Changes in local arts coverage: After a decade, City Arts magazine tries an Indiegogo campaign to spin itself off from Encore Media Group and the Stranger Genius Awards are postponed again as they attempt to secure funding.
City Arts is leaving the nest.
This week, the arts magazine announced its split from Encore Media Group — which publishes glossy programs for Seattle Opera, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet and other marquee arts organizations — and a new crowdfunding campaign to become an independent publication. (The Encore-sponsored magazine originally launched in Tacoma 12 years ago and quickly moved its base of operations to Seattle.)
“Encore was a good parent to produce this product and get it off the ground,” City Arts publisher Andy Fife said. “We’ve finished the childhood period and are ready to leave the house.”
But it’s asking for a little help to walk through the door. This week, City Arts began its Indiegogo “membership” campaign, hoping to raise $150,000 by May 14. If the magazine hits that benchmark, Fife said, it can move to the next phase: a broader fundraising campaign, finding bigger-fish donors and corporate partners, and eventually building out the City Arts website with new features like podcasts, short videos and an interactive, socially oriented calendar system that helps users track what tickets their friends are buying.
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But first and foremost, he said, City Arts is a culture magazine with a print circulation of 50,000 and an estimated reach of 95,000 readers per month. “We see ourselves as a publication by, for and of the people,” he said. “We wanted that populist base exhibited — we didn’t go out and sell the concept to the capitalists first. We’re looking to our readers first.”
City Arts currently has four full-time editorial staffers and one half-time staff member. At the moment, Fife does not expect the staff to shrink or the magazine’s focus on art, music, literature and performance to change. Even though City Arts is running a public funding campaign, it plans to be a for-profit entity with a “B Corporation” certification. “Basically,” he explained, “a for-profit company with a nonprofit mission for local culture.”
The precise ownership of the new City Arts, Fife said, “is still coming together.” But it will include Encore Media president Paul Heppner, Fife and City Arts editor Leah Baltus.
Over five years, he hopes the City Arts annual budget will grow from its current $500,000 to $1.5 million.
The business model plans for members — both individual and corporate — to cover two-thirds of those costs, with advertising covering the other third.
“We need to think of ourselves as a tech startup a little bit,” he said. “Our hope is to build technology around the needs and interests of our members — it’s hard to say what will rise to the top priority, because it depends on building a thing our members can log into, then seeing what their preferences and habits are. But we already think what we have today is worth membership.”
Fife, who used to run the arts-administration nonprofit Shunpike (which helped small arts entities with services like business advice, networking and taxes), originally came to Encore as a strategy consultant in 2016.
It became clear that City Arts was a “loss leader” for the company — the magazine was a good way to raise Encore’s brand profile, but cost the company between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. “It wasn’t horribly negative in terms of expenses,” he explained. “Encore is a company of 20 full-time employees and a number of contractors, but it wasn’t like a drop in the swimming pool. It was more like a drop in the bucket.”
That August, Encore announced Fife would become the magazine’s publisher. This week, City Arts announced its plan to become an independent publication.
City Arts isn’t the only local arts and culture media outlet looking at changes. The Stranger has postponed its annual Genius Awards again. Since 2003, the weekly newspaper gave out five annual, no-strings-attached $5,000 grants to artists and arts organizations, including author Rebecca Brown, the musicians of Shabazz Palaces and theater On the Boards.
The Genius Awards typically happen in the fall and, in recent years, culminated in a large awards party at the Moore Theatre.
Last September, Stranger publisher Tim Keck said the paper would postpone the 2017 awards until this spring. Now, he says, the paper is attempting to secure funding to keep the awards going.
Fife is well aware that the entire journalism industry is staring down the barrel of major financial challenges.
“Our city is not unique, but is particularly fast in its changes, and those changes are pushing artists out of the city and limiting the power of local media and local journalists,” he said. “The success of the city is leading to homogenization. For us to have an interesting, vibrant city, we’ll need a vibrant arts community, and to have that we’ll need its storytellers.”
Fife emphasized that he appreciates the arts coverage in other publications like The Stranger and The Seattle Times. “But,” he said, “I’m choosing City Arts as a place to put my energy. This is our chance — our chance to create a new model for media, right here in Seattle.”