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The BSO And Arts Journalism: Don’t Let This Spread

Heaven knows that arts journalism is not as robust as it once was, or needs to be. But the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is trying something that is, simply, a bad idea.

BaltimoreSympThe BSO is offering a journalism “fellowship,” through which an early to mid-career reporter will be “embedded” with the symphony for a year beginning in mid-June. This person would be tasked with telling “the underreported stories of orchestra musicians (both the BSO and those outside of Baltimore/Bethesda), Music Director Marin Alsop, guest conductors and guest artists, and a wide range of activities happening within the BSO.”

That’s not a journalist; that’s a PR representative. Maybe embeds can be justified in time of war, as the U.S. tried in Iraq, but in a symphony?

In the description of the job, which pays $38,000 for the year, plus benefits, the BSO calls it a residency.

This Residency is intended to cover orchestra-related news, features, trends, profiles and enterprise work; it will not include reviews, personal essay or opinion writing. The fellow will have access to rehearsals, performances and everything that happens off and on stage, including after-hours talks, meals and drinks with musicians, staff and the community. This is the first and only embedded arts journalism residency of its kind in the country.

It also says:

Multimedia stories will include breaking news, features, trends, profiles and enterprise. Stories will be posted to the BSO’s brand new website and throughout social media channels and other online media. The newest iteration of BSOmusic.org is content-rich, hosting a prominent Stories Newsfeed on its homepage, dedicated to the stories created by the Arts Writer-in-Residence. We aim to establish partnerships between the BSO and outside news organizations and hope that the Fellow’s content will be syndicated to news outlets that have an understaffed arts desk.

But many important details are left out — first and foremost, who’s going to edit the work? Who’ll have control? What if the embed turns up information the BSO does not want disclosed? Will the embed quit? And why would a legitimate news outlet want to take articles from an embed?

I could go on. This isn’t the same as, but it carries as many potential troubles as, the situation in 2012 when Peter Gelb tried to limit what Opera News, published by the Met’s Opera Guild, could print.

According to an article about this in The Chronicle of Philanthropy,

The [BSO] recently underwent a website redesign and was encouraged by new board member Amy Webb, head of Webbmedia Group, a Baltimore digital-strategy consultant, to develop more “self-generated content as a way to better engage our patrons,” says Eileen Andrews, the orchestra’s vice president for marketing and communications.

That may explain it — the push for more “content” from a web firm executive who sits on the board. But blurring the line between journalism and PR is never a good idea. Anyone who is media-literate will know the difference and doubt the content or the motivation.

 

Comments

  1. The work this fellow will do will be journalism exactly to the extent that the feature articles in the front of a Playbill are journalism – and to the same purpose.

    (For those who don’t know, the previews, interviews and other features in the front of a Playbill are, at least sometimes, written by arts journalists; other times they’re written by authors, professors, dramaturgs, someone on the creative team, or occasionally a staff member of the presenting organization. The topics, I believe, are usually determined by the presenting org, which also assigns the article; the editing – at least where the actual Playbill, Inc. prints the programs – is done by a Playbill staff editor. The unspoken rule for the writer – unspoken because it’s considered obvious – is Do Not Write Anything That Will Embarrass Or Insult The Presenter. Considering that the articles in question are appearing in the presenter’s own program booklet for the event, that doesn’t seem unreasonable.)

    • I disagree, Matthew. This is one person who inevitably becomes a tool. Playbill uses many voices and there is a little distance in access. Plus one goal here is to get this fellow’s work into legitimate news outlets. That’s cloaking the embed’s work – not everyone will read the source. We know how few people read bylines.

      • Oh dear – in that second excerpt you printed from the press release, I focused on the first two sentences and not the third (about providing content to regular news outlets).

        I’ll be astonished if anything from this “embedded journalist” gets into The Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore City Paper, The Washington Post, or any public radio station; and if it does, I expect a stink will get kicked up within our tiny little arts journo world. On the other hand, local TV news and magazines like – oh, I don’t know, Southern Living? – already use content like that all the time (or create their own content that’s indistinguishable). Not good, but not new.

        You’re right about the difference between Playbill and a Baltimore Symphony embed in terms of the situation of the journalist, but the purpose of the content itself is basically the same. As I used to say when I worked there (and my predecessor in the job, a known and valued colleague, said it, too), Playbill exists to be promotional.

  2. That type of PR work is all but the norm for music journalists and major orchestras. If they actually become critical they are fired, like Don Rosenberg in Cleveland. As you note, the Met is especially notable for that kind of oppression.

    A lot of music journalists lack a real understanding of how orchestras work, so I think this apprenticeship isn’t such a bad idea. People will hopefully read embedded reports for what they are worth. For a change, the embedding is at least admitted.

    Embedding war journalists is plainly *evil,* especially in the context of an illegal, unjustified, and largely pointless invasion of another country that caused unspeakable amounts of death and suffering. An embedded music journalist is nothing by comparison, even if it illustrates the general loss of journalistic standards in our corporate world.

    • It would be helpful to explain (or try) how music journalists become in effect embedded with orchestras. It mostly involves maintaining access to interviews, advance information, and other press privileges. One of the biggest perks is that journalists are sometimes taken along with an orchestra in its chartered plane when it tours – which literally becomes embedding. Even when the newspaper pays a fee for the ticket, the privileged access is still obvious. Symbiotic relationships evolve that serve mutual benefits. Personal relationships also develop, which is another reason care is taken not to offend.

      Criticism is thus held within fairly confined parameters. When this breaks down, as with Don Rosenberg in Cleveland, or with Joachim Kaiser and the Munich Phil under Celibidache, the journalist is removed from the beat. This seldom happens, because most music journalists don’t want to face the consequences. In Rosenberg’s case, I think wealthy board members also used their financial influence to pressure the paper to remove him.

      A notable example of voluntary embedding, is James Oestreich, a music journalist for the NY Times, who became an apologist for the Vienna Philharmonic when it began to face protests for excluding women and Asians. He has become the orchestra’s go to person for many of their public relations releases involving their discrimination and Nazi past – even more than any Austrian journalist.

      It would be interesting to find examples where there was sustained and meaningful criticism of a large music performance institution where the journalist was not eventually pressured into silence. Can anyone cite some examples?

      I also wonder if these close, mutually serving relationships are as common in the visual arts. Somehow I don’t think they are.

      The open embedding in Baltimore is at least honest (to the extent that the local papers have any intelligent readers and the journalist specifies his or her special position.) The reports might even allow the community to form a closer relationship with the orchestra.

      • All good points, thank you. I do not think these relationships are as common in the visual arts, though without naming names I can think of some journalists who are far too close to some museums. They are being played for the sake of access and “scoops.” But a scoop isn’t a real scoop if it’s handed to you.

      • Don’t be sure that traveling with an orchestra on a tour is such a perk. Covering an overseas tour is very hard work, and it’s made more difficult by the time difference. (You put in a very full day and send your copy and photos and video in, but your editors are only just into their workday and you can’t go to bed until they’re finished with your stuff. Then you still have to get up and start your next day’s reporting by 9 am local time, or earlier if you have to depart for the next city. And this is every day for two or three weeks.) And yes, newspapers do pay the travel costs.

        If a journalist covering a tour pulls punches, it’s probably because they’re all trapped together for the length of the tour and there’s a natural desire to minimize potential hostility from people you can’t escape.

        What Jim Oestreich has written about the Vienna Philharmonic is what he thinks, not what he’s fed by the Philharmoniker; I can assure you of that. If he’s the NYT writer who covers them most now, it’s because he’s got more experience with the subject and people involved.

        Don Rosenberg was, to my eye, a less simple case than many people assume. For instance, one way he claimed that the Cleveland Orchestra was retaliating against him was that they weren’t letting him draft his reviews in the orchestra’s PR offices after concerts. I was astonished that the Plain Dealer had ever let him do that in the first place: to me, writing a review of an orchestra in that orchestra’s offices is way too close for comfort.

        Also (and this detail didn’t come out until Rosenberg’s court case went to trial), before reassigning him, the editors wanted to alternate reviews of the Cleveland Orchestra by him with reviews by another contributor – something I’d consider journalistically healthy in general. Rosenberg refused, so he was reassigned. Why he was given a veto over this decision I don’t understand; I suppose it was to do with the work rules in the Plain Dealer-Newspaper Guild contract.

        Examples of newspaper critics who were consistently negative about their local orchestras’ performances and weren’t silenced? The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin was very hard (prejudiced, many thought) on Christoph Eschenbach when he was there. None of the New York Times critics had much good to say about Lorin Maazel after the first year or so of his tenure. (The man’s skill is not in question; his sense of good taste very much is.) The Seattle Times was none too kind to Gerard Schwarz for the second half or so of his tenure.

        • Whether it is hard work or not, traveling with an orchestra is embedding. And as for not being a perk, it is a hell of a lot less work and risk than being an embedded war journalist, but that too is still embedding. The business class seats, fancy hotels, and European travel. Ah what a hard life you poor music journalists suffer. Your denial on this point of embedding is an ironic commentary on how journalism is evolving.

          Oestreich is obviously biased, which is why he gets advance feeds from the VPO that even Austrian journalists don’t. On February 27th, 2014, WNYC broadcast a program about the orchestra entitled “Vienna Philharmonic: Facing its Nazi Past But Struggling with Diversity.” Among the guests were James Oestreich, and Joshua Kosman, the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Kosman attempted to be collegial, but he was openly critical, if not incredulous, about the defenses and rationalizations Oestreich presented for the orchestra. Readers can listen to the broadcast here:

          http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/vienna-philharmonic/

          Note also my observations in the comments section of the page. It’s one thing to be supportive, another to spin articles and even present false information. Oestreich does NOT report what he thinks, but what he wants people to believe. He knows some of the things he says are false or misleading.

          Rosenberg’s removal from the Cleveland beat had nothing to do with his drafting comments in an orchestra office. The orchestra objected to his consistent criticisms of Franz Welser-Möst. Without documentation, I am very skeptical about your portrayal of Rosenberg, especially his refusal to let another reporter alternately cover the orchestra. It sounds a lot like a fishy story cooked up by the paper’s lawyers.

          The examples you mention of critics being critical of orchestras are interesting, but in my view, all examples of how the criticism must be kept within confines or the reporter is out. Boosterism is an inherent part of the job when it comes to major orchestras. When that is not adequately fulfilled, the journalist is removed.

          I notice that music journalists often vociferously protest when their work is criticized. And on the web, they often band together and mob dissenting voices. It is interesting that they can dish so much out, but take so little in return. I think this too says something about how the field has evolved. It also illustrates how classical music is much more given to absolutism rather than the spirit of dialog that is more characteristic of genres like the visual arts and film.

  3. Andrew Decker says:

    Yes. PR. Hopefully, any stories that get placed in traditional media outlets, should that happen, would disclose that the writer is the BSO’s Writer-in-Residence. And not its Journalist-in-Residence.

  4. Amy Webb says:

    Hi Judith. I appreciate your feedback. I’m writing this as someone who helped architect the strategy and job, and not as a spokesperson for the BSO.

    A few key points to consider:

    1. I’m not web strategist. I was a journalist, and I used to work at the Wall Street Journal and for Newsweek. For the past nine years, my company, which is a digital strategy firm, has advised news organizations on emerging technology. As a journalist yourself, you should know that most have turned to native advertising. The BSO’s content strategy is not dissimilar from what you’re seeing elsewhere — it just happens that the content is in-house, rather than being placed on someone else’s platform.

    2. The questions you posed about who’s editing content and the like are certainly good ones. However you’re jumping to conclusions about the answers…and assuming that everything written will be put through a traditional corporate communications plan. That’s not the case.

    3. The expectation is that feature stories about orchestras in general – not just the BSO – will be created and distributed to other news organizations who would like that content for their websites.

    • Thanks for the clarifications — but I don’t believe I jumped to conclusions. I raised questions. If I were applying for this residency, I’d want to know the answers in advance.

    • Yes, we know that many outlets have turned to “native advertising” (advertorials). And you know that most journalists HATE native advertising and kick up a big fuss whenever it isn’t properly identified. (I think Slate does a fairly good job of labeling it, for whatever that’s worth.)

  5. Advertising and PR strategists are always trying to blur the distinction between self-interested promotion and actual journalism, as we see in “advertorials” and other flimflams. If she’s being paid (unlike Jim Oestreich et al) by the institution she’s covering, she’s a flack, not a journalist. That’s fine, flacks are an important part of the arts info ecosystem, and actual journalists often rely on their help, taken with the usual journalistic antidotes of sodium chloride and skepticism. Just call her what she is: a writer or (more accurately) PR person in residence, not a journalist, and that should be OK. Thanks for alerting us and the BSO to this perhaps unintentionally deceptive move, Judith.

    • For me, the interesting issue is how the lines between journalism and boosterism are already very blurred. It’s not just the writing of “flacks” that sometimes has to be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not just the weekly reviews that are so often like perfunctory puff pieces – which is to be expected. Why not be a fan? More importantly, it goes to misinformation campaigns like Oestreich’s reports about the Vienna Philharmonic’s employment practices.

      Another example is how the American media remains *entirely* silent about the fact that the USA only has 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. And two of those cities (Chicago and San Francisco) don’t even make the top 50. We have companies like the so-called Houston Grand Opera with such small budgets and seasons that Houston doesn’t even make the top 100, even though its the 4th largest city in the USA, and one of the richest cities in the world. Our so-called Washington National Opera ranks at 182nd while having the 11th largest metro GDP in the world. This is very striking and relevant information about our cultural climate, but show me one major paper that has ever writing an article about it, much less a substantive one.

      I’ve mentioned this in other forums, and journalists have even gone so far as to say the information is of no interest and irrelevant, including one of the writers above. It adds a bit of irony to the indignant protestations about the embedded journalist in Baltimore.

  6. This is all so silly …. who cares ?????? and the nonsense about opera houses in the US is also
    pointless – who gives a rats behind about the Baltimore Symphony except those immediately connected
    to it – except that it gives William Osborne an opportunity to carry on -in the scheme of things symphonies
    and operas mean little to every day life .

  7. One takes it on “faith ” that the journalist truly cares……..as I
    pointed out – no one cares about the Baltimore symphony except those immediately connected to it
    and whatever weekly audience it now has …there are no cries throughout the world bring us the BSO (which
    can be for both BSO groups ) or our lives will be meaningless .The Residency seems to be yet another way in
    which to show how valid the orchestra is to Baltimore and the world …can one not but laugh when reading
    ….I’m writing this as someone who helped architect the strategy and job etc . …….
    One can only hope the” Residency” writing will aspire to be more convincing .

  8. We all know that we need more arts coverage, but I agree that this may not be the way to compensate for lack of newspaper real estate. I like the fact that the BSO and other orchestras are taking a pro-active stance with these types of solutions, but the question of complete bias creeps in.

    A better solution would be to find a way to solicit a third party reviewer, PR firm, to cover the arts with no tie-in to any particular organization. An arts council or alliance could spear head the project to give extra credibility.

    If an organization wants to present their point of view and add more content, they could simply increase using their blog space or use the newspaper’s op-ed or blog opportunities (which some do have community blog opportunities now).

    We do not want to create a yes-man situation for the arts. The public needs a third party source that would present the cons as well as the pros in order for the public to make up their own mind in the end.

    One can only wait and see if the BSO will allow this fellow to write whatever he/she wants to write, whether it is flattering copy for them or not.

  9. Tom Groenfeldt says:

    As a freelance writer and contributor to Forbes.com (in financial tech) i welcome any experiments in journalism…just keep the labeling clear. Amtrak putting writers on trains? Go for it. Heathrow had a writer in residence, I think…try it out. The BSO would be a great opportunity for a writer-photographer…this is touchy territory but I think we should welcome experiments, and judge the results.

    • The Amtrak writer-in-residence is completely different: the writers are not, unless they so choose, writing about Amtrak. They are simply using the movement, train atmosphere, and landscape as inspiration. Labeling at BSO would certainly help, but as I noted not that many people read bylines, let alone fine print.

  10. Joel Shurki says:

    I would point out that the conflicts an embedded reporter would face covering an orchestra are no different than a sports reporter covering a baseball or football team. In every case you don’t want to offence your sources, who you live with, and cut off access to the information you need. The good ones managed to balance it well; the bad ones–and they may be in the majority–don’t. Write enough times that a shortstop blew yet another grounder to the right side and see what happens when you want to interview the shortstop, or his friends on the team. As someone who has travelled with a team, I can tell you it ain’t easy.

    • They are absolutely different: the sports reporters I know are paid by their newspapers, magazines or broadcast stations — not by the sports teams they are covering. The Baltimore Symphony is paying this embedded reporter.

  11. It’s an interesting idea, and Judith is clearly right that if you’re paid by the source you’re not a journalist in that situation. Nonetheless, what a long way the BSO has come in four or five years since they banned a then-student of mine from publishing her blog about the organization on the BSO web page. And she was working there! The BSO’s openness to having “insider” and “behind the scenes” stories published on its own page is a significant step forward, and one that a lot of arts organizations are unwilling to take, obsessed and trained as we all are in presenting the finished product to the public while hiding what’s behind the curtain. So on the whole I think it’ll do way more good than harm, though it can’t be called journalism. Even the most smitten/loyal reviewer occasionally pans something, as long as the reviewer is paid by the news organization and not the review-ee.

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