An Overview of e29 Lessons

The infrastructure that has supported arts journalism as we have known it is falling apart around us. Arts journalism’s basic premises and practices are under attack, and it is unclear to many of us in what form journalism about the arts will continue to be performed. To me, a couple of things are obvious. 1. There will continue to be arts journalism in some form, and 2. the ways we have traditionally done journalism about the arts will change.

But how?

Engine29 was a way of asking questions about arts journalism, challenging what we know, and talking to people inside and outside of the arts and journalism. What’s the value of what we do? How are people getting their information about culture? What’s valuable and what’s not?

The communications revolution offers power to the people. For many people, meaningful cultural experiences are not complete until they have the ability to share them with others. This is more than mere generosity; the act of sharing is a creative response, a way for people to express themselves, even define their identity. What we choose to share helps define how others see us. This creative response makes us part of the artistic proposition, and it is valuable to artists. So we sent a team to look at response – Twitter and QR coes and Facebook – and even some old-fashioned in-gallery audience research with white boards. What impact is all this sharing having on the relationsgip between artist and audience?

Journalism is too narrow a way to approach the changes in communications that are happening in our culture. So we wanted to talk to people who are using technology to build communities around them and see what they’ve learned about the power of technology to communicate and build relationships. Today, say the founders of the Tiziano Project, which tries to shine light on abuses in conflict areas, it is “morally unacceptable to have YouTube and undocumented injustice in the world at the same point in human history.” The ability to tell stories and shine light makes possible empathy and understanding, in the process teaching us about ourselves. Isn’t that what art tries to do? Isn’t that arts journalism?

One of the traps one can get into is burrowing so deep into an art form that one loses the connections it has to the larger world. We wanted to think about the role of context and physical surrounding in approaching art. LA is a car city – thus the approach to art is often made by car, on streets. So we took away the cars and sent a team out on bicycles and on public transportation to see if we could reconceive the context. What the team discovered is that how you get there can significantly redefine the experience you have. So how do journalists help to set contexts? Is it worth exploring a kind of Slow Food movement for journalism and the arts?

Then there are the ways we tell stories. Who says a linear narrative is the best way to convey a story? And why is an 800-word (or 1000-word or 2000-word) review the best way of articulating a reaction to art? What if people could find multiple entry points into a reaction to art? What if you could atomize artistic responses and let people assemble them in ways that were most meaningful to them? What if you could build information structures that could provide frameworks for telling stories depending on what the viewer/listener wanted? So one of our teams worked on building a timeline of information and critical response that could be accessed in many ways.

That kind of user interaction, of course, is integral to gaming culture. We wanted to understand the dynamics of games and how game designers motivate people to play and incentivize choice. It’s not all about success and reward, but how you make failure fun, about how players learn as they play, about how there are clear trajectories as you participate. In a world awash with choice about which cultures we decide to participate in, incentivizing one choice over another is essential.

Lastly, we recognize that we still live in the real world. So how do you adapt new thinking to traditional news organizations that have many constraints on what they can and cannot do?So we took a new community theatre section produced by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and tried to re-imagine it after talking to experts inside and outside of journalism and the arts. We came up with a list of design and usage principles, and a fantasy redesign.

What did it all add up to? It made us reconsider some basic beliefs about what we do. It made us consider other ways of thinking about sharing culture. And for me, at least, it made me think deeper about a kind of journalism that is more multi-dimensional, a kind of journalism that thinks about building stories on more levels and that includes the reader/listener/viewer in more meaningful ways.

Perhaps most of all, though, I think Engine29 reaffirmed for all of us the importance of storytelling and its essential value.

Douglas McLennan

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of, the leading aggregator of arts journalism on the Internet. Prior to starting ArtsJournal, McLennan was arts columnist and music critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. A former concert pianist, he has a master's degree in music from the Juilliard School in New York. He has written on the arts for numerous publications, including as music critic for Salon, and for Newsweek, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the London Evening Standard. McLennan has been a music critic for National Public Radio's “All Things Considered.” He was head of the board of the National Arts Journalism Program (NAJP) at Columbia University until last summer. He is a recipient of several awards for arts criticism and reporting, including a NAJP fellowship at Columbia University and a Deems Taylor/ASCAP Award for music journalism.

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