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NY Times Arts Coverage: Get-It-First Sifton Explains How the Bully Pulpit Strong-Arms Sources

Future of Arts Journalism panel, left to right: Sree Sreenivasan, Marian Godfrey, Sam Sifton, Alisa Solomon

Had I not been getting my mother out of the hospital last Thursday, I would have been in the audience for the panel discussion on The Future of Arts Journalism at Christie’s. (Actually, “Blithe Spirit,” the Noël Coward play that I did manage to attend later that night, was decidedly more entertaining. Did I mention how much I adored Rupert Everett, who is to “debonair” what Angela Lansbury is to “dotty”?)

Had I been there, I might have asked the following question of the panel (which consisted of Sam Sifton, cultural news editor of the NY Times; Marian Godfrey, senior director of culture initiatives, Pew Charitable Trusts; Alisa Solomon, director of the arts and culture masters degree program at the Columbia University School of Journalism):

Why haven’t an actual arts journalist (as distinguished from an editor) and an arts blogger been included on a panel whose subject is “the future of arts journalism”?

I commented in advance about the conspicuous absence of bloggers in an e-mail to the panel’s moderator, Columbia Journalism professor and resident techie Sree Sreenivasan (on whom you can directly blame my own journalistic transformation). He granted that my plaint was a “good point” and said he would “pass it on.”

There was no need for me to assume the role of gadfly that night. The part was admirably filled by the redoubtable Jason Kaufman of the Art Newspaper. He quizzed the panel’s headliner, Sifton, about something that I have repeatedly criticized—the penchant of sources to release news first to the Times, later to the rest of us.

How does the Times get sources to play favorites? Sam explains:

We bully them, essentially. We say we want that material before you give it to someone else: “Give it to us first!” And we broker our million-plus readers into getting that information. The notion that there would be, in return, favorable coverage? You know, the arrogance of power is, no: It’s not going to work that way….

There was a time when the Times said, “If you give it to the Art Newspaper first, we’re going to bury it. I think we’re much more sanguine about it now. Which is not to say that I want you to get it first! [He then pointed mock-threateningly at Jason.]

But this wasn’t Sam’s only did-he-really-say-that moment. His characterization of his underlings was so startling that even the unflappable Sree felt moved to ask, “Do you have to go back to the office tomorrow?”

Here’s what the Times culture editor thinks of Carol Vogel, Roberta Smith, et al.:

It’s comfortable to think of them as sort of workhorses and show ponies. You can put the reporters in the saddle and get them to do everything. With a critic, you offer a sugar cube and some ribbons.

Then Sree broke in with his question, and Sam replied:

They know it’s true.

If you’re incredulous, you can hear it all for yourself by clicking this post’s second link, which takes you to the complete discussion, online.

What Sifton said that was of greatest interest to me is that there is “only an 8% or 9% overlap” between the Time’s online audience and its hardcopy readers. Couple that with the fact (as reported by the paper’s public editor, Clark Hoyt) that the number of NY Times clickers now exceeds the number of page-turners, and you can tell where the future of all journalism (not just arts journalism) is headed.

Speaking of which, you can now hear a great sucking sound, as gifted, displaced mainstream-media arts journalists are drawn into ArtsJournal (here, here and here). To be sure, it’s a great outlet, but in the words of panelist Alisa Solomon, “We haven’t quite figured out the business model.”

CultureGrrl‘s business model is, sadly, no role model. My most recent call for donations elicited an overwhelming response of…1. Apr. 23 will, astonishingly, be my three-year anniversary. That seems like a good time by which to reevaluate this project.

Is anyone reading me? I KNOW you’re out there. The 1.2 million hits I’ve received to date must be coming from somewhere.

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