Oregon Arts Watch
In a unique collaboration with Portland-area performing arts groups, seasoned culture reporter Barry Johnson will produce an arts news site, funded in part by subscription membership fees.
• August 2011
• May 2011
• February 2011
• December 2010
Oregon Arts Watch Launches
The Oregon Arts Watch website launched in early July with commissioned stories from four local arts journalists, plans to move towards attaining nonprofit status, and some partnerships and events in the works.
After some problems with an initial website, the project launched a pilot site on WordPress while one of its board members has donated time to develop a better site for the future.
So far, the site has broken some news, written some previews and reviews and tried some longer-form feature stories and shorter form news bits. Podcasts are planned, said site founder Barry Johnson.
The site has commissioned stories from:
• Brett Campbell, who does classical music stories.
• Lisa Radon, who writes about visual arts for a variety of publications.
• Bob Hicks, a former editor for The Oregonian.
• Martha Ullman West, who just completed her term as the president of the national Dance Critics Association, is working on OAW's Northwest Biographies project.
The site is lining up more journalists to write stories for this fall.
OAW has received a small revenue stream ($6,000 per year) for producing a “highlights” calendar for TravelPortland, a non-profit destination marketing organization. Johnson said this might expand to include regular syndication of OAW content on the TravelPortand site.
OAW has started another partnership with Playbills Northwest, which provides programs to several of the larger local arts organizations. It sells advertising into those programs and has begun producing a performing arts annual. The company has agreed to help sell ads and sponsorships for OAW's website and eNewsletter.and OAW is providing the first installment of its Northwest Biographies project for the annual.
OAW has not yet ramped up web advertising, but Johnson said the Regional Arts and Culture Council has already reserved space to advertise its mobile public art application.
Key to OAW's business plan are partnerships with arts groups, and Johnson said OAW has nailed down the details of its arrangements with most of the arts organizations that initially agreed to be OAW partners. There are three main parts to these partnerships:
1) The arts groups are helping OAW connect to their subscribers and members so OAW can convert them, free of charge, to membership in Oregon Arts Watch. "We will be giving them materials to insert in their ticket packages that will direct subscribers to our sign-up page. They will also link to us from their email blasts. Our goal is ambitious (15,000). We are counting on converting a large number of these free memberships into paid ones in Year Two of the project," Johnson said.
2) The arts groups are paying OAW a small amount of money per subscriber to pay for the memberships. This is a major part of OAW's projected income for Year One.
3) In return, OAW is offering the partnering arts groups the chance to use its eNewsletter to offer ticket discounts and packages to the full mailing list.
4) The fourth aspect is simply the marketing muscle of the arts groups, through their email blasts and social marketing efforts.
OAW has been in talks with Oregon Public Broadcasting and The Oregonian about other partnerships. And it is planning two special events, one for the fall and one for the winter, one focusing on theater and the other dance. OAW will invite its members to these events, record them and also use them to encourage discussion on the website.
OAW has assembled a six-member board of directors and its moving forward in seeking its nonprofit 501(c)(3) application. Each of the board members is working on a special project, such asweb design, special events, contracts, and legal business.
"Mostly, we need to do some journalism so that both our partners and our audience begins to see what we’re attempting to do," Johnson said, "and so that we can figure that out ourselves."
Barry Johnson is anxious to launch the Oregon Arts Watch website in June. He considers the 10-month “gestation period,” as he put it, necessary to launch with the membership model he and his colleague envisioned. Arts organizations have agreed to pay the site a per-member fee to give them a subscription to the site.
“We’ve done a lot of planning and negotiating, but the start-up will generate a lot of answers and new problems,” he said.
Launching the Partnerships
Eleven Portland-area arts organizations have agreed to be partners in the site’s first year. In exchange for a fee of $1 or $2 per member, the organizations will provide their subscribers free access to the website’s comprehensive arts coverage.
By receiving the eNewsletter, the members will not only access the site, but also receive ticket deals from the arts groups and invitations to live events held by OAW, including panel discussions, lectures, demonstrations and onstage interviews.
One of the challenges for Johnson, however, is figuring out exactly how much revenue the arts organizations will bring in, partly because the groups do not know how many members they will have for the 2011-2012 season. He anticipates the amount will be $40,000.
For additional revenue, Johnson has reached a basic agreement with a company to sell advertisements for the site. OAW will also syndicate content, including to The Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting and TravelPortland’s website and publications.
Johnson describes this audience as the “arts omnivores” and points to studies that indicate these people attend several events a month and don’t confine themselves to one specific arts area. Portland is also ranked #3 nationally in per-capita attendance at arts events of all kinds.
Seven practicing arts journalists make up the site’s journalism committee that has met to discuss a coverage strategy to reach this particular crowd.
“We see ourselves as supplemental,” he said. “We won’t duplicate the work of existing critics and journalists by doing overnight reviews or doing announcement stories.” Instead, the site will link to those and focus on news, feature stories, essays and more “on-the-ground” reporting than he believes local media currently provide.
As development on the website continues, Johnson is also tackling back-office tasks, such as applying for tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) and settling on bookkeeping procedures. He is also focused on the mechanics of the membership operation. He notes that while the marketing departments of the partner organizations will help a great deal, “we need to develop our own marketing strategy without a lot of capitol to invest.”
In addition, he keeps his eyes trained well into Year Two of Oregon Arts Watch. He’s considering fundraising plans for future growth.
“We’ll see if that front-end time investment generates the money we’ll need to keep the project going,” Johnson said. He’s hoping for positive reviews.
Eleven arts organizations in Oregon have stepped up to the plate to support the not-yet-launched Oregon Arts Watch, both with subscribers (more than 30,000 members) and financial commitments (more than $45,000 from the groups).
While the number of subscribers exceeds the projected goal of 25,000 individuals prior to launch, the financial contributions are lower than the hoped-for $65,000.
As a result, OAW’s Barry Johnson now plans to appeal to individual project donors in the community beginning this month.
Johnson’s initial plan was to work with arts organizations in Portland to convert their membership into subscribers of Oregon Arts Watch - with the organizations picking up the discounted price. He sees it as his mission to convince members that, in year two, they should subscribe as individuals.
“If Oregon Arts Watch is going to be sustainable, it will be because the members want to support it,” said Johnson.
Meantime, OAW is working to assemble a team of volunteer journalists to discuss work-flow, hosted blogs, payments and an arts wire.
As OAW works to bring together its resources, it is also developing a partnership with legacy media outlets in Oregon. Johnson notes the editor of The Oregonian is willing to work with OAW, and OAW is discussing a potential partnership with Oregon Public Broadcasting.
Johnson hopes to pay freelancers a professional fee, low at first, that may rise based on the organization’s financial footing.
OAW is also working to complete a 501(c)(3) application and have registered with the state of Oregon as a non-profit corporation. With volunteer legal and accounting help secured, OAW has already recruited two members to fill the board of directors and are working to find more candidates.
OAW is making a list of design suggestions and technical requirements for the website, and is hoping to get an initial site up launched in the next few months.
You can read a conversation between Barry Johnson and Michael Anderson in Columbia Journalism Review.
The support of five local arts organizations has brought Oregon Arts Watch (OAW) a few steps closer to launching. OAW, a journalism initiative aimed at covering the arts and culture scene primarily in Portland, will receive financial support from these organizations, which have agreed to donate a portion of their subscriber membership fees to support OAW’s efforts.
The initial agreements will give OAW about $35,000 a year in funding and a combined subscriber list of 22,000 people, according to Barry Johnson, OAW’s founder and a former culture reporter at The Oregonian.
In exchange for financial support, members of the arts organizations will receive OAW’s weekly e-Newsletter. “The newsletter will give links to the work of [arts] journalists wherever it appears—on the OAW website or elsewhere,” Johnson said. It will also alert readers to ticket offers and special events such as panels, lectures and public discussions around the arts.
The agreements, however, do not mean that the arts organizations will receive special coverage from OAW. “This is not a ‘pay-to-play’ idea,” Johnson said. “OAW is an independent journalism group that will make its own decisions about coverage.”
Creating relationships with the arts community is integral to a successful launch and the quality of OAW, said Johnson. “Ultimately, our members should give us a chance to establish the critical mass for the kind of conversation about arts, culture and the city that makes community more engaged and healthier than it is now,” he said.
So far the numbers look good, but they are still shy of OAW’s ultimate goal: $75,000 in sponsorships from local arts and culture groups and 25,000 individual subscribers. Johnson hopes for five more commitments from arts organizations in coming weeks. He will then take these agreements to wealthy members of the community to seek additional support. “A solid membership base will make us more likely to receive support from other sources - individual donors, corporate sponsors and foundations,” he said.
Once OAW meets funding and subscriber goals, the next step is to establish a website. They are currently bulking up their design and tech team with volunteers from Portland’s creative community. Johnson recruited them through Twitter and through mutual friends.
Seven editorial volunteers are signed up to help plot the direction of the journalism work, Johnson said. “They are journalists I have worked with or knew about before, one way or another, or have met since I left The Oregonian last year,” he said.
Once OAW begins producing content, Johnson hopes other media outlets - such as The Oregonian, Portland Monthly magazine and Oregon Public Broadcasting—will carry their work. “We are confident that many of our reports will find homes outside the website,” he said.
Participation with other news outlets will depend on their needs and OAW’s ability to fulfill them, Johnson said. “We could produce stories specifically for a publication or a regular three-minute slot of arts news and commentary for a radio or TV station,” he said. “Sometimes these relationships could be commercial and exclusive, but our principle generally is to distribute our journalism as freely and broadly as we can.”
As pieces of OAW start to come together, there is more work to be done on OAW’s marketing strategy and website design, OAW does have a general “skeleton of the idea,” Johnson said, and is moving forward with that in mind. “Each step has a multitude of negotiations and components,” he said.
- Lori Grisham
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