Good Cultural Reporting In Dallas

A recent article by Scott Cantrell in the 1/11/06 edition of The Dallas Morning News is an excellent example of some good, simple cultural reporting…

The article reports the recent agreement between the Dallas Opera and their orchestra over a new a new, five year collective bargaining agreement. I point to this piece as a good example of cultural reporting because the article includes a number of key components that not only fill you in on what happened but give you a strong indication of what to watch for in the future. Furthermore, Scott did all of this in the space of only 300 words.

If you’re new to the details, you quickly learn that the bargaining hurdles were not only improvements to base compensation but how many musicians the contract would employ. Additionally, from management’s perspective, they had to agree on a contract that the organization could afford to honor after recently emerging from a cycle of running deficits.

Scott includes a number of quotes from individuals directly involved in bargaining that also have permission to speak on behalf of their respective sides in the negotiation. For the Dallas Opera, Scott quoted Karen Stone, the organization’s general director. For the musicians, he quoted Ray Hair, president of Local 72-147 of the American Federation of Musicians.

Perhaps the best bit in the entire article came from the final paragraph where Ray Hair mentions that the issue of reducing the core from 57 to 53 via attrition was a sincere sticking point with the musicians. The article quotes Ray saying “the closeness of the vote was indicative of strong opposition to the core reduction.”

This is a fantastic example of things to come and that a five year agreement is no guarantee to either side that these issues are settled with the ratification of the contract. For the board and executive management of the Dallas Opera, they need to be aware that during the next five years, they’ll need to begin demonstrating that they either intend to keep that core size down or make it known to the entire organization that they plan to actively search for new revenue streams to return the core to it is previous minimum.

If they decide on the former course of action and the musicians are displeased by their attitude and/or tangible results from their efforts, the close results from this recent contract ratification may explode into an open labor conflict and/or long term feelings of resentment and betrayal. All of which will result in tougher labor negotiations down the road.

I think Ray Hair deserves special recognition for making sure he released the information about the ratification vote and Scott Cantrell deserves an equal amount of recognition for finding a way to include it in an all-too-confining format of 300 words.

The national elections from last week should be a strong sign that closely divided results are no indication of a clear mandate or a winning strategy in the mind’s of the voters. If anything, the close calls tend to polarize sides in a debate and serve as a strong indication that the current solutions are, at best, temporary in nature and are waiting to be replaced by an as-of-yet-undefined acceptable remedy.

Ideally, the narrow ratification vote will inspire all parties to begin looking for new solutions and taking concrete steps toward implementing as quickly as possible. In this case, actions speak louder than words.

If you’re a Dallas Opera patrons and/or donor, these are precisely the sort of events you’ll want to keep your eye on over the next few years.

On a slightly related topic, I’m curious to know how you would rate the Dallas Morning New article examined in this post? Do you think it is “positive” or “negative” press for the Dallas Opera in particular and the classical music industry in general? Please take a second and vote via this simple survey: click here

We’ll explore these answers, and this topic, in more detail after this week.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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1 thought on “Good Cultural Reporting In Dallas”

  1. Definitely good, concise reporting. And I’m particularly interested in the question you raise of whether this is good or bad press for the organization and for classical music in general.

    It’s tough to say for sure, but I think it’s probably good for both. The takeaway from this article is “the musicians and the management had trouble reaching an agreement, but they were able to find something fair at the last minute and they seem relatively satisfied.” One of the key elements here is that the two pieces of the compromise — higher pay, but fewer people, and achieving fewer people through attrition rather than layoffs — _sound_ very fair to outsiders. I come away thinking that there weren’t any badguys in this labor dispute, whereas in so many labor disputes I hear about in the news become so divisive and hostile and I feel an obligation to pick a side.

    In the broader context of classical music in general, I think we have two competing ideas. First, the article treats orchestra members as Labor with the same rights and obligations as other kinds of labor — I think that’s good, because it reduces, or at least doesn’t inspire, elitism. That elitism often results in either the attitude that “the musicians deserve nothing but the best” or, more often, “demanding more pay shows ingratitude for the opportunity they’ve been given to be professional musicians.” On the other hand, even a relatively positive article on budget problems reminds everybody who pays attention to these things that classical music is in financial trouble all over the place. Many of the people concerned about those financial troubles end up attributing them entirely to bad management rather than to the many external influences (Baumol’s cost disease, the media climate, changes in cultural taste, etc.) that impact the financial situation. And unfortunately, those beliefs can lead to reduced interest in providing philanthropic and governmental support. On the other hand, in this case we’re told that the orchestra has “just gotten out of a deficit situation” which reassures readers that the current trend is positive and the negotiations in question were part of continuing that trend rather than an attempt to reverse a negative trend — the management looks good, and the musicians ultimately look relatively cooperative and supportive.

    Overall, I think the good PR significantly outweighed the bad, and the bad PR components were not the fault of the article’s author whereas the tone and content of the writing served the good elements especially well.

    Thanks for pointing this one out. I’ll be curious to see how other people interpret it.

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