Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Arts Journalism, Say Arts Journalists, Isn't Dying -- It's a Poltergeist

This post is cross-posted at the new Clyde Fitch Report, which is in beta. Do check it out and send comments.

Tom Jacobs, who wrote for me at Back Stage until a combination of things -- mostly the ill-advised elimination of a freelance budget -- made that an impossibility, has a fascinating story up on Miller-McCune.com called "Will Critique Work for Food." The website is the digital platform of the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy, and the piece is on arts journalism and what has happened and is still happening to it. But the story isn't about the writing itself so much as those who put their fingers to keyboard and type away:

The situation is most dire for the journalists themselves, who find themselves no longer able to make a living pursuing their passion. But it is also of great concern to arts administrators, who are just now coming to grips with the impending cutoff of one of their strongest lines of communication with the community. After complaining for years of unfair or insensitive reviews, they have come to the realization that the only thing worse than getting criticized is being ignored.

Arts journalism in the United States will surely survive — but in what form? To explore that question, Miller-McCune.com spoke with number of people in the arts, journalism and academia, including Doug McLennan, the founder and editor of artsjournal.com. That site, which celebrates its 10th anniversary in September, aggregates arts stories from newspapers around the world. It also provides a forum for a variety of bloggers who write with intelligence and style on different disciplines.

A former staff writer with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (the industry's most recent print casualty, which became an online-only product as of March 17) and Seattle Weekly, McLennan also heads the scaled-back National Arts Journalism Program, and in that capacity he has been tracking some disturbing figures. He estimates that in 2005, there were approximately 5,000 staff positions on American newspapers that involved writing about the arts. These include critics, feature writers, reporters who cover cultural news — and the many journalists who juggle all three of those roles.

Today, he estimates that due to layoffs, cutbacks and the closure of several prominent papers (including, another recent victim, Denver's Rocky Mountain News), that number is down to 2,500. That's a 50 percent decline in only four years — a disproportionate loss even for an industry in decline. (Advertising Age recently
that one newspaper job in four has been lost since 1990.) Sean Means, film critic of the Salt Lake City Tribune, is independently keeping a running tally of colleagues who have been laid off over the past three years. The total is up to 49.

This raises the question that I and others have asking for some time: What will happen to arts journalism and what will become of the arts journalists? Will new generations of arts journalists have a shot at making any kind of real living? These are questions that the following answers jointly:

Arts journalism has traditionally performed a variety of functions. It heightens awareness of the arts and the role they play within a community. It provides a consumer guide by critiquing individual exhibits, productions and performances.

It educates readers by analyzing current offerings in terms of their social or historical context. It serves as a watchdog by chronicling how cultural institutions spend public money, and it entertains by introducing readers to artists of all sorts through personality profiles that help demystify the creative process.

It seems likely that, in a post-newspaper society, some of those tasks will be split off and accomplished in different ways. Community awareness is increasingly falling to the arts groups themselves (as we'll discuss later). Reviews and analysis are rapidly migrating to niche Web sites, such as Lawrence A. Johnson's South Florida Classical Review.

"I'm doing this because I think newspapers are on their way out, and something has to take their place," Johnson explains. "The music deserves a certain sounding board. In cities where they don't have a regular critic, mediocrity tends to be the rule."

A former music critic for the Miami Herald, Johnson launched the site last June, "during that awkward period between the announcement of layoffs and the day I got the official word I was getting the heave-ho." On his site, he does pretty much everything he used to do for the Herald, only with no restrictions on length. He then sells some of his reviews back to the Herald and other area papers at a freelance rate.

"I think that's the future," he says. "I think you're going to see more sites like this that serve as the origination point of the coverage."

So, in other words, there will still be arts journalism, but people won't make a living at it, most likely. (I also happen to believe that the consumer will be somewhat confused in terms of who to believe, who to listen to, who to read and what criticism to ingest more seriously than others. This is great if the goal, say, here in New York is to diminish the all-powerful New York Times, but that, my friends, has already occurred.) This is how Johnson does it:
After some internal debate, Johnson decided to make his site a for-profit operation; he decided whatever funds he could get from foundations wouldn't be worth the headache of completing grant applications. His income is from sales back to newspapers and banner ads on his site, which so far have been purchased primarily by smaller and (to his mind) more forward-thinking music organizations.

His site also includes contributions from a couple of colleagues around the state; he doesn't pay them at the moment, but plans to do so eventually. "My overhead is relatively low," he notes. "I don't have levels and levels of editors. I just need a little slice of advertising to keep it going. I live pretty frugally."

That's admirable, if sad, if inspiring. Jacobs also talks to my friend and colleague, Martin Denton:
Johnson need only look north to find a similar site that has been self-sustaining for more than a decade. Martin Denton started nytheatre.com in 1996 as a hobby. He quit his day job and turned it into a full-time endeavor in 1999.

Last year he had an impressive 3.4 million visitors — many of which, he admits, were merely looking for a theater's address or checking the time their show began. But he also has a "core readership" of several hundred thousand people who appreciate the fact his site reviews virtually every show in town — even those in small, out-of-the-way venues.

It's a tiny operation: Denton runs it out of his home and his mother oversees the business side. Unlike Johnson, he opted to file for nonprofit status, which gives him access to grant money. About one-third of his $100,000 annual budget comes from government sources (both the state and city of New York contribute).

He also sells banner ads, and like Johnson, he reports no problems with advertisers demanding a positive review as a quid pro quo. "They're paying for a certain number of eyeballs on the ad," he says. "If they get that, they don't care what our review says."

Those reviews are written by theater professionals who do not get paid for their work. Denton admits that keeping the quality high with volunteer labor is a challenge, but he has managed to avoid the potential pitfalls of peer-to-peer criticism, such as reviews tinged by personal or professional grudges. "Everybody's grown up," he insists. "They understand constructive criticism is valuable."

Of course, constructive criticism is always valuable. The whole history of 20th century theatre criticism is filled with stories along the lines of Sylvia Miles dumping a plate of spaghetti on top of John Simon's head as opposed to the way Elliot Norton helped Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein turn a mediocre musical called Away We Go into one far more memorable called Oklahoma!

But let's remember, the initial pretext for Jacobs' article was not whether criticism as an organism would survive, or survive insofar as superlative writing quality goes, but whether the situation for arts journalist may, in the final analysis, be anything but -- to reuse Jacobs' term -- "dire." And here's the problem: Denton may even offer superior criticism on his site, and his business model may be predicated entirely on volunteer reviewing, but isn't it volunteer reviewing that devalues the very idea of the arts journalist? In simplest terms, by not paying the arts journalist, does the arts journalist have intrinsic -- by that I mean measurable -- value? What is wrong with making a living as an arts journalist? What's so grand, so admirable, so pride-inducing, so inexhaustibly unassailable, about not paying arts journalists? This doesn't just apply to Denton's site -- far from it. Lots of bloggers out there write for nothing. More and more, let's of journalists that still have staff positions at established publications are being asked to do more and more, like blogging, for no additional compensation. And in terms of those who aren't with a staff position at a major publication, let's not debate what does and does constitute an arts journalist, for I believe that if you're writing about the arts and you're having what you write about the arts published and consumers are reading and consuming that coverage, you're an arts journalist. Period. (Yes, that includes bloggers.) After all:
...As Denton notes, ["an aura of authoritativeness"] works well if you're buying a computer component, but it's not all that helpful when it comes to evaluating a CD or theatrical production. For that kind of advice, you want someone with knowledge and experience who can judge a work of art thoughtfully and write about it in an interesting way — in other words, a critic.

I just feel that if "you want someone with knowledge and experience who can judge a work of art thoughtfully and write about it in an interesting way," such knowledge and experience ought to have a monetary value. Only in something like arts journalism would it be assumed ok to pay not one dime for such skills.

Meanwhile, Jacobs goes to a great source for yet another perspective: Sasha Anawalt, director of the Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program at the University of Southern California:
Anawalt also can imagine the day when major arts organizations, or perhaps consortia of such groups, may hire established arts journalists and give them a prominent online forum. After all, many companies stepped up their education component when arts-appreciation courses were dropped from school-district curricula. Similarly, they may decide that supporting arts journalism is well worth the relatively small expense.

"I don't think arts organizations should pay critics to review their wares, but I'm old school — the conflict of interest stops me dead," says Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Regina Hackett, who has announced plans to write a blog for artsjournal.com. "But a group of arts organizations in a city can support the right kind of arts blogger or arts news site."

But even a high-quality, well-read Web site has a limited reach. Newspapers, at least in their heyday, were read by nearly every member of a given community (or at least everyone with a certain level of income and education). Few may have devoured the review of the new exhibit at the art museum, but casual readers very likely glanced at the photos and received — at least subliminally — the impression that something interesting was going on there.

"Web sites tend to be very focused," notes Gil Cates, managing director of the Geffen Playhouse in West Los Angeles (and producer of the annual Academy Awards broadcast). "It's that general audience that is the hardest to reach. I want to attract the crowd that looks at a newspaper on a Saturday and asks, 'What do you want to do tonight?'

"The audience has to know about what's going on in the theater in order to decide whether they are going to come," he reasons. "It's true there is the Internet, including things like Facebook. But the majority of theatergoers tend to be over 40, and they're not as new-media-inclined as the younger generation. They get most of their information from television, radio and newspapers. So when you start cutting
people who write about what we do, it's serious."

That last line is very powerful, you know. Because the situation really is serious. And websites have a fast-growing, but still (for now) limited, reach. It's a generational thing, a consumer-behavior thing, and I think arts organizations have a responsibility to not stand on the sidelines in this moment, as some (not those cited in the article) seem to be doing. Truthfully, I wouldn't trust a nonprofit arts group, "or perhaps consortia of such groups," to "hire established arts journalists and give them a prominent online forum." It wouldn't be in their interest to allow arts journalists to truly write freely. My God, look at all the nonprofit institutional theaters in New York getting on the bandwagon of inviting bloggers to super-early previews of their shows. They're banking on the idea that those bloggers will create buzz, which is their motivation for calling these invitations a "marketing initiative." These groups do not have the balls or the brains to actually consider these bloggers what they are -- legitimate critics, real honest-to-God critics and arts journalists; people who in any other time, in any other era, would have had real job at real publications and would have made real salaries -- and thus invite them to critics' performances. No, what they've done is create a Jim Crow era for arts journalism. That, too, devalues arts journalists and arts journalism.

Smartly, Jacobs ends his story with some hope:
"It's an incredibly exciting time to be an arts journalist. We're in a sort of Wild West of invention. I think what comes out eventually will be far superior to what we have had."

But will an economic model be found to support all this innovation? McLennan — who recently hired two assistants to help him edit artsjournal.com — is an optimist. His operation makes a decent profit thanks in part to subscribers who pay him to have information get e-mailed directly to their inbox. It's the same stuff they can find on his Web site, but they're willing to pay for the convenience of direct delivery.

McLennan compares standalone niche Web sites to small literary magazines, which seldom make money and usually fold when their founder burns out. "It's very hard selling an ad on a blog that gets 1,000 hits a day," he admits. "But if you band together with 10 other blogs — say a theater blog bands together with a music blog and a visual arts blog — your universe of potential advertisers grows enormously.

"Historically it has been true that if you could put together an audience for something that you did, there was a way to make money at it. I refuse to believe the laws of human nature are going to be suspended because of the Internet."

Of course, forging a career without the safety net provided by a large employer is not for the timid. To pursue their calling, arts journalists will need to be both dedicated and imaginative. In other words, their lives will resemble those of another group of highly committed, risk-taking professionals ... artists.

And I agree: the laws of human nature will not be suspended because of the Web. Indeed, the business model that allowed arts journalists to make a living have alreadybeen suspended, hence the move toward entrepreneurial models. The question is how to reinvent the form without devaluing not just the work, again, but the idea of simply making a living. Let's hope the reinvention is here sooner, not later.

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