Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Spoletoblog does something cool...

Spoletoblog has been building a nice little audience over the past five days (more than 1,000 hits a day since Saturday). But what makes me happy about it is that we're already demonstrating the medium's natural ability to tackle the kinds of issues that tend to choke traditional newspapers.

For instance: Our print edition has chosen not to address the controversy over a risque scene in Mabou Mines "DollHouse," director Lee Breuer's avant-garde adaptation of Ibsen's "A Doll's House." Breuer cast "little people" in the domineering male roles and 6-footers for the female parts, an obvious political pun which drew all sorts of interest.when the play premiered in New York.

What drew not a mention from the New York press was that Breuer also included a simulated fellatio scene that, though short, was also funny and appropriate in the context of the absurdist staging and adult themes.

When word got out about the scene down here, editors assigned one of our reporters to investigate it. The reporter filed a story, but editors chose not to run it. I invited two separate editors to blog on the topic or the decision; they didn't.

After an unsuccessful preview performance of the play on Thursday, the Spoleto festival's director (Nigel Redden) received critical phone calls about the fellatio scene. He related this to Breuer, his good friend, but made it clear he was not asking for the scene to be removed. Breuer, however, removed the scene on his own, out of respect for Redden.

This caused quite a bit of buzz around town... which showed up not only in our blog, but also in our competitor's blog. One of our contributors wrote an impassioned post about it. None of this appeared in newsprint. (June 1, 15:55 Editor's note: This is incorrect. The print edition publishes a daily "Buzz from the Blog" column, which I compile every evening. I'd run short excerpts from posts and comments about the controversy on the 30th and 31st, so while the print edition had not assigned or published any stories on the issue, it had been mentioned in print via a summary of blog coverage. dc)

This morning, one of our blog authors (Mindy Spar) told me that she had run into Breuer at the theater before last night's performance and asked him "Why?" He laid it out for her (as explained above). Then, the news: "Lee next told me that he had heard that there was a blog saying to put the scene back in and that people had been commenting here and other places that the play should not be tampered with so in last night's performance it was back in."

And voila.

It didn't require the involvement of the print edition, which is -- to be absolutely blunt about it -- hamstrung by the sensibilities and expectations of its readers. It didn't require the mobilization of a huge online audience. It didn't require meetings and phone calls to lawyers, and nobody had to set any profound policies.

As Mindy and I discussed, you unlock the power of this medium by breaking down the traditional walls dividing subject, observer and audience. It wasn't necessary that the audience be a mass audience -- the mass audience isn't interested in Spoleto in the first place and wouldn't care about "DollHouse" EXCEPT for the fact that it would want to argue over the appropriateness of simulated fellatio on stage. The two local festival blogs opened this up to the people who actually cared, and let them have their say. In the end, this word reached the artists, and a mistake was corrected.

Because Spoletoblog is linked to the paper's website and its print edition, it must be respectful of the print edition's limitations and standards. We reflect them in everything we do. But we would be missing the boat if we applied the same policies and approaches to our blog content that editors apply to the print edition. Different mediums require different ways of thinking, as broadcast learned when television emerged out of radio in the 1940s and 1950s.

This will be a tricky road to walk, and each outfit will have to walk it to learn it. But I think that success begins in the same place that it began for our print edition forebears: Understand your audience, and serve it.