Several weeks ago, the National Arts Journalism Program launched a contest hoping to find new models for arts journalism. I questioned the exercise but wrote that I was grateful that NAJP had “provided an opportunity for a broader discussion of what art journalism should become.”
Not any more. Last week NAJP made two announcements regarding the public-program portion of its contest (which will take place on Oct. 2 in Los Angeles). First, it released the names of five presenters. Next, after the contest-entry period was closed, NAJP announced that it had modified its contest rules. These developments leave me with little expectation that the NAJP contest will end up being a useful discussion of arts journalism.
Of the NAJP contest’s five announced presenters (apparently five contest finalists are being held back in secret until Oct. 2), four have little-to-nothing to do with journalism. Three are infotainment projects that more closely resemble a hybrid of iTunes and Access Hollywood than they resemble the investigation, presentation or analysis of events, facts or news. (Take the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s ArtBabble, for example. It’s a fascinating project, but it makes no pretense of being even so much as related to journalism.) Another presenting project is a software program developed by the University of Southern California, which is hosting the NAJP contest.
The National Arts Journalism Project’s drift away from journalism is disappointing, but the next problem with the NAJP contest is just as puzzling. It laid down guidelines for entrants — and then admitted that it was disregarding them.
As I noted here, the NAJP project’s request for proposals sought commercially “sustainable” projects, and stressed that NAJP was “looking for viability, both as a business and as a journalistic enterprise.” I criticized that as a misreading of the current journalism environment, noting that in recent years niche journalism and related innovation had overwhelmingly come from the non-profit sector. The NAJP request for proposals, with its unambiguous emphasis on commercial sustainability and business viability, explicitly rejected the non-profit approach. (This approach was all the more unusual because one of the foremost champions of new journalism models, and non-profit journalism in particular, is Geneva Overholser, the director of the journalism school at contest host USC.)
However, in last week’s announcement NAJP admitted that it changed the rules while the contest was underway (and apparently told no one), thus stranding potential non-profit-focused applicants who took the organization and its RFP at its word (and who chose not to apply). Strangely, NAJP’s recent release indicates that non-profit projects who ignored NAJP’s RFP and applied anyway will be considered. NAJP tried to explain this away in last week’s announcement:
We had noted on the submission form that we were interested in viable
business models. Admittedly, the definition of what constitutes a
business model these days is unclear. Strictly speaking, an operation
that relies on donated labor and sweat equity has yet to find a sustainable business model. A project that relies solely on
philanthropic contributions also has no business model in a strict
sense. What we’re looking for, therefore, is not so much a commercial
business plan but some indications of long-term operational viability.
If the organization was going to change the rules in midstream, it should have announced that while non-commercial applicants could have participated. If it was going to devalue journalism as the raison d’etre of the exercise, it should have announced that too. Moving the goalposts after the entrants were in strikes at the integrity of the enterprise.
Journalism and people who care about the place of the arts in a free society deserve a vibrant conversation about how journalism can initiate and sustain a national dialogue about the place of art and artists in a free society. The NAJP contest isn’t it.