News organizations have ethics panels. And fact checkers. And ombudsmen and insurance against libel lawsuits and multitudes of interns.
In general, everyone knows what a reporter does and everyone knows what a critic does. The roles are tidy and defined by lawyers and lexicographers and publishers’ human resources departments. But unlike dead-tree and broadcast journalism, the roles are very much up in the air for “new media.” After more than fifteen years of Internet madness, the role of Web-based information outlets in our society still isn’t clear. The relationship that you—an artist or producer of art—have with people who might talk about it online... Well, it's a bit muddled.
The Internet is gloriously, maddeningly decentralized. There’s no list to send a press release to. Indeed, most ’net-bound tastemakers would be a touch alarmed if they started getting press releases. Bloggers, online video producers, podcasters, and community sites are generally used to discovering things on their own; they’re not used to people competing for their notice. The limits of what they cover are often determined only by their attention spans or free time, not by a calculated number of column inches or air minutes.
Journalists talk about how they work for their readers or viewers or listeners. Bloggers who talk about local performing arts are just writing about what they like and if someone reads it, well, hooray!
NOTE: By differentiating "Internet" and "journalist," I don't mean that, say, professional, trained journalists don't and can't write successfully online. MinnPost, for example, is an online-only publication that gets their content from pro writers. You can safely approach MinnPost's editors and writers as you would any other journalist: press release, follow-up call, and so on. You can bet on that, too, for Minnesota Monthly, City Pages, and the whole host of Minnesota publications that have a robust online presence.
Minneapolis Metblogs, on the other hand, also has an audience but the tone and system are not the same. While Metblog writers do have an editorial process, how they interact with their sources (and audiences) is vastly different and considerably more informal. And if you get down to, say, one- or two-person blogs like Dump Michele Bachmann (and you may want to, depending on your target demographics)—well, there are no rules in that arena.
You can see how this might change your press outreach strategy. When pitching to a journalist, you worry about their demographic. When pitching to a blogger, you worry about them.
If reporters owe you nothing, bloggers owe you lots of nothing. Reporters at least need someone to talk about; bloggers and whatnot can simply break from writing. Though online folks are filling a necessary gap in media, they’re also doing it because they just want to. For sites like The UpTake, they’re doing it because they believe citizens have to speak up, no matter how rough, or democracy will fail. For sites like mnartists.org, they’re doing it to fulfill a mission. For a lot of bloggers and citizen journalists, I’d wager they’d rather have your friendship or your beer than your press kit.
The difference then boils down to this: If the right combination of forces comes together and the winds blow in just the right direction, you can reap substantial rewards from mainstream media coverage. On the Internet, if you’re good enough and can put enough labor into it, you can control the whole damn narrative yourself.
Pitching to people who aren’t paid to care about you
To get coverage in a newspapers, say, you email the Pioneer Press a press release and photo. You make your follow-up calls. You pray your show is reviewed and that nice things are said and ticket sales go up. The chain can break at any point and, if you receive a negative review, you’re unlikely to have a chance to offer a rebuttal in ink. This is how it is. But the Pioneer Press pays people to cover people like you. So there is a concrete resource, at least, even if you have to compete for it.
Conversely, take Callboard, a Twin Cities bulletin board site frequented by actors in small- to mid-sized theater. The regular users aren’t nearly as individually influential as Pioneer Press writers, but they do drop some money on tickets. And my guess is that they’re good at influencing their friends to go to shows they liked. And if someone says something negative about your show (Callboard’s users do not review shows, per se, but they do talk heaps), you can respond—to the point of a bloody flame war if you’d like.
But no one at Callboard will take your press release because Callboard is patrolled by administrators, not crafted by editors. You can’t make a follow-up call to a community. And if you were to post your press release with no previous or further engagement, you stand a good chance of being seen as self-serving and disrespectful to the spirit of the site—kind of like being invited over to a neighbor’s for coffee only to be asked if you've ever used Amway products because, shucks, they're just the tops and, as luck would have it, I sell them! Off-putting, eh?
So, for your show promotion, if you want to use Callboard—or any forum or blog or social networking site that you think will have a good return on investment—you’ll have to put in the work of becoming part of that community first. Little wonder that in this era, Facebook consumes all our free time. The only way to earn authority in a peer-to-peer network is to be committed to that network.
Do it your online self
Talking to bloggers, video reporters, and the rest is different still. Their backgrounds—to use the Minneapolis Metblog vs. MinnPost example again—determine the expectations they'll have when dealing with you. MinnPost's writers are accustomed to press releases; Metbloggers probably are happy getting a friendly email (and probably get deeply annoyed when you use their comments section for your own self-promotion).
Blogs, wikis, podcasts, Twitter feeds, and other tools that require small, constant updates are powerful weapons when wielded by the right hands. But if you are new to being an online content creator, creating a new blog about your show’s rehearsal process is not the right start. No one will read it because there are four zillion other blogs about the rehearsal process. There is no way yours will be funny or insightful enough to get a large, loyal readership behind it in six weeks—and if you’re not generating ticket sales, what’s the point?
So don’t. Don’t do a blog. Don’t do a wiki. Don’t sign up for a Twitter account. Not just for one show, not as a whim, not as a short-term marketing tool. Think about how exhausting an evening of rehearsal is. Now think about coming home after rehearsal and writing for two hours. Or editing fifteen hours of raw footage into a trailer or video diary. Or trying to teach yourself the fundamentals of HTML and graphic design. The return for one show is not worth the investment and frustration. I’m not asking, I’m telling. It's much harder than you think, and you won't be good at it without practice.
However, if you are dedicated to a blog (or whatever your choice among the new media is) as a long-term marketing strategy, start immediately. One of the best Minnesota performing arts folks doing this is Mike Fotis. Mike’s a Minneapolis comedian who has made a good name for himself at Brave New Workshop and, both solo and with Ferrari McSpeedy, at Minnesota Fringe. Over the years, he’s cultivated a large and dedicated fan base. And a few years ago, he set about blogging.
But Mike doesn’t blog for one show, or when he feels like it, or when he has something to promote, because what fun is that for the reader, what goodwill does that inspire? Mike’s committed enough to his career and to using new media as a marketing tool that he blogs every weekday without fail—and if he does skip, he apologizes (!). He writes about his life, pop culture, news, and more in his own voice.
It doesn't read like typical marketing, written-by-committee bullshit because it's Mike: it's real and human. The best part is that he gets to sharpen his wit through the discipline of short-form, daily writing. But to be sure, when Mike has a show to plug, he plugs it. And people show up.
Because he respects his blog's readers by committing himself to the grueling, time-consuming production of original, very entertaining writing, his readers commit back.
That is, they buy his tickets.