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Douglas McLennan: Confessions of a Newspaper Fanatic

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Douglas McLennan (M.M. ’83, piano) defines himself as a “newspaper fanatic.” “Whenever I was on a bus trip, every stop we made, I would buy the local paper,” he says. “People used to make fun of me for it.”

Douglas McLennan

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In 1999, when McLennan founded ARTSJournal—an online digest of cultural news from around the world—he was already an award-winning journalist with a prestigious portfolio: NewsweekThe New York Times, The Los Angeles TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and Salon.com all had published his work. He had traveled to Beijing on a fellowship and served as guest commentator for CBC, BBC, and NPR. From a journalistic perspective, all he was missing was the book deal.

McLennan’s focus has always had a grand scope. Early on, he saw the impact the Internet could have on journalism and the arts, and he resolved to establish a site committed to selecting the strongest reporting on the most exciting performances in the country. It was an unconventional career step. Then again, it wasn’t the first he’d taken.

McLennan, 50, was accepted into the piano program at the Mannes College of Music (now Mannes College the New School for Music) in the late ’70s and arrived in New York from Winnipeg, Canada, in what he describes as “the worst of times. The subway cars were filled with graffiti, the whole city was dirty and dangerous.” But poverty and danger only fueled the young McLennan’s innovation. “I bought roller skates, so I didn’t have to spring for a subway token. I used to sneak into Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. I know more second acts [of plays and musicals] than anyone I know.” At one point, he felt so weak that he signed himself into the hospital for tests. The diagnosis? Malnutrition. “You struggle as a student anyway,” he says with a laugh. “It added to the sense of adventure.”

After graduating, McLennan studied in Rome with Italian pianist Guido Agosti, then earned a master’s degree at Juilliard and a doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory. He relocated to Seattle and spent a few years as a struggling young musician. While attending a music festival in central Oregon—and snatching up local papers—he happened upon a small journal called The Bend Bulletin. He contacted the editor and offered to review the festival. “I stayed up all night writing it. And at the end of the week, I went back to Seattle with a clip.” Not long afterward, he was writing forSeattle Weekly, and eventually became music critic at The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

While playing music may no longer be his focus, his passion for the arts and his fellow artists has never waned. Unlike critics who have never practiced the art they cover, McLennan understands the perfection every performer strives for, while empathizing with the stresses of the working musician. And reading dozens of papers for ARTSJournal, he says, gives him a “perch” to observe how critics and artists alike react to changes in their fields all over the country.

“This is a time of extreme angst in the journalism field—and really, in the arts world in general,” he says. “We’re going through a great period of financial turmoil, and what we’re seeing is a massive restructuring of the traditional business systems.” In the future, McLennan theorizes, career paths won’t be so well defined, as traditional means of publishing are evolving with electronic culture. Rather than looking for news from the most popular sources surfacing through the search engines, readers are seeking Web sites they trust to discern among the enormous amount of information available online and deliver it in an accessible format. This is what McLennan calls the “the age of the curator.” ARTSJournal (www.artsjournal.com) has made a name for itself by recommending “what may not be the most popular, but is the most interesting.

McLennan hopes to use ARTSJournal as a way to highlight up-and-coming musicians and writers alike. The site now hosts 52 bloggers and selects 30 to 40 articles—out of 2,500 or so—to appear on its home page. The enormous traffic the site generates—more than 45,000 visitors per month—guarantees national exposure for local artists. For the aspiring journalist clutching his or her first clip, the experimental dance theater in Great Bend, or the freelancer launching a blog, there could be no greater break than McLennan’s nod of approval.

“In some ways it’s harder,” McLennan says about embarking on an arts career nowadays. “But at the same time, it’s very exciting, because it’s allowing you to do whatever it is you want to do. This is a time of entrepreneurship and experimentation, and if people latch onto something different, then they can be successful.”

In a time of artistic, economic, and political upheaval, optimism and encouragement from someone situated at the top of his field is a reminder that no great art has ever been achieved without a struggle—and as Doug McLennan sees it, it’s all part of one ever-evolving adventure.

 

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