Off the record sources

Ever since I’ve started working inside the classical music business (as a consultant, for instance, or doing projects for orchestras), I’ve noticed that people writing about big classical music institutions don’t seem to know what’s really going on.

There are many reasons for this. Many writers are expected to work as both critics and reporters. But these are different skills. How many people have both of them? Second, many writers—even if they’re good reporters—just don’t know the business side of classical music. And why should they? Where would they learn it? But if you don’t know how the business really runs, you won’t even know what questions to ask when an institution looks like it’s in trouble.

Third, the institutions themselves play their cards pretty close to their chests. (Do institutions have chests? Metaphor out of control in Sandow’s blog…) They’re not used to serious media scrutiny, may bristle when they’re pushed for facts, figures, or explanations, and may prefer to hide what’s really going on. So they’re not exactly going to be any reporter’s friend when things get tough.

But then all reporters face that problem. Does the Bush administration open its secrets to The New York Times? Forget it! Reporters who cover politics, sports, or business have to fight even harder than people who cover the arts do. They have one resource, though, that arts reporters—or at least a lot of classical music writers—don’t seem to have, and that’s off the record sources, people you talk to confidentially, who’ll tell you what’s really going on. You might never quote them in a story; probably you’ll never print nine-tenths of what they tell you. But when you need to ferret out the truth behind some striking new development, they at least get you started. They’ll tell you where to look for further information, and give you an idea of what questions you ought to ask. Sometimes they give you everything you need, and if you have enough of them—and if they all confirm each others’ stories—you can go to press without much more than what they’ve told you.

Case in point: a story in business section of The New York Times on August 1, about the break between Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. Lachlan resigned his high-powered job in his father’s company. What was going on? Richard Siklos told us:

Neither Lachlan nor his father would comment on the specifics of their relationship or Lachlan’s resignation. But four personal acquaintances of both men and two high-ranking executives within the company say that the strong bond between father and son has frayed recently. These people, who declined to be identified because they wish to maintain their personal or professional relationships with the family, said that Rupert and Lachlan had trouble maintaining a productive working relationship and as a result, their personal relationship suffered as well.

See? Off the record sources, in this case six of them, without which you really can’t find out anything. Imagine what we might have learned if someone with equivalent sources in classical music had dug down to find out what went wrong in the Carnegie Hall/New York Philharmonic merger.

(One certain reporter, who used to cover the classical music business for the Times, pretty clearly had her sources. But these, again pretty clearly, were loose-cannon board members, out to push their own agendas. What they told her badly needed to be checked—and to check their reports, she needed off the record sources she’d developed on your own, whose comments she could trust.)

(One further note. If one confidential source tells you something really striking—and especially if it’s something that might damage someone’s reputation—you absolutely have to check it before you print it. You need a second, independent source, who tells you exactly the same thing.)

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