For more than a decade, Thomas Cott has been providing an invaluable service to the arts community by compiling a digest of arts-related articles in an easy-to-read email every morning. After scouring the Internet for the hottest topics of the day, Thomas delivers his newsletter “You’ve Cott Mail” to the inboxes of colleagues around the world,
who can then casually review the most important developments in their field as they down their morning coffee. CAR Theater Researcher John Carnwath recently corresponded with Thomas about his Internet clipping service and the circulation of knowledge among arts administrators.
What has your experience with You’ve Cott Mail been like? How has it developed over the years?
Back in the early 1990s, I started emailing around occasional stories that I found online to friends/colleagues whom I thought would have otherwise missed reading them. They, in turn, forwarded my emails onto their own friends/colleagues who then asked to join my "list." I didn’t have a formal list, so I started one. And that grew to include hundreds more people over time. Eventually, I started sending out emails every day. Because I used to send an entire article in each email and some days I was sending out as many as four or five articles, it became too much email for people. So I changed formats to a single daily digest of stories and called it “You’ve Cott Mail” as a joke. The name (and format) stuck and it’s been that way ever since. Along the way, I discovered that my readers particularly enjoyed the days when I grouped stories together in some sort of theme, so I switched to sending out themed email digests each day. In the last year, I added Twitter to the mix, and I use it primarily to post links to stories that don't fit into that day's YCM email theme.
Why you do it?
I've always been a news junkie, and since I was already reading/clipping for myself, it wasn't much of a leap to want to share it with others. There is one common misconception, though: many people think I do this as my job, but no, it's a hobby. That's part of why I don't charge for the service, nor do I want to take advertising. I don’t want to feel obligated to send out YCM; there are days occasionally when I skip because I’m busy or simply can’t find enough new, interesting material. And when the day comes that it’s no longer fun to do YCM, I will stop.
How big is your readership?
I have about 6,000 people on my email distribution list now, with a lot of pass-alongs, so I'm guessing I reach at least 10,000 people or more with the emails. Another 1,000 or so people follow YCM on Twitter, some of whom retweet things I post, and so who knows how many people are reading YCM posts on Twitter. However, what’s more interesting to me than the number of people I reach is what a diverse audience they are: YCM readers are spread out all across America and around the world, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, and the UK. They are actors, writers, directors, producers, artistic directors, marketers, fundraisers, PR reps, government officials, funders, union officials, journalists, teachers, students, as well as some "civilians" who just have a passionate interest in the arts. I try to include enough variety and universality in the stories to make sure there is something for everyone at least some of the time.
How do you go about sleuthing the Internet for relevant information?
I'm an early riser, so when I get up each weekday, I spend about an hour before work scouring the Interwebs for interesting stories I think people haven't otherwise seen. That’s the key ingredient. I don’t like to include stories I think most people have seen otherwise. I don't use RSS feeds or other news aggregators. I prefer to discover things on my own. I have bookmarked several hundred sites and usually click through most of these in the morning to see what's new. I've gotten very good at browsing through all the links at a fairly fast clip. Also, once I settle on a "theme" for the day, that narrows down my search for stories, too.
What impact does YCM have on setting the agenda for national debates in the field?
That’s hard to answer, but I am humbled by how far my little hobby has grown to reach so many people in the arts community. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. People sometimes ask why I don’t write anything myself, why I don’t add my own commentary, but I think the mere act of "curating" YCM is my way of commenting on the issues of the day. I try to shine light on topics and trends, to trigger and further conversations in the field, and I think I’ve been successful at that.
What impact do blogs and tweets have on cultural policies and the management practices of arts organizations?
I know for a fact that what some people blog/tweet has a direct impact on cultural policies and management practices in the arts. In our digital age, it would be shocking if they didn’t.
It seems to me that much of the collective knowledge in the field of nonprofit arts administration emerges out of blogs and tweets, rather than from academic scholarship or trade journals. Would you agree with that assessment?
While some of our industry’s collective knowledge about arts administration comes from individual blogs and tweets, there are certainly valuable journals on the subject, too—Arts Professional, the International Journal of Arts Management, and the Journal of Arts Management, Law, and Society immediately come to mind. The various service organizations in the arts like TCG, Dance USA, Opera America, etc., also publish great publications on arts admin topics. And for younger managers, there are organizations like Emerging Leaders of New York Arts which provide a meeting place (both online and in person) to share management ideas, trends, etc. So I think the collective knowledge is just that—knowledge collected in many different ways.
How does one learn from the mass of information that's available on the Internet?
The Internet is only as useful as you make it. If you’re not asking the right questions, it doesn’t matter what information you find.
In your experience, do bloggers eventually settle on a consensus view that can be considered reliable knowledge or a “best practice?” Or do you consider each blog posting to be an individual opinion—food for thought that ultimately leaves the judgment (whether the idea is good or bad, whether the author is knowledgeable or not) up to the reader?
One of the best things about the Internet is that it brings together people who would never otherwise have an opportunity to meet in "real" life. (You and I would probably never have connected, for instance.) The national conversation that has developed out of what people write on arts blogs (and the reader comments to blog posts) has definitely helped bring together a wide group of people in the arts. But I don’t think a consensus view always comes out of what people write online. And I’m not sure a consensus view should necessarily be the goal. After all, what may be a "best practice" for one person/organization may have no relevance or value to another. I think it’s best when the reader makes her/his own judgment about what’s written and see how it can help in their own organization’s particular circumstance.
Thomas Cott has a diverse background in theater, music, dance, video, media and the humanities. He has held positions as producer, artistic director, marketer, fundraiser, strategic planner, writer, editor, graphic designer, event planner, arts educator, and management consultant. He is currently the Director of Marketing for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. As an industry expert, Thomas has been a regular moderator, speaker, or panelist at a range of events and has taught or guest lectured on arts-related issues at Yale, Columbia, NYU, Fordham, Marymount, and the Commercial Theater Institute. You can sign up for his free daily email digest at “You’ve Cott Mail” or follow him on Twitter.
Interviewed in Fall 2011.