May 29, 2015

Q&A: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's 'Embedded Reporter

Gabriella Demczuk, The New York Times, Redux
Marin Alsop, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s director, during a rehearsal at The Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
In July 2014, journalist Ricky O’Bannon became the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s first "embedded reporter" fellow, a unique position created to help the nonprofit tell stories of interest to supporters.

In a recent Q&A with The Chronicle, Mr. O’Bannon reflected on his year with the orchestra, the stories he’s enjoyed most, and the themes that have emerged in his coverage of the arts.

What follows is a condensed transcript of that conversation.

What attracted you to this opportunity?

Ricky O’Bannon

It was a very unusual job title and description, and I was definitely intrigued by that. I thought it was interesting, the idea of working inside of an orchestra.

Beyond that, what was really interesting to me was it was something that was brand-new. It was made clear to me that they were interested in creating something that hadn’t been done before, or not done in this specific way.

I talked with Eileen Andrews [former vice president of marketing and public relations at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra] and with Amy Webb [a BSO board member, founder of Webbmedia Group, and a 2014-15 fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism]. To me it was clear we all shared a vision of what we wanted it to be: something that had journalistic value.

What’s your publication schedule?

Our goal is to try to do two to three stories a week. It varies based on what’s going on. The distribution is primarily through social media.

How is your position different from a public-relations job?

I have a whole lot of editorial control as far as picking stories out. I would say probably 75 percent of what I do is unrelated to the orchestra; it’s just generally about classical music. Twenty-five percent relates the orchestra. But I don’t see it as a direct "try to sell this concert."

Hopefully for the orchestra there’s an indirect public-relations benefit. But to me, if I write about classical music in a way that interests readers and gets them excited about classical music, that meets both our needs.

In general, it comes down to looking at the content and deciding, Is that trying to sell you something, or does that have journalistic value? I’ll let other people make that decision on what I’m doing.

What has the experience been like?

Probably the biggest challenge and fun part about this job is I don’t really have a beat [or specific coverage area]. It’s very much left open. That can be kind of terrifying at times.

But the great part about that is they’ve also been very open about letting me explore and try different things. We did this series of stories that tried to look at all classical music the 21 largest orchestras were playing in the 2014-15 season.

That, to me, is ideally what I hoped something like this could be. You’re kind of providing a public service to the industry and you’re trying to make the data open so that other arts journalists in traditional positions and other people with an interest classical music can find their own stories in the data sets that we didn’t find.

What other favorite stories have you written?

There’s a video-game streaming service called Twitch. I found a composer who was composing on this platform, so composing becomes a spectator sport and live entertainment. I’m always interested in those weird quirky interactions between classical music and the 21st century.

After the Baltimore riots, I tried to write a piece looking at places where music was in the city in the week following.

What themes have emerged in your reporting?

I would say I think orchestras are very much aware of a lot of these macro problems as far as seeking new audiences, younger audiences, and diversity. It has been eye-opening to see how much time goes into that, those conversations about how to reach new audiences.

The role of an orchestra as a public good. What is the role of an orchestra in a city like Baltimore? I think there was a time when you could have an orchestra that could just play top-notch performances of Beethoven’s Fifth. That itself proved its worth to the community. I think we’re kind of in a new era now where orchestras have to go beyond their traditional concert hall walls and find a way to be in the community.

Send an e-mail to Rebecca Koenig.