arts and cultural coverage the most are the organizations themselves,” he says. “That’s the biggest change, really. Readers miss it but they’re managing to find information other places.”

To deal with some of these challenges, many of the arts organizations in town have started to ramp up their efforts at collaboration, especially on the marketing and public relations side of operations. Roberts, Brown, and Lipsey all participate in the “Cultural Marketing Group,” a sort of semi-formal “supergroup” of marketing minds that includes many of the prominent Grand Rapids cultural organizations — including the symphony, opera, ballet, and museums, along with the UICA, Civic Theatre, Circle Theater, Frederik Meijer Gardens, and more.

Brown, who is serving a one-year term as president of the Cultural Marketing Group, says the collaboration between 30-plus local arts organizations began almost 12 years ago as a way to share tips, best practices and opportunities for cross-promotion.

For an example of the group’s handiwork around town, Brown points to Experience GR’s Culture Pass GR, which provides discounts and special offers for multiple local arts organizations under the umbrella of a single one-year membership service. Brown says the Culture Pass, which is modeled after similar offerings in cities like Chicago, came about through the efforts of the CMG.

“Most people don’t know [the group] exists,” Brown says of the group. “We kind of fly under the radar a bit — which is ironic, because we’re marketing professionals.”

Roberts, Brown, and Lipsey all agree that collaboration is crucial for the near-future well-being of West Michigan arts organizations — both from a practical standpoint and to attract public and press attention, which seems to spike whenever the arts organizations work together, they say.

Social media also plays a critical role in filling the gap left by reporter layoffs and newsroom restructurings: Lipsey says the ballet has found success with what he calls the “bread crumb model,” which involves giving the audience brief behind-the-scenes snapshots of a production and creating a narrative out of bite-size bits of digital content.

“We’ll show pictures of rehearsal, then a little snippet of a choreographer working with a dancer or costumes getting made — just showing people the little bits and pieces that go into making a finished product in the hopes that they get emotionally invested enough that they want to purchase a ticket and watch the finished product,” he says.

For institutions like the opera and ballet, though, core patrons tend to fall into older demographic groups, who don’t always engage regularly with social media channels — which makes it challenging for them to keep longtime customers informed just by capitalizing on Facebook and Twitter.

And even if older patrons can be reached by other means, like print newsletters, the three marketing heads agree that no social media campaign can fill the gap in coverage left by an arts reporter with an independent mandate and years of institutional knowledge and background in the field.

“100 characters can’t explain an opera production,” Roberts says. “[Relying completely on social media] makes it really hard to encourage people who don’t go as often but would if a certain performer or director was a part of it. And we don’t really have a chance to explain things in these brief social posts.”

One recent model to address the loss of reporter expertise that has gained traction in some cities is for arts organizations to actually come together and sponsor arts reporting on their own. In Denver, for example, the Denver Center for Performing Arts hired former Denver Post theater critic John Moore to act as an on-staff senior journalist, providing reporting and editorial direction for the DCPA’s own news center at MyDenverCenter.org.

DCPA CEO Scott Shiller, writing about Moore’s hiring in a press release, promised that Moore would remain editorially independent and would function like a traditional journalist in his operations.

“Every day, we’re publishing theatre news from across the entire state with no agenda other than the news itself,“ wrote Shiller. “Obviously, we hope it helps promote our work and Colorado’s theatre community as a whole. Eventually, though, we want it to be a resource for anyone interested in arts reporting, in our talented community and in Denver’s unique place in the national arts scene.”

Earlier this year, a number of arts groups in Kalamazoo announced a somewhat similar plan to launch a publication and sponsor arts reporting themselves.

Roberts, Brown, and Lipsey say that the Cultural Marketing Group has had discussions about throwing their chips in with this model and potentially sponsoring a staff journalist at a local publication like Revue Magazine.

The main goal, Lipsey says, would be to start sowing the seeds now for a reporter to form the “inner circle” connections in the arts world and accumulate the institutional knowledge needed to educate readers about the Grand Rapids arts and culture scene.

“Reaching out to young people is an issue for the arts in general,” Lipsey says. “That’s a 10-year project at minimum, and it’s very expensive. It’s not something you can just wake up overnight and decide to do. It takes investment, and having someone dedicated to the art form who can educate new people is a critical part of that 10-year process.”

The proposals for such a plan have at least reached the stage of having a Revue staff writer come to a Cultural Marketing Group meeting to interview and discuss logistics, Lipsey says. But getting Grand Rapids arts organizations to come together and sponsor a full-time reporter is a tricky endeavor by the admission of all involved: Should smaller and larger arts organizations contribute equally? Who decides what the reporter will cover? How can the writer remain independent while accepting funding from potential sources?

Brown admits that these potential challenges are imposing, and that another one remains even if the CMG manages to navigate them all: How will arts organizations, having agreed upon a plan and selected a journalist, convince the public that the writer is credible?

“We’re very aware of that in these discussions,” Brown says. “We can have someone, but if they don’t have name recognition, it doesn’t matter if we say, ‘Hey, trust this person.’ We’re paying them. Of course we’re gonna say they’re great.”

Kaczmarczyk says he isn’t surprised that the proposal has encountered a lot of practical challenges. Even though arts organizations may have the best of intentions in terms of collaboration, he says that their logistical and philosophical differences — the types of coverage they need, the advance planning that goes into their seasons, their target audience — are often profound and elemental.

“If one group was unhappy and pulls out, it throws the funding off [in a model like that],” he says. “What do you do if one organization wants the [journalist] canned and meanwhile the other group thinks they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread?”

“It would take the wisdom of Solomon to make it work,” Kaczmarczyk adds. “I’m not at all saying it’s impossible, but you have to do it from the ground up. It’s like inventing a new piece of technology — you have to decide exactly what you want it to do before you can do it.”

Lipsey, though, says the challenges involved in finding an innovative and sustainable model to keep arts reporting alive should deter neither arts organizations nor progressive thinkers in the media — even if they seem towering at the moment.

The potential rewards, he says, are too great to pass up, and the opportunities for forming new partnerships and collaborations along the way too promising.

“It’s an exciting time, you know,” he says. “You get to experiment a little bit, try to figure out what audiences are really looking for. And previous to this we’ve all just kind of worked in our own little silos, and we didn’t want to come together to figure out those things. People aren’t reading the old stories anymore, so what do they want to read? That’s the million dollar question we’re all searching for together.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a freelance features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steventkent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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