Incremental Arts. Incremental Arts Journalism?

A few years ago I was hired to consult on a national radio show to develop a plan for covering the arts. I suggested that trying to cover culture in a scattershot way (one from column A, two from column B…) was an archaic approach that ought to be abandoned.

Sports isn’t covered like that. Politics isn’t. Events don’t happen in isolation. They’re part of angallery.jpg arc of context. Why is it news that player X has a sore shoulder? Unless the team he’s on is making a run for the playoffs, it probably isn’t. Do we care if John Edwards has an affair? Yes if he’s running for president. Should we be worrying if a bank in which we don’t have any money has a meltdown? Yes, if we’re trying to figure out whether the economy is going into recession.

The point is that the way we typically cover news is to attach events to longer narratives or issues. Not, for the most part, culture. Most newspapers have taken an institutional approach to covering the arts; that is, they identify the important museums, orchestra, theatres, and artists and write about what they’re doing.

It makes for a narrow definition of culture. An institution isn’t a story arc. The story isn’t the Yankees or any single game, it’s who’s going to win the series this year. Individual games are the incremental telling of that story. Culture is about ideas and culture doesn’t happen in isolation. The story is how artists are getting their ideas and how they’re responding, what they’re creating and why. Covering institutions is only part of the story.

So what are the big animating ideas in our culture right now? I proposed that one way to make cultural coverage more coherent and interesting would be to try to identify those big ideas and make a list. Big ideas: beauty? shock? technology? bio-art? copyright? collaboration? In music it might be the ways genres are breaking down and collaboration is changing. In visual art maybe it’s museum deaccessioning. Etc.

Track the ideas that seem most compelling and figure out how stories relate to them. Take them out of the artform ghettos and attach them to the broader culture. That doesn’t mean artificially jamming issues on to stories that don’t fit. But looking for themes and weaving the strands together would give stories better context.

In practice, this is what good editors, critics and reporters already do. It’s called news judgment. But in most newsrooms arts coverage isn’t coordinated in this way. If it were, we would tell stories differently. Take copyright. The who-owns-what issue is one of the most important issues in art right now. But pitch a story on copyright, or worse, a series, and watch the eyes glaze over. If the copyright story does get done, it has to do a lot of heavy lifting to explain the issues.

If instead copyright was one of those issues the newsroom was tracking right now, it would be easy to incrementally report it across many stories, and the reader would have a better understanding of the issue.

In the end, the news organization I pitched this idea to didn’t go for it. Producers were more focused on the practical job of getting stories out, and the smorgasbord approach seemed easier. Ultimately it wasn’t, and the coverage never found its voice.

A few years later, I wonder if maybe blogs haven’t evolved into this kind of reporting. Journalistic blogs are a kind of incremental reporting. The best of them cover ideas over many posts. Twitter incrementalizes reporting even more. It doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for the 3000-word essay. I’d argue what we’re seeing is an expansion of journalism, and that the incrementalization of reporting makes the compelling long-form journalism more valuable, not less.

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  1. brett says

    My mentor at journalism school used to call these big tropes "public narratives," and it could be fascinating to watch news coverage develop over time, each daily item adding to the (often unstated) big story. When you looked at them with this broad view, it was easy to spot the kind of mistaken assumptions or inferences that even the reporters themselves were too close to the event to see. Often the people who understood them best were political operatives like Karl Rove, who could manipulate the press and readers/viewers by playing on these unstated ideas about, say, "big government," or "moral decline" etc. Probably one of the clearest examples now simmering is the immigration debate. In the arts a decade or two ago, it was the NEA/Mapplethorpe etc controversy.
    When I taught journalism at the university, this concept proved really useful for students' understanding of media inclinations. Your list of today's arts related public narratives is a good one, and I'd add the question of elitism/populism in arts, the ongoing evolution of multimedia/technology in arts, the perennial question of funding (especially arts education), public art and architecture … so many others. It would be really useful if the media had arts reporters who viewed their role as more than just reviewers/previewers and more as beat writers who were sensitive to these overarching public narratives.

  2. says

    Great thoughts, Doug,
    Interesting to consider how, as bursts of commentary about the arts get shorter and shorter (feature to article to blog to tweet), we can observe and engage the big arcs or emergent patterns they reveal.
    Tags have some promise for this across platforms, I suppose. But more to your point, a really good modern-day journalist or critic will be able to pull the threads from the full range of media, and spin them together in compelling ways.

  3. Darcy says

    You express a consoling idea. Of course, the rub is that long-form journalism takes time–research, leg-work, reflection, writing–and nobody will pay writers to do this, especially at this moment in journalism's history.

  4. Matt Kopans says

    It strikes me that with the demise of newspapers – narrative reporting, like what you describe, is less compelling. Blogs typically do this already – instead of simply attributing a quote, an online reporter can link to the original article / video etc. Those threads are followed by the reader who is interested in the larger theme. Editors don't need to formulate "big pictures", the readers can self-direct them.
    Unfortunately, the changes that newsrooms are making in cultural reporting is typically to cut the cultural reporting entirely.

  5. says

    This is a really great post, but a problem is that traditional media, particularly newspapers, aren't set up to think broadly about issues, even if media outlets have some cultural analysis that is broader than specifically covering an opening.
    In DC, it seems as if Jacqueline Trescott covers the Smithsonian and other museums (NGA, Corcoran, Phillips) as a beat for the Washington Post.
    I wouldn't claim that I see the kind of broader viewpoint that you are espousing for.
    Here are a couple things I've blogged about, relevant to your entry, but wrt DC issues:
    — on cultural policy in DC, from the standpoint of local cultural heritage assets:
    — and on narrative/interpretation within the national museums located in DC:
    — and on the focus on institutional delivery of art rather than on production of art, and the dearth of challenging art within DC:
    Disclosure: my girlfriend works for the Smithsonian, and worked for Ned Rifkin when his unit release an "external review committee" evaluation of the art units, which the art units opposed vociferously.

  6. Julia says

    I would argue that arts coverage DOES feed into major narratives, and unfortunately not in a good way. Often when public art is covered by mainstream journalism it contributes to the overarching "look what cr*p they're spending taxpayer money on NOW" narrative, especially popular these days. Sometimes it contributes to the "famous outsider edges out equally-qualified local person" narrative, and sometimes–rarely–it contributes to the "how best should we invest in our community to make it stronger" narrative.
    The task for arts journalists is to reframe those narratives in such a way as to create general interest in art, not for its scandal-making qualities, but for its intellectual future. Not an easy task.

  7. says

    I agree with your main claim about the importance of longer narratives in journalism and, I think, it is the responsibility of arts practitioners to create these narratives not journalists.
    Competitive sports, in its very nature, provides the story arc, politicians have teams of strategists, communications experts and media relations experts competing to create the story arc, and just about every other mature industry does this as well.
    It is the responsibility of arts practitioners to create the longer narratives and that requires much more than pitching a story and hoping the reporter will go create it. It means creating the story through viral campaigns, mobilizing grass root supporters to talk about it, and programming events that are already a part of a larger narrative. A media person is much more likely to report a story than create one.
    It, of course, depends on each market but, in my experience, the institutional model you identify is an accurate portrayal of the arts world: institutions big and small that create one-off events in isolation with little effort to create a larger narrative beyond the ever present siren song of "more funding, please." If this impression is false, it is the job of arts practitioners and our media people to change it.
    So, yes the arts aren't being covered like those other guys and, on my view, this is because, for the most part, we aren't giving journalists the stories those others guys are giving them. Absolutely, bigger narratives would help the arts community get covered but it is our job and responsibility to create those narratives — not the media.

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