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Will Critique Work for Food

• March 16, 2009 • 8:52 PM

As print newspapers listen nervously to the tolling of the bell, the fine arts and cultural journalism they once hosted searches desperately for a new place to chime.

Since the first images of galloping horses were sketched on grotto walls, discerning individuals have been evaluating art and spreading the word about what’s new and interesting. These cave-dwelling critics may have been opinionated (“His technique is positively Neanderthal”) or simply informative (“Put down that club and check this out”), but either way, they served as a conduit between prehistoric Picassos and their dinosaur-era devotees.

Over the past couple of centuries, that role has primarily been played by men and women writing for newspapers. But with those outlets going the way of the brontosaurus (the Internet being the metaphorical asteroid that crashed the neighborhood, leading to mass extinctions), arts journalists, arts organizations and artists themselves are nervously pondering what will take their place.

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 estimated 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.

Most newspapers continue to cover the world of culture using freelancers and (in the case of film and television) wire-service copy to supplement the remaining staff. A few, including the Los Angeles Times, have inaugurated blogs on their Web sites to get arts news out more quickly.

On the other hand, entertainment news pages are increasingly filled with celebrity gossip, as many newspapers continue their futile attempt to attract young readers. “The CelebCult virus is eating our culture alive, and newspapers voluntarily expose themselves to it,” veteran Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert complained late last year. “They want to devote less of their space to considered prose, and more to ignorant gawking.”

This has led to a dearth of serious arts coverage — including thoughtful analysis of pop culture. “There is a real sense of a hole that needs to be filled,” says Judith Kurnick, a former music critic who now serves as the League of American Orchestras’ vice president for strategic communications.

“There are so many stories that are not being told,” complains Sasha Anawalt, director of the Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program at the University of Southern California. She compared the Los Angeles Timesaggressive reporting of a 2004-05 scandal at the Getty Center with its coverage of more recent money problems at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

“Four and five years ago, the Times had an arts investigative reporting staff,” Anawalt noted. “They … were able to break the Getty story and claim it.” With half the staff gone, that sort of digging is not really possible, and the growing problems at MOCA were hidden from public view until a crisis point was reached. (She added, however, that the rapid-fire response of Times reporters and critics on their blog — particularly the comments of art critic Christopher Knight — “interestingly may have influenced the chain of events” as the story unfolded.)

As that item suggests, 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.”

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.”

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.”

So do Sasha Anawalt’s journalism students, who realize that to make a living doing this work, they will have to be as creative as the people they cover. To that end, “We’ve joined up with the business school to offer entrepreneurship classes,” Anawalt says. “One of my students is a feminist film critic who loves to bake. She wants to open a bakery where there are laptops all around and people are writing and talking about film.”

Cine-mon rolls, anyone?

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.”

Kurnick of the League of American Orchestras expressed a similar concern. While hardcore music enthusiasts will find Web sites that give them the information they need, she considers it vital that orchestras (and by extension, other cultural organizations) keep in contact with citizens who might support them for other reasons — to enhance their social status, say, or as an expression of civic pride.

“We have a growing challenge to the nonprofit tax status of the arts,” she notes. “That wasn’t an issue 20 years ago. As we saw in the recent congressional battle over the stimulus package, the arts have to keep justifying themselves. You wonder how much of that has to do with the decline of arts journalism, as well as the decline of arts education in the schools.”

She believes cultural institutions will have to take on more of that job themselves through the use of various social networking tools. McLennan agrees, noting, “I don’t know an arts organization that isn’t using e-mail in a pretty aggressive way.”

“Arts organizations can’t count on reviews and features to sell tickets, at least in the present shake-out,” Hackett notes. “What do they do? Build the brand. Be the center of their audience’s attention. Be a place to gather. Invite the audience to review the shows or exhibits.”

Kurnick points out that a few arts organizations are upgrading their Web sites to include interactive features and/or blogs, adding, “I think we’ll see a lot more of that.” However, one such effort — a Detroit Symphony blog written by its new music director, Leonard Slatkin — appears to be something of a halfhearted effort, in that nothing has been posted on it since December.

While such community-outreach efforts are clearly valuable, when it comes to burnishing a company’s image — or, for that matter, convincing people to buy tickets — there’s nothing like the endorsement of a respected third party. That’s where established arts writers have an advantage, even if their staff jobs no longer exist. “Successful critics,” Hackett believes, “will build communities around their brand.”

That aura of authoritativeness will also distinguish journalistic Web sites from collective-wisdom sites that allow anyone to rate a product. As Denton notes, that model 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 think there is as much need for arts journalists as there ever has been — probably more,” says artsjournal.com’s Doug McLennan. Like Hackett, he sees this transformation as an opportunity to reinvent arts journalism by making it more innovative and more inclusive.

“Who says that the epitome of the best possible expression of arts journalism is the 20-inch, text-only review?” he asks. “Every time you translate dance into words, there’s a compromise going on. If you’re referring to a texture in music, why not illustrate the point with a little sound clip? The possibilities are just amazing. But do you see anybody seriously experimenting with that?

“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.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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