Arts journalism, reinvented for the 21st century
What’s an Engine28?
Take 21 theater-savvy journalists from around the country, and add editors and web producers. Put them in an online newsroom in downtown Los Angeles, close to two major theater festivals and a national theater conference. Pile on multimedia experts, mentors and support staff dedicated to on-the-spot arts coverage, and the number 28 starts to multiply.
Or you can just look at the name and history of the building the experiment inhabits: old Engine Co. 28 on South Figueroa.
Fire metaphors. The arts are full of them. The job is not to contain the blazes, but fan them.
Engine28 is a pop-up newsroom under the auspices of USC’s National Endowment for the Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater. Read what it produces now, because it’ll be gone in under a week. In the meantime, Engine28 will pull up to all the hot spots:
• The international contemporary theater-fest RADAR L.A., presenting a slate of “devised” work and artists from Australia to Japan and Chile
• The widespread grassroots Hollywood Fringe Festival
• The future-minded 50th anniversary conference of Theatre Communications Group, whose membership includes over 600 theaters and thousands of individuals nationwide. TCG hosts seminars, meetings and a few cutting-edge live performances of its own.
• Wherever theater happens in Los Angeles.
The reporters will find the key debates, and continue them. The critics will assess the shows that need to be seen. The website will add video and audio to the mix for the next six days.
“There’s nothing like this anywhere,” says Engine28 editor-in-chief Jeff Weinstein. “Arts journalism is in a mess. Everyone is trying so hard to keep the excitement of the arts alive in the media. Engine28 is an experiment we think will take the best of traditional old-school journalism and use every tool of the 21st century to throw ourselves open to the theater community — and to everyone else.
The pop-up newsroom is the latest iteration of the six-year-old USC/NEA institute, which has offered intensive fellowships to 21 journalists this year. Sasha Anawalt, the institute’s director and a faculty member of the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, explains that the program began when “Dana Gioia became chairman of the NEA and asked arts organizations, ‘What is it you really need?’ What he heard was ‘People who write about us just don’t get our work.’ ”
Gioia thought the problem was the “Hey You! critic,” a hapless news journalist ordered by an editor to switch beats overnight and cover theater because somebody hadn’t been planning ahead.
What Anawalt and her colleagues discovered was that the Hey You! critic was actually a dying breed, but a fellowship program was still needed. “We learned that those who cover theater do it because they love it. Their love and passion and understanding was not what Dana was expecting.”
But they did need guidance, especially in the Internet age. Enter Douglas McLennan.
His official Engine28 role is digital editor, but as he says , “Sasha calls me the architect of the project. I kind of like that title.” He’s also the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com.
In the past, he says, institute fellowships have been an amazing “cultural crawl” where journalists could step off of their regular lives and expand their horizons. But, McLennan adds, “We were always talking about about ‘How can you do arts journalism differently? How can you do [any] journalism differently?’ Then we said, ‘Why are we just talking about it? Why don’t we make models of new journalism, discover the new methods we’ll be needing?’ ”
The laboratory for that is Engine28. The critics, reporters, broadcasters, editors and webmasters are “all bringing their own experiences, their own way of looking at things. We’ll be asserting the important values of the best of journalism and rearticulating them in terms of the new media-universe. What we’re doing is not at all proprietary. Anybody can come to our site, figure out what we did and make it better.”
“We can’t sustain a pop-up like Engine28,” McLennan says. “But we can try things. We can try things without longterm consequences. ”
It may not be sustainable, but according to Anawalt, the model of Engine28 can be repeated. “It pops up. Where is journalism needed? Let’s just go there!”