The No. 1 most-read story on philly.com on March 25 wasn’t written by a writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer or the Philadelphia Daily News or even philly.com. The honor went to a Drexel student writing for the website’s Art Attack page run by Drexel's Center for Cultural Outreach of the Pennoni Honors College.
The Art Attack partnership that allows student writers to publish pieces with philly.com is spearheaded by Jason Wilson, the director of the Center for Cultural Outreach and editor of Drexel publications The Smart Set and Table Matters. As a wine columnist for philly.com and a spirits columnist for The Washington Post, Wilson used the idea of university students writing arts journalism, a field seeing less and less coverage in these hard journalistic times, for big-name publications to secure funding last year from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge.
The model first earned $20,000 as one of five finalists in October 2011 and then won an additional $80,000 in April 2012 as one of three grant winners. The grant money is meant to last for a two-year period from July 2012, which was when Wilson officially received the $80,000 funding, to June 30, 2014.
"The whole point of this grant from the Knight Foundation and the NEA is that it's an experiment, a work-in-progress, where everyone is searching for a new model of how journalists can cover topics that aren't link-bait and aren't immediate traffic-generators,” Wilson said. “Anyone can cover the Eagles; there's always going to be big traffic for Eagles news. There's not going to be a lot of traffic for dance coverage.”
Since the partnership started in October 2011, Wilson has had a variety of students write for Art Attack, with a core group of eight students still currently writing and a total of a dozen students contributing in the past year and a half. The venue for the students’ stories as changed as well, as the articles first appeared in the Friday print and online issue of the Philadelphia Daily News from the very inception all the way up until mid-March of 2013, when Art Attack switched to being exclusively posted online at philly.com.
"The partnership was fine with the Daily News, but we wanted more impact, and we wanted more stories published. We wanted more opportunities for the writers and different kinds of pieces," Wilson said.
The switch has benefitted both the project and the students writing for it. Without the confinement of printed space, students can now write longer critical feature pieces to be published online. According to Wilson, Art Attack used to have about three small pieces and a small feature once a week in the Daily News, but now uploads two or three stories a day to the page.
“Young writers need opportunities to write,” Wilson said. “They can’t just be given one story a month that's 250 words. They need opportunities to write every week and go out and cover things and develop a beat.”
Wilson also said that students are now gravitating toward generating their own story pitches and covering certain topics, which wasn’t always happening.
For example, Amanda V. Wagner, a junior English major who is a co-op intern at the Center for Cultural Outreach and was the author of the most popular March 25 philly.com post, writes mostly on visual arts. Her piece on “Philly’s Most Controversial Public Art” featured original photos and content that she created. She writes a minimum of three stories a week, as does Mary Sydnor, a 2012 Drexel graduate who was hired by Wilson, her former co-op employer, as the assistant editor of the Center for Cultural Outreach. Sydnor writes mainly on classical and world music.
One of the student writers was inspired to join the Center after taking one of the critics-in-residence honors classes taught by Morgan Meis, the writer of The Smart Set’s "Idle Chatter" column and Art Attack’s “Artspotting” column. “Reading, Writing, Looking: How to Think and Write about Art” was taught in the fall term of 2012 as the second critics-in-residence honors classes put out by the Center. The first was “Bad People/Good Books,” and was taught in the winter term of 2012 by Jessa Crispin, who writes the “Bookslut” column for The Smart Set.
There aren’t any critics-in-residence courses in the works, but Wilson hopes to organize some in the future, he said. The Center for Cultural Outreach’s next big initiative is launching a digital e-book publishing program and publishing three books in the summer.
“Now that we've got Art Attack launched, that's our next thing,” Wilson confirmed. “We're going to start with a list of three books—three very different types of books of different sizes, different styles, different audiences. It's a little bit of a research project to see what kinds of markets are out there."
“I’d like to see [Art Attack’s] student articles linked and/or quoted by other publications, and for students to get invited to contribute to other publications,” Dave Jones, dean of Drexel’s Pennoni Honors College, said of his hopes for the future of Art Attack.
Wilson is also working on cementing the partnership with Art Attack and philly.com by having the website’s food section feature student and professional pieces from Table Matters as part of philly.com’s “New Voices” platform that was launched in January to give more of a voice to local and national contributors.