Despite the chilly, dreary afternoon happening just outside the window, the students and faculty within 3200 Knight Hall were buzzing with enthusiasm.
Those present shared one thing in common: an interest or love in writing about the arts.
A panel held on May 5 discussed the evolving relationship of arts and journalism in the digital age, amongst an intimate audience.
The panel consisted of four writers and critics in the arts and theater beat: John Stoltenberg, avid theatergoer and critic for a column in DC Metro Theater Arts; Rebecca Ritzel, freelance dance critic and theater communist for The Washington Post, as well as a professor at this university; Robert Bettmann, an artist, art writer and founder of the magazine Bourgeon; and Sarah Kaufman, a University of Maryland alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic for The Washington Post.
After light refreshments, each panelist discussed his or her personal role in the arts-journalism world, all before delving into questions of the changing roles of arts writers in an age of ever-growing technology and dependence on social media.
Several topics were discussed under the umbrella of the digital age, such as the relationship of journalism and marketing (referred to as the “blurb industry”), the increasing freedom of online contributors, centralizing writing for specific audiences, consumerism and the unknown future of journalism as a whole.
“The panel offered diverse perspectives on arts journalism and the role of social media. It was a great opportunity for UMD students to hear from working journalists about the changes they’ve seen and the way they approach their writing,” said Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center communications manager Sarah Snyder via email.
In today’s society, the internet supplies limitless platforms for self expression and opinionated pieces, both professional and otherwise, proving to be a competition and challenge for arts journalists and the significance of their work.
“I appreciate that everyone is a critic these days. I think that we have to be more savvy as an industry about understanding how some traditional forms of arts, if we want them to be preserved, need to be supported in new ways,” Bettmann said.
The panel also brought to the surface the issue of the “blurb industry:” the act of advertising and marketing agencies taking or tweaking lines from reviews to sell tickets to shows and performances. Differing opinions were shared during the discussion.
“We were talking before about the line between marketing and criticism, and there is a sense in which they blur, especially in the digital space,” Stoltenberg said. “I’m writing it [a review] that way because it’s a true thing, but I’ll sometimes look back at it and say, ‘Is this quotable?’ because I want butts in seats, too. If I think that it’s an important piece that people should see, then I don’t mind helping out the marketing folks to let people know about it.”
Ritzel then shared a few situations in which she had been contacted to change a blurb from her review to benefit one party over the other for advertising purposes, in which she declined, as well as the frustrations she felt after the popularity of one of her pieces featured on a billboard overshadowed the piece itself.
“When I write reviews, I go back and I look for phrases that could be blurbed, and I change them so they cannot be,” Ritzel said. “There definitely is a blurb industry. The blurb of mine that has been most high profiled was a review I wrote about Cirque du Soleil. It ended up on billboards—in fact, one on 295—and the amount of people who were all of a sudden sending me photos of the ad from Cirque du Soleil… it was like ‘Why doesn’t this happen when I write something?’”
One of the most recurring topics of the panel was social media changing the platform in which journalism is popularized. Twitter, for example, has made its way into theater and the arts, surfacing the controversy over its appropriateness in this setting.
Bettmann shared an anecdote in which he was seeing a performance where “Tweet Seats” were offered for those in attendance with a significant number of Twitter followers to sit and live tweet the performance.
“I totally think that Twitter is prominent, especially in this type of writing. I think it also has a marketing aspect as well,” said senior criminal justice major Maria Menges, who attended the panel. “I would have a Twitter, but I don’t think that what I have to say is that important, but these are critics. Whatever they do say, people hold it true and relevant.”
The presence of social media plays a significant role in the ever-changing nature of journalism, as well as the ambiguity of its future, often leading to the assumption that journalism in this form is on its way out.
For those who still wish to pursue arts-journalism, Kaufman offered words of encouragement:
“No matter how small a niche, there is going to be a passionate following: for dance … for visual arts, for music, for whatever it is that you love, that’s your interest, what you go to for entertainment for artistic fulfillment,” she said. “You know that if you’re a follower, you’re going to want to know the stories behind it. That’s going to continue to feed arts-journalism.”
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jon S’ Flickr account.
Jordan Stovka is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.