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July 24, 2006

Classical music coverage

by Barbara Jepson

Since Doug mentioned changes in the newspaper business, I'd like to note another symptom of ill-health in the
classical music world: the steady attrition in classical music coverage at many daily newspapers, which means less coverage for local music institutions. In 2004, the Dallas News eliminated one of its two full-time critics, though he continues to contribute occasional freelance pieces. Recently, Wynne Delacoma, the longtime classical critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, took a buyout and will not be replaced with a full-timer, though a freelancer is providing some coverage. Two critics at the Detroit News, one of them in the classical area, reportedly took buyouts as well and will be replaced by one full time critic covering both beats. There are papers in major U.S. cities where a staff classical critic is being asked to cover other disciplines at the expense of classical coverage or where the full-time critic has lost the ability to assign stringers to cover some events during the peak season. (Even at the New Yorker, Alex Ross gets less space than his predecessor, Andrew Porter.)

If online subscriptions are compensating for the decline in readership of the print editions, why is this happening?
In other words, I don't think it's just economics; it's this blasted stodgy image that classical music has when the greatest classical music itself anything but stodgy--it's vital, involving, soul-satisfying, exciting. Newspaper managements are chasing a younger demographic and classical listeners--at least at your garden-variety symphony orchestra or chamber music concert are not in that younger demographic. But If your definition of the classical audience also includes those who attend new music concerts or who download classical music to their iPods or or subscribe to online classical services, the age demographic goes down. How can we get that
across to newspaper management? Should classical critics be paying more attention to what's offered online and what's going on in new music circles? The latter is a hard sell at most papers. So it seems like a vicious cycle,
but that doesn't mean it can't be broken. And one way to break it is to shed that sense of entitlement that Joshua
Kosman pinpointed, which in my experience is often accompanied by outrage and whining.

On a more positive note, the New York Times has actually increased its coverage of classical music compared to a decade ago and has hired Daniel Wakin to cover the genre (as well as other disciplines) from a business perspective. And other papers are asking their classical critics to write page one stories, which I think is a
welcome development.

Going back to our larger topic, I have always believed that classical music is elite but it is not elitist--anyone can enjoy it. The most successful music institutions on the current scene have found the right combination of enticing artistic product and wise fiscal policy/leadership to offer to their communities. Continuing deficits are a symptom, a signal that something isn't right in an individual institution. In some cities, it might mean that corporate donors have re-located; in another, it might mean population loss or a music director who just doesn't connect to the audience, no matter how solid his or her music credentials. It might mean an irresponsible board, or an ineffective one. Or it might mean that for a particular community, a 52-week contract is insupportable. A 40- to 48-week contract might
be better artistically as well as financially for many mid-size cities. It might mean that in some regions, fewer
orchestras or opera companies or chamber series might actually prove healthier for all concerned. What I find
inspiring is that despite the formidable challenges facing the classical music industry, new festivals, concert
series, record projects, etc. continue to be developed every year. That's a testimony to the formidable power of the art form itself.

Posted by bjepson at July 24, 2006 08:39 PM

COMMENTS

Barbara:

I liked what you had to say about newspapers, and wanted to add a little. I'm an arts reporter at the Boston Globe. My beat includes classical music, museums, opera, etc.

Arts leaders always seem to be so convinced that coverage is being cut/dumbed down that they often ignore the facts.

Here's one good example: http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/exhibitionist/2006/05/fact_checker_sa.html

Here at the Globe, we had to make paperwide cuts last year. The paper's leaders knew that the folks in arts who accepted our buyout offer - classical music critic Richard Dyer and chief theater critic Ed Siegel, to name two - needed to be replaced. And so while the Globe cut positions in the newsroom and eliminated our home section, it immediately started national searches for critics and kept those arts positions. (Jeremy Eichler, for example, will start at the paper in the fall and Louise Kennedy has replaced Ed.) I'll also add that my position, added in 2002, was a new one.

But wait. What story got out to the so-called public? Here's a good one:

http://blogs.wbur.org/arts/index.php/2005/11/is-arts-coverage-dying-at-the-boston-globe/

Beyond that, I found myself acting as a personal fact checker at Symphony Hall. During intermission, I'd hear two clearly intelligent gentlemen exchanging information over cappuccinos. They would be telling each other how the paper wasn't going to cover classical music anymore, that they had heard this from so-and-so and wasn't it sad what was happening to the Globe. At the American Association of Museums conference, I sat in the audience as a panel assembled to critique media coverage - a panel that included an unknown freelance writer, a former staffer at the local alternative paper, and a producer-type from our local public radio affililiate - proceeded to tell that same story.

Yes, it's true that this is not an easy time to be in newspapers. I'm sure many are cutting back on arts coverage, along with coverage in other areas. (Did I read that the Los Angeles Times is no longer sending its beat reporters out on the road to cover the Kings? That's a MAJOR LEAGUE SPORTS TEAM!) But I also found so many papers and writers looking for ways to connect and reconnect with smart readers. We're doing it the old fashioned way, through compelling narratives, reporting and reviews. And we're branching out to do blogs and audio commentaries and slideshows.

How will this all pan out? I'm not sure. But I do get a sense we're trying, and that many of our bosses recognize there's an audience for arts coverage.

Whoa. This was way more longwinded than I meant to be.

Geoff
gedgers@globe.com

Posted by: Geoff Edgers at July 25, 2006 01:05 PM

I might add that Andrew Porter never wrote longer essays and feature pieces for the New Yorker. His work consisted entirely of reviews. In the ten years I've been at the New Yorker, we've made classical music a regular presence not only in the critics section at the back of the magazine but in the lead slots in the middle. I've written 5000- or 6000-word pieces on Mozart, Schubert, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Morton Feldman, and Theodor W. Adorno, extended profiles of John Adams, Thomas Ad├Ęs, Valery Gergiev, the St. Lawrence Quartet, and the "Doctor Atomic" team, and various other essays on musical topics. From a certain angle this could be seen as an advance rather than a decline. In general, I get the space I ask for and the space that I need.

Posted by: Alex Ross at July 25, 2006 02:45 PM

My apologies, Alex, if the information on my
posting about classical music coverage included
erroneous information regarding the amount of space you get at the New Yorker compared to your
predecessor. I saw that in print elsewhere recently, and it jibed with my own memories--it
seems to me that Andrew Porter's reviews ran more frequently than yours have during the last few years. And I was thinking primarily
about reviews, not about the longer critical essays and extended profiles you mention above
which certainly qualify as "coverage." I should have been more specific about that, and I should have checked with you first.

Posted by: Barbara Jepson at July 25, 2006 07:55 PM

Oh, no, I don't deny that Andrew Porter wrote more often for the magazine, and produced a larger quantity of sheer verbiage each year. But I think I've been able to achieve a comparable presence in the magazine by mixing shorter and longer columns. I could stop writing the essays and profiles, which are often very time-consuming, and produce twice as many reviews, but would that necesssarily be a good thing? Since I love doing the composer essays more than anything, I don't have any desire to make a change. I write 36,000 words per year, and that number has stayed fixed for the past ten years.

Posted by: Alex Ross at July 26, 2006 04:41 AM



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