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 an 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.