Project 10

The project I am proposing here is an outgrowth of an initiative I am already coordinating with several local news outlets.

We are in the very early stages of building a comprehensive online guide to community theater in Northeast Ohio. It is a test project, which we launched in early June in collaboration with 30 non-Equity theaters in Northeast Ohio. It is still very much a work in progress and is developing slowly. But if it works out, my hope is to expand the concept to other areas of the arts in our region such as the art museum/gallery scene and the classical music community.

The idea is to create an extensive, interactive guide to community, high school and college theater online. Each theater has its own home in the guide featuring a profile, links and an embedded widget that allows us to import up-to-date performance schedules.

We want the guide to be MUCH more than that, however. The goal is to create a high-profile portal through which theater people and audiences can access news, reviews and other interactive features. We feed our daily and weekly newspapers’ community-theater stories, reviews and features into the guide. We have also developed a network of bloggers and contributors from the theaters themselves. The idea is to give the theaters themselves access to the guide to post reports on their shows, features on important people, audition notices, photos, video, etc. We have also reached out to important, established community-theater advocates and organizations to involve them in the project.

Much of the content is also fed to the main arts pages online to broaden the audience. We also regularly direct people to the online content with stories and notices in the printed paper. Most importantly, we have linked this initiative to our overall efforts to build hyper-local news sites for the communities in our region. All of the community theater content is tagged by community and is fed into hyper-local sites.

There is a passionate audience for community theater in Northeast Ohio. In fact, in my experience as arts editor for both our printed newspaper and website, there is only one group of folks more passionate: The people who put on the shows. The ideas is to tap into that energy and create a great online resource for audiences and theater folk alike.

I believe we have only begun to tap the potential of the idea, both creatively and technologically. I would love to have a group of USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellows brainstorm the concept. I think this project fits best with the Audience/Community Engagement area of interest, but it also obviously touches on others you are interested in, including Innovative Technology and New Forms of Storytelling. Here are just a few things I would love to explore:

1. The theaters were very excited about participating in the project. But since its launch their engagement in it has been hit and miss. How do we use the resources of the daily newspaper, our website and community newspapers to build and engage this audience? Are there technological solutions – crowd-sourcing and social media tools – that we can use more effectively in engaging the community-theater community? Many of these small theaters are strapped financially and do not have full-time public relations and marketing people. How do we make it EASY for them to help us tell their story?

2. How do we better integrate journalists and critics into the mix? We have made a commitment to feature the content of our critics and writers on the community-theater site. And the same goes for our weekly chain. But how do we convince other critics around our region to contribute? Money is a powerful motivator, I know. But even a newspaper of our size has increasingly limited resources to pay freelancers. How do we make it worth their time to post their content on the site? Can we create partnerships with local critics that will also drive traffic to their own websites, thereby building their audiences and perhaps enabling them build their own arts-based writing businesses?

3. Is there a way we can direct content from the theaters’ web pages and Facebook and Twitter accounts directly onto a social-media section of the newspaper’s community theater site? Right now, if theaters want to post to the site they must sign on as a blogger and put up the content themselves. It is in their interest to do so, but posting has been spotty. Mostly, I think this boils down to time. They are busy producing shows, holding auditions, etc. If would could make it easier for them to post, I think participation would jump significantly.

4. How do we partner with the theaters to tell their stories in new ways? We have had some success in getting video posted on the site, including trailers and a few longer form videos. We are also committed to increasing the number of professionally produced videos and photo slide shows in all areas of arts coverage. But there is so much more potential here. Could we not tap the creativity of the arts community itself to help us tell their stories? One idea I have is to work with the theaters to produce video or audio “serials” online. These short, thematically linked videos or soundscapes could be posted incrementally over a number of days to preview a show or profile an interesting cast member. We could take people behind the scenes of a production, focus on the set and art direction of a show. We could splice together brief reviews from audience members into a commentary reel. (I’ve done this successfully with pop and rock in a series called “Sidewalk Concert Reviews”). The possibilities here are limitless.

5. How do we expand this concept to coverage of professional theater and other areas of the arts? How do we balance our traditional role as watchdog and critic in an environment in which we seek collaboration with the arts institutions we cover? There are a whole slew of ethical and journalistic questions I think we should address as we develop these audience/community engagement projects.