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The enduring allure of conspiracies
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June 21, 2011, 11 a.m.

Meet Engine28, an arts-focused pop-up newsroom

It has the makings of an MTV show: Forty journalists…picked to work in a house…and have their lives taped. But The Real World this is not.

Engine28 is another kind of reality show: a pop-up newsroom. Between June 15 and 20, 40 arts journalists from 28 media outlets across the country came together to cover a convergence of theater festivals that the L.A. Times is calling “one of the largest concentrations of live theater ever to occur in Southern California“: the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the RADAR L.A. film festival, and the Theatre Communications Group’s 2011 conference.

Engine28, named for the converted firehouse where the journalists set up shop, is the product of an NEA-sponsored fellowship program overseen by USC journalism professor and writer Sasha Anawalt. (Think News21, staffed by professional journalists, rather than students, and focused on the arts.) In the fellowship’s recent years, notes Doug McLennan, the editor of and, for last week, the editor of Engine28, participants had become more and more focused on how their industry — and the roles of the arts reporter and critic within it — have been changing. “We came to this year,” McLennan says, “and we thought, ‘Well, instead of talking about new models, why don’t we try and create some?'”

So, over the past several days, the site’s journalists — affiliated with The New York Times, NPR, the Chicago Tribune, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, TBD, and others — experimented with covering theater and other types of live performance in the most creative, constructive ways possible — through text, video, podcasts, liveblogs, and more. The broad idea was to tap into the frenetic energy of the newsroom in breaking-news mode: journalists working together, side by side, typing, talking, stressing, commiserating.

And the ad hoc aspect of that energy in Engine28’s case, McLennan says, ended up being kind of liberating. For one thing, “we didn’t have to worry about creating a really smooth editorial process,” he notes. The simple fact of changed context can be powerful. “The tools help shape what you do,” McLennan notes, “and so doing something in a completely unfamiliar or different way forces you to think about why you’re doing it this way — why you do it the way you usually do it.”

The team also discovered, though, the power of some traditional approaches when it comes to media production. When Engine28 began its work, McLennan notes, “everything was non-hierarchical.” From the editorial process to the design of the site’s homepage, “we tried to make it very democratic. And we tried to make the process of putting it together similarly democratic.” By the second day or so, though, the editors in the group began to reassert themselves as editors, and the reporters adjusted their workflow accordingly. “The traditional values of getting from point A to point B,” McLennan notes, ended up replicating themselves even in a largely non-traditional environment. As nice as non-hierarchy is in theory, if you want to get work done efficiently, “you have to have some sort of organization.”

And that’s noteworthy, because Engine28 isn’t just an ad hoc arts publication; it’s also a proof of concept. The team saw two main audiences for its work, McLennan notes: the traditional audience for arts (and especially theater) journalism on the one hand, and, on the other, fellow journalists of all stripes. “In a way, we had the biggest arts staff in America this past week,” McLennan notes. And that staff was concerned with the process of arts journalism as much as the product of it. As McLennan puts it, “What other cultural event gets 40 journalists all concentrating on finding ways to cover it?”

POSTED     June 21, 2011, 11 a.m.
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