Arts Coverage and Artblogging

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal's drama critic, wrote recently about several topics that are of rising interest to me these days. One of them is the cut-back in arts coverage in newspapers, particularly book coverage and stand-alone book sections (Teachout fails to mention the related firing of respected arts critics by these newspapers). The other is what some believe to be a connection between the reduced coverage and the rise of "artbloggers." As to the latter, Teachout mentions a "testy" column by Time's film critic Richard Schickel , in which Schickel said: "I don't think it's impossible for bloggers to write intelligent reviews. I do think, however, that a simple 'love' of reading (or movie-going or whatever) is an insufficient qualification for the job. . . . we have to find in the work of reviewers something more than idle opinion-mongering."

Teachout disagrees with Schickel about the value of artbloggers, noting that some of the most thoughtful and informed writing about the arts appears in blogs (Note: the thougtful and informed bloggers he mentions are, in fact, journalists who happen to blog about their subject- e.g., Tyler Green, who blogs on the visual arts at Modern Art Notes, and Teachout himself.) Teachout does admit a distinction, though:
"One of the most important civic duties that a newspaper performs is to cover the activities of local arts groups -- but it can't do that effectively without also employing knowledgeable critics who are competent to evaluate the work of those groups. Mere reportage, while essential, is only the first step. It's not enough to announce that the Hooterville Art Museum finally bought itself a Picasso. You also need a staffer who can tell you whether it's worth hanging, just as you need someone who knows whether the Hooterville Repertory Company's production of "Private Lives" was funny for the right reasons.

"...blogging, valuable though it can be, is no substitute for the day-to-day attention of a newspaper whose editors seek out experts, hire them on a full-time basis, and give them enough space to cover their beats adequately. The problem is that fewer and fewer newspapers seem willing to do that in any consistent way. I don't care for the word "provincial," but I can't think of a more accurate way to describe a city whose local paper is unwilling to make that kind of commitment to the fine arts.

"...I got my start reviewing second-string classical concerts for the Kansas City Star 30 years ago. Now that such entry-level jobs are drying up, I fear for the future of arts journalism in America."
I couldn't have said it better myself, which is why I quoted Teachout instead. So, folks, as I've said before (click here for a recent post), if you're interested in getting involved in stemming the tide, join the National Book Critics Circle Campaign to Save Book Reviewing by clicking here.


Riverlark said...

BG, I've read your posts about this subject and this one in particular several times. But I'm afraid that I don't think I can get on this band wagon. My feelings about Terry Teachout aside (he writes with high drama but little commitment to the real world), I wonder if what is happening is not the 21st century market shaking things out.
I had a long conversation with a friend yesterday about a non-profit that went belly up and we both agreed that it should have folded several years ago. Why? It refused to serve its audience in the current year, relying on what made it successful in 1975 and refusing to consider anything new. It had a product we all loved, but it couldn't reinvent itself.
Newspapers (and all of media) are trying to figure out what they are and who they serve. I agree with TT that it's a civic duty to cover local arts, but the first priority of a paper is to cover its costs. And I think the death knell for critics like him is when they use the words "fine arts." Like so much media, the lines between genres are increasingly blurred. We can't stop it and I think it's a good thing. It's actually more fun. The papers need writers who understand the zeitgeist and can write well and that may mean arts journalists who can write well about a culture that I still believe is lively without being tied to books, classical music or theater. For me, the most important piece of this is the writing well.
Anytime someone says, "30 years ago I...." I know we're in trouble. Things don't work the same way anymore.
I don't mean to get up on my soap box about this. This conversation would be way more fun over dinner on my porch together! Thanks for provoking an interesting subject!

Clara said...

RL, I'm so glad that you commented. I've been hoping that someone would engage in the debate. It's an important one, so thanks.

We agree on so much. I'm by no means Terry Teachout's advocate (and the use of the phrase "fine arts" often raises a flag for me as well). But the point he was trying to make by his "30 years ago" comment is that an informed critic isn't born overnight and that the training grown is often local and regional newspapers (and, by implication, that those papers can hire thoughtful, smart young journalists very reasonably).

I'm also in complete agreement with your comment about nonprofits who aren't serving their audiences and, moreover, who don't operate in a businesslike and professional manner (see my post "Who Will Run Our Arts Organizations?").

Newspapers certainly need to run themselves like businesses and need to cover their costs and maximize profits. Clearly their primary responsibility is to the people who buy their papers. However,I do think newspapers are different from other businesses and have civic responsibilities that go beyond those of other types of product and service providers. I think this is particularly the case with "leading" papers in large metropolitan areas, where most of the cut-backs are taking place.

I tend to agree with Mark Bowden, the Atlantic magazine journalist, in his article in the Philadelphia Enquirer (link to the article in my post "Why It's Foolish for Newspapers to Dump Book Review Sections") that one of the services that newspapers can provide -- as other media move increasingly toward "sound bite" culture -- is to provide nuanced analysis and context:

"Pictures and sound are terrific and cannot be beaten when capturing a live breaking news event, but for conveying large amounts of nuanced information, for investigation and analysis, nothing beats, or ever will beat, the written word. I have always believed that when all the superfluous reasons for buying newspapers have been stripped away, what will remain are readers.

"Which is why it is a mistake for newspapers, including this one, to do away with such things as book review sections and Sunday magazines. Our core audience is educated, well-informed, curious and generally smarter than we are - about more than a few things. Essays about books and ideas, reviews of film, theater, art and television - these are far more important for newspapers today than they ever were in the past."

Are newspapers in a tough position right now? You bet. Are their problems going to be solved by cutting costs? I doubt it. (What's happened at the Dallas Morning News is worth noting). The rule of thumb in law firm management is that once you've cut costs by 10%, you've likely done as much as you can without hurting your value proposition; at that point your energy needs to turn to finding creative ways to generate revenue.

Newspapers, it seems, have been focusing almost exclusively on costs and done a lousy job of thinking creatively. Instead, they've aped the very media they're competing with, to little or no avail, rather than differentiating themselves and educating us about why newspapers are important.

As you point out, newspapers need "writers who understand the zeitgeist" (I notice that you say that these may well be "arts journalists," which is, for me, the whole point of the posts I've been writing). Believing in the need for thoughtful and informed arts critics on newspaper staffs doesn't go hand in hand with a commitment to the "old order." That's an important distinction, I think.

If there's a better mousetrap, I'm all for it. Every business, including newspapers, has a responsibility to keep looking for it. Was there deadwood at the Dallas Morning News? Most likely. Did they have a responsibility to review their costs and cut expenses as needed? Of course. But is getting rid of your ONE book critic, and relying on wire services and the occasional stringer,a better mousetrap? I'd like to think that a newspaper's audience deserves more than that. (And, ah, if it doesn't, then does the newspaper, because of its role in society, have a responsibility to try to lift the tide? That's a great topic for another time).

Thanks for getting my adrenalin going!

Clara said...

Oops! As someone who cares about writing, how could I not point out a typo ("grown" when I meant "ground," as in "training ground."), and an error -- substituting "Enquirer" for "Inquirer" in the "Philadelphia Inquirer."