Ismene Brown set up The Arts Desk, Britain’s first professional arts critical site, prior to its launch in 2009 and continues to manage it today after being the Daily Telegraph’s dance critic from 1994 to 2006. She regularly broadcasts on BBC Radio and TV on dance and also writes on classical music and mime theatre.
The Arts Desk is the product of a group of professional arts critics on the national newspapers who sensed in 2009 that print opportunities to write in depth about the variety and importance of arts were shrinking, and that online was a promising new place to go editorially. The site is an innovative experiment that has become a commercial reality. Everything about it is new, from its editorial organisation to its commercial setup.
Few of the original group knew each other, and email was our tool to pool ideas and reactions to the rapid shrinkage of work opportunities. Once the idea of a website was raised, we had it pretty much refined and defined within 24 hours, much as it exists now. The idea of professional quality and deep focus in online journalism was thought batty – the received wisdom on blogs and newspaper websites was for screen-fuls, ie. stories even shorter than in print. For our putative site Jasper Rees laid out a powerful and passionate core vision for serious quality journalism online; Peter Culshaw led suggestions for enriching this core with the wider range for arts coverage made possible by exploiting web ideas; I suggested its name and egalitarian organisation. I drew on these and many other suggestions from our fellow deskers to create and evolve a working dummy site on my Mac laptop, to investigate its commercial appeal, organise the visions into an operational reality and open up the wider editorial potential.
However, the media climate was rocky, as was the arts world, and it took nine months of developing and testing before we went live, and a year of being live online, to reach the position of being a commercial business.
With the common acknowledgement that the journalists were equals as professionals, the collective principle was a given from the start, dictating editorial and potential commercial structures. Editorially, we organised into separate artforms, each area having a “hub” to oversee our coverage, and editorially coordinated by Jasper. We accepted that for the first time in our professional lives we would be entirely self-subbing and self-commissioning – we would correct each other, but there would be no overall editor. We rejected the usual news pages organising with “main” stories and secondary ones, on the ground that all our stories should have equal presence and merit for our users. Technically, we integrated the site with our email and calendar functions, so as to automate as much as possible.
We had no idea whether theartsdesk.com had business legs but we sensed that it might, if we could find some method to keep it alive until we established its attractiveness as a professional publication. We had no chance of obtaining bank loans or grants for what was only a DIY idea, and anyway I had seen how other websites had foundered by getting in loans and running swiftly out of money before they could develop income. It was apparent that we had to accept that we were all involved in a voluntary experiment, earning shares in a putative future profit. This we all did accept.
In the development stage I simply made a dummy site on my iBook with Apple’s home website software iWeb, got us using WordPress to upload some copy into it, and refined the site design while I found out more about the technical, commercial and operational needs. I took the dummy to arts organisations, advertising, media and marketing companies, to get their view. Reaction was entirely favourable, and we passed the hat around ourselves to raise money for a professional build, very closely following the dummy.
We launched The Arts Desk on 09/09/09, hoping for some numerological good luck, and on day one had the blessing of a cascade of appreciative tweets from media PR, music producers, theatres and artists – far more encouraging than we had anticipated. We rapidly got noticed and mentioned in national papers (still our main commissioners as writers) and were picked out by Radio 5 Live as one of the five essential sites of 2009.
We were still only a speculative media experiment, however, and we had a long and complicated search to establish a business model that would recognise us as freelances, keep us clear from tax problems, motivate us to stick with the site till we had cash, and be attractive to the investment we needed to pay for the professional services to build a solid operational structure. We expanded our first idea of earning shares in theartsdesk’s future success, and with a development of that principle we now have the commitment to the investment we need to support those early costs until we show we can become a profitable business paying journalists cash and returning a dividend on our and our investors’ shares. Our intention is that The Arts Desk, within two or three years, will be a key source of paid employment for our members and will set a leading example for future quality journalism online.
As to how that income arrives, we are – as with our setup – taking an innovative approach that joins up well-honed experience with the new opportunities that exist online. We are working on the core fact that we are simultaneously contributors and shareholders in The Arts Desk: the quality and integrity of what we write has a direct bearing on what our efforts will yield.
The willingness to work speculatively and unpaid for a long period of time without any foreknowledge whether it would become worthwhile is the key factor in The Arts Desk’s story so far. That has come about through a powerful communal belief shared by all of us in the company that it was a challenge worth taking on so if we could establish a new field of future employment.