Exposing, Part II

Yesterday I gave some information about questions I asked my mother and sisters regarding their experience with the arts. Today I wanted to mention some insights the whole exercise gave me. Some of the lessons learned were just about my family, but the process got me thinking about the way arts organizations go about collecting information.

First of all, out of curiousity I looked up some birth order studies and was mildly amused to learn that as the first born, I am not supposed to be interested in the arts. Though the study also says that I am supposed to be interested in intellectual and cognitive pursuits and I would imagine the fact I am producing this type of blog bears that out.

In speaking with my mother, it was interesting to see that her experience was mirrored in the second section of “Leverage Lost…” that I cited last week. While she didn’t attend any performances until she was in college, the arts had a greater presence in her life via popular culture. I had nearly forgotten that Broadway show tunes once topped the pop charts. I think the last cast recording to ever make it to Top 40 radio was “One Night in Bangkok” from Chess back in the 80s.

I think because she and my father were teachers we benefitted from their impulse to educate and expose us to as many things as they could on a budget. Neither of my sisters really remember going to any of these places which seems strange to me because I remember so many details so clearly. (1st Broadway show-Peter Pan with Sandy Duncan when I was in 2nd grade.) My second sister I can understand because I had a five year head start on her and our parent’s separation when she was nine put a damper on other experiences. All these experiences apparently didn’t make an impression on my other’s sister’s memories. Though a value for such experiences certainly seems to have been instilled in her.

I have to say I was surprised by the fervor with which Sister #1 responded. I had emailed her with my questions whereas I phoned my mother and spoke face to face with Sister #2. Perhaps she took advantage of the additional time she was allowed to answer the questions and mulled over her answers to make them reflect her image of herself as many survey takers do.

Knowing her as I do, I am aware of how enthusiastic she is on certain subjects and how interested she is in new experiences so I really feel her responses are genuine. As I had mentioned yesterday, I never really spoke to my family about their experiences with the arts before. I wasn’t really aware this was how my sister felt and it came as a surprise to me.

What really surprised me though was the answers from Sister #2. Despite having grown up in a house where music was always being played, having been in high school musicals, having lived in and near NYC and possessing a larger disposable income than myself, my mother or Sister #1, Sister #2 has the lowest attendance and participation in the arts and places the lowest value on the experience. Her outlook provided me with some insight into some of the challenges arts organizations may face.

I knew she was often busy at work and didn’t have a lot of time to attend shows. I also knew those she did attend were at the invitation of friends or as a result of something her company set up to entertain clients. It was intriguing to some degree to learn that while attendance wasn’t something she would instigate on her own, she possessed an elitist view that only productions in NYC were worth seeing. I don’t quite know if living and working in New York City shaped her view, (It is oh so very true that denizens of NYC view themselves as the center of the world on many fronts), or if it is because that is the only place she has seen performances.

There are a number of very good theatres in her immediate area like the McCarter and State Theatre as well as museums and two symphony orchestras. She was vaguely aware that some organizations did exist, but even knowing that she would have to travel and pass less for her experience, she was dubious about the quality of performance she would receive. I wonder how many other people living in the Princeton area have the same view of their local arts organizations. Knowing this might inform a better marketing and PR strategy for these places.

The brief process of interviewing my family got me to thinking about the market surveying arts organizations do. I have both administered and taken surveys and been a member of focus groups. I know that when you survey you have to be careful about how you word questions and how your non-verbal cues can indicate how you want people to answer. It occurs to me though that in some cases you might get better answers by being less clinical and more personal.

Instead of asking people what the last show they saw was and how they would rate it on a scale from one to ten, it might be better to draw them out by having a conversation about their experiences growing up and then segue into how they felt about more recent attendance. It seems to me if the interviewer is sharing their own ancedotes, the interviewed will being to feel comfortable enough to open up and provide a deeper sense of their relationship with the arts than they would for a neutral bias survey or focus group.

Certainly, it would be a more labor intensive process to survey in this manner. But when it comes to investigating trends and attitudes, you might be able to derive a better sense of things by talking to 20 people for an hour about their childhood experiences than by asking 60 people to answer on a scale of “often, sometimes, infrequently and never.”

It seems (and I say all this without any empirical evidence to cite) that people will provide a more complete answer if they are in a conversational mode where they feel they have time to think and reflect on past experiences rather than faced by a person with a clipboard whose demeanor suggests they answer quickly so the next question can be asked.

I almost want to say that the most conducive atmosphere is akin to people meeting to chat over coffee where the interviewer isn’t so much asking questions as nudging conversations in certain directions. The real question then is then how to conduct such an interview? I don’t really have an answer.

It is easy to get people who are really interested to turn out for such an event, but all that does is give you answers from people who you know already like you and the type of thing you do. Making sure you aren’t alienating your current audience base is fine. What you really want to discover is more about the people who don’t know much about you and what you do and find a way to educate and attract some of them to your organization. It ain’t easy. Schools have a hard time doing this and they deal with people who are required to be there by law. Getting people who are intimidated or unfamiliar with the arts to sit down and talk to you over coffee could prove difficult.

I would say the only solution is to take it slowly and be sincere about it. Have a juice and cookies reception after a children’s show and use the topic of their children as a conversation starter slowly turning the subject to their experiences as kids vs. their current experience with the arts. Show that you sincerely want to know about them and want to find a way to make it easier. If word gets around that you care and are easy to speak to, people may be more willing to accept invitations to express themselves at slightly more formal meetings. They may even start attending performances on the friendly reputation alone.

This comes back to what I have written quite a few times before–learning about people’s expectations and making a sincere attempt to answer them is really the name of the game for this technological age. The process of gathering the information is time consuming, but technology provides the tools to store, track and then act upon the information in a manner that is specific to an individual.

Right Place for Credit

Since I am getting some positive support and feedback for my blog, I have thought that mentioning it on my resume might be beneficial in my job search. However, I have no idea where an appropriate place might be to position the information. To that end, I contacted Anne Fisher who writes a job advice column for Fortune.

I wrote the following:

Dear Annie-

I am unemployed and in order to keep my skills sharp and synthesize my ideas about management in my particular field, I have been writing them down in a web log. I have received some compliments on the quality of my writing and research from some objective writers and managers in the field. I am thinking about referring to my blog on my resume and wonder what the etiquette and rules might be. Since blogging is such a new (but potentially influential), method of publishing and communication this isn’t something covered in the usual resume guidebooks.

I am not sure where to place a reference to my work either. Since it isn’t a volunteer or employment position, I don’t want to include it in that section. But I also want to show off my skills and innovation because it will set me apart from other applicants so don’t want to list it at the end of my resume near my applicable software skills.

My final concern is that like any quasi-journalistic endeavor, some days I am more profound than others. I want to present my magnificence, but I will never know when a potential employer will view my site and the first entry they see may not be the work of genius the previous entry was. From my point of view, it is still worth it for an employer to see a good entry rather than a fabulous one, but I wonder if there are variables I am not considering.

Any advice?

To which she responded by email:

This is a really interesting question (and one that, as you note, is on the “cutting edge”, so no real protocol exists for it — yet!). You know what I’d do? List the blog address on your resume at the top, right under your contact info, but set apart by a line or two so it stands out. It might just catch someone’s eye. You can’t stop them from going online and perusing your less-brilliant stuff (hey, I can’t stop that either!), but this is something that may intrigue just the sort of interviewer you *want* to be hired by: Up to date, open to new ideas, respectful of individual initiative. But also, I’d like to get an expert opinion — assuming I can find one, on so new a thing…! 😉 Thanks! A.

I will update the blog if she does find someone who feels confident in giving an expert opinion.

It occurs to me that this may become a new trend in the employment process. Not everyone will create a blog on a topic of interest to their industry, of course. However, people may be quoted in articles or have published papers that appear online and will want to make potential employers aware that the information is available. Rather than write out long, hard to accurately type URL addresses on their resumes, candidates can provide a simple web address that contains links to the relevant articles.

If anyone has some thoughts, I would be interested in hearing them. Either click on the comment line at the end of this entry or click on my name to email me. I would especially be interested in knowing if anyone outside of internet, graphic design and publishing industries are placing web addresses to their work on resumes and in what industries is this happening.

Bloggers as New Arts Critics?

Yesterday I mentioned the idea that with the reduction of staff and space devoted to the arts in newspapers, bloggers might become the new performance critics. In preparation for holding forth on this idea, I wanted to see if anyone had written on the issue of bloggers and online journals replacing newspapers as information sources.

Some Context

As luck would have it, I came across an excellent article called Blogosphere: the Emerging Media Ecosystem: How Weblogs and Journalists work together to Report, Filter and Break the News . In this and three ancillary articles, (Are Bloggers Journalists?, Borg Journalism, and More on Blogging and Journalism) the author, John Hiler, really does an excellent job discussing how bloggers and journalists differ and how their existences are interrelated.

Among some of the points he made were: “Mainstream” Journalists don’t regard bloggers as journalists because of the subjectivity of their work. Bloggers don’t make any claim to objectivity and regard journalists as hypocrites for claiming they are. Most bloggers feel journalists have their own agenda, don’t adhere to their own code of ethics, and are frequently inaccurate in their reporting.

Some of the strengths and weakness of blogs that Mr. Hiler mentions are: They are good at realizing the implications of points and extending them to their logical conclusions; they are good at debunking stories, but not good at summarizing or correcting errors; there is a built in peer-review system.

To quickly explain-The first point is very encouraging to me since my whole purpose in writing this blog is to study the implications of things I have read on the arts. The second point, Hiler illustrates with some examples of how bloggers have quickly exposed money making scams where people make pleas for money and sympathy for their debilitating diseases. However, he also cites examples of bloggers mischaracterizing what people have said while summarizing articles. (The irony that I might be mischaracterizing him by summarizing his ideas is not lost on me.) He also gives examples of people linking to and citing controversial information like mad, but not doing the same when a correction was made the next day.

The last point about peer review is related to the debunking issue. One of the reasons journalists minimize the value of blogs is because there is no editor present to keep bloggers on course and reined in. However, Hiler cites examples of tens to thousands of bloggers contacting writers to point out errors.

Blogger as the New Arts Critic

Having read all this, I have a better idea of how a blogger could operate as an arts critic. What I envision happening to a lesser or greater extent is a paper really cutting back on coverage and an arts organization gradually becoming aware of people who are writing about their attendance experience. The arts organization contacts the people who write best and probably least critically of them and extend free tickets to them as they do the newspaper critic. (Though many newspaper critics do pay for their tickets) Then the arts organization begins quoting the reviews and directing people to that writer’s website.

There are, of course, benefits and pitfalls to this situation. First of all, the person doing the writing has to be seen as credible. They must write well, have a fair bit of expertise in the subject (rather than having taken an appreciation course in college), and certainly has to have a very limited conflict of interest (perhaps is a long time subscriber, but not on the board or a relative of staff).

Many newspaper critics are mindful of a code of ethics and will avoid any appearance of impropriety such as accepting benefits that the general public don’t receive. An individual who hasn’t been exposed to journalistic training might find themselves on a slippery slope of favor currying if they aren’t careful about what they accept.

Another thing that might detract from a blogging reviewer’s credibility might be the narrow scope of their experience and venue attendance. If the writer only attends one arts organization and has done so for the 15 years, they can only talk about how good the shows are in relation to past shows at the same venue. In the best of worlds, the reviewer would begin to receive invitations to ply their craft at other venues out of recognition of their excellent writing. There is a chance though that organizations will cultivate “pet” reviewers who are sympathetic to them alone.

On the other hand, audiences often crossover to different venues and can create a demand for reviews by the person whose opinion is most aligned with their own. This is where the strength of blogs comes into play. I had cited and article in an earlier entry that talked about how blogs are places where opinion leaders can state their thoughts and people can easily access them. It is the same in this case. If people come to respect a reviewer, a demand to have them review in many places can arise. Also, people who don’t agree with a review have the opportunity to post a review of their own possibly making them an opinion leader for another segment of an audience who shares their tastes. People also have the opportunity to write to the critic and support or disagree with what was written. This may keep the writer honest or it may make them conform to the loudest opinions to keep the hate mail away. Certainly, the blog writer has to have the thick skin of his/her newspaper counterparts.

The biggest danger could be that good writers might find themselves in trouble if a demand for their skilled services takes them away from their family and jeopardizes their positions at their day jobs. They may have a little more leeway than the newspaper reporter who often rushes from curtain call to make a deadline. However, there is certain to be some pressure by arts organizations and readers alike to produce a review quickly so decisions to attend can be made and tickets sold for the most days remaining in a run. Businesses may not look kindly upon their engineers and managers using work time to write reviews.

It certainly isn’t viable for organizations to pay for the reviewers’ time since those with the most money can get more frequent and perhaps better exposure. The solution, ironically might be to have a centralized organization/clearinghouse which insures the quality of writing and then assigns writers to shows on a rotating, as available basis. Hmm, this sounds like a newspaper! Truthfully, since it is doing little more than calling up a pool of reviewers, the clearinghouse could be the local arts council. The clearinghouse could charge a nominal fee to the participating organizations and host a centralized website where the reviews appeared so audiences didn’t have to hunt down the sites of the different reviewers. (Or the central website could link people to those individual’s review sites.)

The upside is that an organization gets well written reviews and stories. The writers aren’t called upon so frequently that they don’t feel the effort they are expending for free exceeds the value of the ticket and experience they are receiving. Since the writers aren’t working for the clearinghouse merely getting a call, they retain their independence.

A huge benefit of having bloggers write about your organization is that they don’t have the space restrictions newspapers have. They can do indepth advance analyzes of every aspect of your show and do a thorough critique of the performance/exhibit. (It would be great if newspaper reviewers could note that more complete versions of their stories appeared on the newspaper website as a number of magazines do.) Since they don’t have as strong a requirement to be objective or detached from what they are viewing, a blog writer may also be more apt to discuss nuances that particularly touched them personally or present an alternative dissenting view offered by a companion or even admit they might be wrong in their view as the audience seemed to enjoy the show where they had not.

It seems to me that a well organized relationship with blogging writer can yield greater rewards than a good relationship with a newspaper writer. I would bet that some variation of what I have suggested here will eventually emerge as the dominant fashion through which people receive information about arts organizations. The players might be different, but I believe the process could be very similar.

Feed Me!

Apropos the end of yesterday’s post, I came across an article on the web that discussed RSS feeds which is another sign of how technology is allowing people to narrow down how much of the world to which they are exposed. You may be seeing this option popping up on blogs and websites you frequent. Essentially what the feed does is send story headlines and notifies you of changes to a website.

The technology is still in its beginning steps though the article terms it as the next killer app that will change the way business is done on the web. Like the start of web browsing, you have to download viewing software though Microsoft is apparently going to integrate a viewer in its next operating system. It also feeds you news and information without ads but that is sure to change as well as the technology becomes the new channel through which people view their world (and it ain’t cheap to transmit all this feed.)

Because it is in the beginning stages, there isn’t any uniformity to the feeds. Some may be sparse text headlines with links back to a website for more information, others might give you a multimedia blast with the entire text of an article.

What does strike me though is that this is another low cost opportunity for arts organizations to get information out to audiences and develop relationships with specific people by providing information tailored specifically to their interests. You can use this format to send information about upcoming seasons, warn people about a show that is about to sell out, or even remind people they purchased tickets for that evening when they turn their computer on in the morning. Given that people are subscribing less and waiting until the last moment to purchase tickets, organizations may also end up reminding people to buy tickets at all.

Certainly this might be a solution to a lot of the problems faced by the Mondavi Center in the article I cited yesterday about shows being forgotten and lack of good seats. Favored patrons be they students, subscribers or donors could have their own special feed with advance offerings and special deals.

I will be watching this technology to see how it develops and what implications it might have for the arts.