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Seeing the Changing Media Landscape as an Opportunity

Seeing the Changing Media Landscape as an Opportunity

Written by
Philip Riccio
on
March 6th, 2019

Theatre actor, producer, and director Philip Riccio talks about responding to the dwindling arts coverage in mainstream media by creating his own theatre magazine.

Seeing the Changing Media Landscape as an Opportunity

Photo: Rob Laughter

Imagine you had a product to sell and the mainstream media loved it so much they offered to write about it for free. Even better, they decided to dedicate a whole section to you. Every day. This was the reality for the arts for as long as I remember. When I produced my first play in 2005, we received rave reviews from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and the National Post. That was pretty much our entire marketing campaign and our production sold out a four-week run in a 160-seat theatre.

Having proved ourselves, our next production received preview articles in these same newspapers. Again, the bulk of our marketing work was done with very little sweat equity on our part. We weren’t the only company to receive preview articles and reviews. The theatre industry as a whole benefited from this coverage, as did all other arts communities. So imagine the terror and despair of the arts world as it became more and more clear that mainstream media was struggling and, in order for them to cut costs, they decided to drastically cut back on arts coverage.

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From "Something out of Nothing" by Damien Atkins. Illustration: Kris Noelle

From "Something out of Nothing" by Damien Atkins. Illustration: Kris Noelle

Our daily section was diminished to once a week. Then we were sharing it with sports or life or some other annoying roommate. Then it was gone completely. We still get coverage here and there, but being in the paper doesn’t mean that much anymore. It certainly doesn’t move the masses. And now much of what’s left of the coverage is behind a paywall, so it only reaches a subsection of a subsection.

You could say things are a little bleak in the arts media space. Producers and artists had become accustomed to getting free publicity so much so that we believed it was our right. Was our special treatment unwarranted? I’m slightly biased, but I would say no. The arts, and I’ll speak for theatre more specifically, add a lot to a community. In Canada the large majority of theatres are not-for-profit, charitable organizations; although there are a couple of commercial theatres, these are by far the exception. Theatre is filled with passionate, hard-working people who do it because they love it and because they believe in it as a way to strengthen communities. After all, theatre at its core is communal storytelling; it invites the locals to come together to experience a story. And that experience can be a powerful one. Beyond that, many theatres do herculean outreach programs. They lead in the areas of inclusivity, diversity, education, and collaboration.

Traditional media isn’t about to get a rebirth; we’re not about to see the “glory days” of arts coverage come back. So, we have to adapt.

From "Spotlight on Eda Holmes," written by Catherine Kustanczy. Photo: Dahlia Katz

From "Spotlight on Eda Holmes," written by Catherine Kustanczy. Photo: Dahlia Katz

But theatre or any performing art has no community impact if no one in the community is attending. Traditional media isn’t about to get a rebirth; we’re not about to see the “glory days” of arts coverage come back. So, we have to adapt.

In response to the dwindling theatre coverage in the media, I dreamed up the idea for Intermission, an online theatre magazine. With some initial capital from the Metcalf Foundation and the help of two very talented young editors, we launched in April of 2016. We publish articles about and by theatre artists, with the hopes of building a platform that will attract audiences with the same power that newspapers and magazines used to.

Intermissionmagazine.ca

As much as the change in coverage has been challenging, I like to think it also presents a real opportunity—an opportunity to redefine the conversations being had around theatre, to put the responsibility back on companies to connect with prospective audiences, to channel the creativity and passion theatre artists put into the stories they tell onstage to elevate the written stories that will inspire people to go see their work. We had become accustomed to outsourcing this initial conversation to mainstream media but now that the responsibility is ours, we might as well use it as an opportunity to improve upon what the media had been creating for us.

The ultimate challenge for Intermission‚ one we’re still tackling—is getting the required buy-in from the community. Change can be difficult at any time, but when it requires paying for something that you’re used to getting for free, it can be even more jolting. Creating a platform that provides more thoughtful, engaging, and creative theatre content to readers isn’t going to just happen, it comes with a cost. The magazine’s long-term sustainability will be determined by whether theatres are willing to contribute to this cost by utilizing the site as an advertising platform, which will help fund the work we do. But it’s not just theatres that we need buy-in from, it’s the entire community. We need everyone—from theatres themselves, to individual artists, to theatre lovers—to recognize the shifting landscape and believe in the potential of a platform like Intermission.

We need everyone—from theatres themselves, to individual artists, to theatre lovers—to recognize the shifting landscape and believe in the potential of a platform like Intermission.

From "Spotlight on Mike Ross," written by Robert Cushman. Photo: Dahlia Katz

From "Spotlight on Mike Ross," written by Robert Cushman. Photo: Dahlia Katz

With the capital we received from Metcalf we were able to launch and prove the concept, building our readership before approaching companies to sell ads. Three years in, we have now created a system where theatres who want to use our content to promote productions must be advertising partners. There was an initial period of reluctance, but once we proved our worth and could show that our work was bringing them real value, perspective started to shift. We have now worked with many theatre companies in Toronto and have even joined forces with companies in Montreal and Victoria as we look to build our model nationally. If this trend continues and we’re able to increase the number of companies we work with while expanding our ad sales to other industries looking to reach our readers, I’m optimistic that Intermission can be a lasting and effective audience communication platform to offset some of the loss of coverage in the mainstream media.

There’s no getting around the fact that the sweeping change in the newspaper and magazine industry has caused a negative ripple effect in the arts. But if we accept that things aren’t ever going back to the way they were, roll up our sleeves, and see the opportunities these changes can brings, I believe Intermission will, in the long run, create a more powerful and meaningful bond between the arts and their audiences.

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