13 March 2017

The Lyn Gardner effect

Try not to think of press coverage as ripples in a pond, think of it more like an earthquake: an unpredictable shock that can reshape the world, something that affects 'Small' and 'Large' in different ways and that becomes more likely after it has occurred once. What follows is a quick look at how a very minor quake affected (and continues to affect) a small piece of theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe (I had some involvement in this specific show but it was minimal: largely bookkeeping advice).

The company behind this particular piece had taken a show to Edinburgh in 2015. For 2016, a lot of relationships were carried over: same creatives involved, same accommodation, same venue & same PR. Whilst some activity occurred between the two festivals, nothing happened that significantly grew their audience. Despite some national press coverage pre-Edinburgh, the first week of the festival was unfolding in a very similar way to 2016 with 44% attendance after 6 shows (3 previews included).

Lyn Gardner came to see the show in that first week and wrote a few positive lines about it on the Guardian blog. Not a review, not a feature: a few positive lines in a blog post. The show sold out the day that happened and the immediate quake lasted 10 days. Not every day sold out but there were several sell out days and the numbers were consistently higher than had been forecast. The show finished a full run at the Fringe with 65% attendance.

I believe the show would have finished up ~50% attendance without Lyn's coverage, probably adding ~£1,500 to the show's income for the festival. However, industry figures were a bit easier to attract and this opened the door for further national and international touring. It acted as a seal of approval that gave other festival programmers the confidence to book the show for some dates immediately. It proved an asset that could be leveraged by the show (and artists involved) to demonstrate that they are able to create artistic work of high quality (useful for GFTA applications and approaching potential new collaborators). It gave people involved the sense that they were on the right track.

Whilst a lot of the above is intangible, this isn't the sort of blog to shirk away from putting numbers on things:

GFTA application: maybe it moves the 33% success rate to 50%. Assume 17% of a £15k application that you only get half the time: £1,275
Sense of confidence for those involved: equivalent to a £1k grant for being awesome
Marketing asset: Similar to a trailer or decent poster design. Say £1k.
Percentage of future income: Say 10% finders fee and of course income would be equal to related GFTA app (£15k) so £1,500
That gives a total of ~£5k
+ £1,500 from Fringe income
= ~£6,500 (or around half what it costs to keep Lyn blogging for a year based on The Guardian's fees page)

That's an awful lot of value from a few lines in a blog (admittedly, since it was a small-scale show, the effect is amplified).

Keep in mind that nobody else can have this impact because they don't have the same audience and authority; a different platform won't have the same readership (otherwise you'd be more than welcome here Lyn - I'm sure we could find the money) and there is no equivalent voice.

Lyn does this for hundreds of artists every year through her blog on The Guardian (not reviews & not features). The blog is a tool that sits outside the limitations of star ratings: it allows for balance, nuance and a nurturing approach to artists. The Guardian might be saving £13,500 but it's an immediate 7 figure loss to UK theatre.

A shared sense of responsibility

In a recent editorial, the sports journalist Jonathan Wilson talked about discussing the Hillsborough disaster at a panel event. He stated optimistically that he felt a cover-up on such a scale could not occur in an age of citizen journalism because important questions would be asked far earlier in the age of social media. Wilson saw the weakening of the mainstream media as ‘broadly positive’.

That optimism appears misplaced. In 2017, notions of authority and truth have been eroded: we now inhabit a world where one ‘truth’ is as valid as another, all opinions have equal weight and experts are always wrong.

Wilson argues that expertise and authority matter because all opinions are not equal. Whilst experts should be questioned (and do get it wrong), they are more likely to be right than someone half-remembering a conversation in a pub and applying it to their personal views.

The mainstream media should stand against this but resource is an issue; proper scrutiny becomes impossible. Instead, writers and editors spend their limited time searching for lines, wrenching quotes out of context, trying to trip people up, sensationalising and generating clickbait. Skew may be unavoidable, but distortions, untruths and recklessly inflammatory headlines undermine the concepts of authority and truth. The mainstream press should stand as arbiters & their formal structure used to ensure a measure of balance

Individuals should challenge journalists and, when errors are made, errors should be acknowledged. However, comments sections prove that people often cannot differentiate ‘errors’ from their own differing opinion.

The core problem with citizen journalism is that it lacks the authority that mainstream press used to have: what biases does an individual blogger have and what agenda are they pushing?

There is a need, now more than ever, for a sense of responsibility from writers and editors because truth is a virtue in need of being upheld.

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I wrote the above yesterday evening. A lot of hawks writing never sees the light of day; I'm only letting this out to sit alongside this morning's news that Lyn Gardner's contract to write 150 blogs annually for The Guardian will not be renewed.

According to The Guardian's fee page, a blog entry for them pays £90.00 (as an expert, Lyn's rate may differ), totalling £13,500.

Whilst The Guardian may be able to get better value for that £13,500 of spend, the loss to the sector is astronomically higher.

I had the pleasure of being involved in a show that went to Edinburgh last year (in a financial advisory capacity, don't get excited). The show featured in a minor way in some of Lyn's festival coverage. The effect was immediate: sold out shows for the next week and strong attendance for the rest of the run. The interest generated has consequently allowed the show to have a life after the fringe, to the benefit everyone who gets to see it and everyone involved in making it.

Lyn allows for audiences to find hundreds of shows and artists over the course of the year. Nobody else does this such care, balance, with the best interests of the artists in mind and in a mainstream publication. A huge loss that must be rectified: please let me know if I can help.

For the record, I blame the bloggers.*



*Joke