I am going to take it for granted that, since you’ve opted to read this article, you care about the arts. I’m also going to save time and typing by assuming that you appreciate media coverage of the arts and that you realize that without the attention of the media, it will be ever harder for the arts to share their news, their work and their value locally, nationally and internationally.
Since we are agreed, I will proceed directly to my point.
If you want to see intelligent, comprehensive coverage of the arts – features and reviews alike – then you’ve got to start clicking. Journalism is well on its way to being a numbers game for most outlets. How many people clicked on a story or video, how many times was it liked or shared, how much time was spent looking at it? We are already seeing journalism sites paying writers base salaries with bumps or bonuses based on online metrics; outlets say they are dropping certain types of coverage because it’s simply not generating enough traffic. It’s not enough to be happy that arts coverage exists, you have to actually engage with it to insure its survival and the job survival of those who create it.
Clicks mean eyes and eyes mean advertisers. As print becomes an ever-harder sell, online advertising grows ever more important to outlets. Even back in the days pre-internet, I encountered cuts in arts coverage because the arts didn’t generate enough advertising revenue (whereas advertisers loved sports sections and we get regular features about new cars because auto dealers buy big ads). Even now, arts spending online is a small sliver of online advertising, so our best means of supporting arts coverage is by actually reading it.
Let’s face it: anyone with a WordPress blog knows how many people read each piece they post (yes, I’m watching you). But that’s amateur hour compared to the realtime and cumulative algorithms and analytics applied at big media outlets. There are teams of people looking at clicks, links and likes for every story, and media empires are being built on click-bait methodology (why, hello BuzzFeed). It’s running the show in many places and it can’t be ignored.
So here’s what I propose. Every morning, when you get online, go to the arts section of your local media outlets, seek out their arts and entertainment stories, and click of them. Don’t click on each in rapid succession, but spend 30 to 45 seconds on each one (remember your multiple browser windows). You have to wait a bit because one analytic is stickiness or hang-time or whatever it’s called now, namely whether people are really engaging with coverage. A click on and immediate click off looks like you got there by mistake. And needless to say, it certainly won’t hurt in the least if you actually read a story or watch a video while you’re at it.
I should also note that just liking or retweeting a story isn’t enough: you actually have to look at it. Sometimes you’re just liking a friend posting about a story, not the story or video itself, and that’s an important difference. There have been studies that show that many people retweet items without ever actually reading them, and anecdotally I know that to be true: I often see my own tweets with embedded links that have more retweets than clicks. You’ve got to stop and look. That said, on Facebook likes and shares feed into an algorithm that’s sure more people might see the post featured in their feed, and retweets do the same, so be liberal with those too.
You need to share this idea with your staffs, your audience, your donors. This can’t be an effort by a couple of thousand core die-hards; this has to be a movement and it has to be sustained. I do my part every day in curating the articles I share on my twitter feed. You don’t need to be as exhaustive as I am, but whether you seek out a story or if it comes across your social media feed, click on it (often click on opera and symphony stories even though I rarely attend them). If the arts generate eyes, if they generate numbers, you’re going to have a direct impact on how the arts are viewed by the media decision makers. Clicking on the occasional ad next to an arts story matters too.
I’d like to give this idea some snappy name that the field can adopt, but I’m only coming up with corny and possibly inexplicable ideas like “Click 10 For The Arts,” which in my mind is shorthand for remind you to click on 10 arts stories daily. I hope that if people buy into this idea, someone will come up with something clever.
But unlike the world of journalism 25 years ago, where outlets only knew how many papers they sold, it’s now exceedingly easy to know what gets traffic and what doesn’t. No need for audience surveys when our every move online is recorded. If we don’t actively work to pump up the stats for arts coverage, it’ll continue to erode.
To quote Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone,” and we’ve lost too much already. So next time you want to take a quiz about what Shakespeare villain or what Sondheim character you are, at least spend the equivalent amount of time reading articles about Shakespeare plays or Sondheim shows. Because while the former may be fun, it’s the latter that will actually sustain arts journalism and sustain the arts.
P.S. Thanks for clicking on this story. Now would you be so kind to like it, favorite it, share it, retweet it and so on? And yes, I’ll know if you did.