In the past couple of years, half of all the staff arts journalism jobs in the US have been eliminated. In some cases, newspapers offloading their staff critics have replaced them with freelancers. In some cases, the freelancers have done a better job than the staffers they have replaced. But mostly not.
Running a good freelance section requires editors who have the time and talent to know what’s going on in the culture of their community, who are out listening for the stories they should be assigning. Most editors are even busier just trying to fill their sections than they were when they had staff critics paying attention to their beats. They don’t also have time to be out trolling for stories.
And the way editors are moved around in newspapers, as time goes on, good freelance coverage wanes in favor of stories that are easier to do and have more immediate pop. Having someone whose paid job it is to cover a beat means a different level of scrutiny; covering culture in an ad hoc way means the coverage doesn’t necessarily connect up stories over time.
So it’s clear that the trend will continue to be a diminution in the amount and quality of arts coverage in newspapers even in the face of heroic efforts by remaining staff to do good work.
Traditional arts journalism did a great job – when it was practiced well – of covering certain kinds of art. Still does. Unfortunately, a great deal of arts journalism is poorly done. Over the past 20 years the pressure to concentrate on the consumer review function has trivialized much coverage. And the inability of most publications to develop longer story arcs that speak to a broader context has marginalized it. In an increasingly crowded cultural space, the traditional emphasis on the review as the primary form is suicide.
Moreover, traditional arts journalism never did particularly well at covering some kinds of culture. Coverage of dance, for example, was never very plentiful or imaginative. We never did figure out interesting ways to cover participatory community culture, which involves and engages enormous numbers of people. The old model of experts preaching to “the masses” had tenuous hold of an audience long before the internet came along. And in an expanding cultural universe, the scattershot way culture has been covered has been increasingly difficult to justify.
In short, the model we have used for arts journalism, the model that was developed in the 19th Century, has outlived its potency. It was broken long before the internet, and it probably wasn’t going to evolve significantly until the structures (publications) that supported it could no longer do so. It’s time for a change, and about time it happened.
So if the old model of arts journalism needs an overhaul, and the business model that has supported it no longer works, what’s next? All over the country artists and journalists and entrepreneurs are trying to figure it out. Dozens of projects have launched in recent months, and Technorati currently counts 300,000 arts blogs.
Which ones are worth paying attention to? Which are not just interesting projects, but viable ones as well?
So the Annenberg School for Communication at USC and the National Arts Journalism Program, of which I am the director, are holding a summit on the future of arts journalism October 2. We’re looking for projects that are trying to become that brilliant next model. We’ll be showcasing ten projects, five of them chosen by competition. Each of those chosen for the summit will make ten-minute presentations to explain why they’re great. The summit will be live-streamed and archived for later viewing. There is $25,000 in prizes for winning projects, plus lots of attention. Thanks to the NEA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Flora & William Hewlett Foundation and arts and journalism schools at USC for their generous support.
So if you have the answer for what will be the next great arts journalism model, we’d love to find out more about it. Go here to apply.