A Future For Journalism About The Arts

summitpage.jpgIn 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.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on TumblrShare on Reddit


  1. says

    I'll be submitting Bourgeon: the arts magazine written by artists. Artists are taking a larger role in their own communication; many have set up their own blogs. At the same time, audience preference for well-written articles has not changed. The editors of Bourgeon work with artists to create artist-written preview of developing projects. With investment, Bourgeon will facilitate mobile project feedback from arts event participants. The addition of feature and history articles on the site creates a resource for audience and artists to explore the creative process.

  2. Alicia says

    This is exactly the direction of my work at the Stonington Opera House in Maine, where I am critic-in-residence this summer. My job — writing a blog, interviewing scholars and artists for podcasts and onstage, using Twitter and leading discussions at shows — has been to contribute another level of "potency" around live performance and local engagement of theatergoers. And I say "my work," but the truth is, it's a collaboration with the entrepreneurial and media-savvy team at Stonington Opera House — and the Maine Arts Commission, which funded the project. Both parties are hungry for rich-content arts reporting in the state. But: An arts critic collaborating openly with executive directors and artists? Taking money from the state? And even stranger: My former newspaper, which didn't want me as a full-time arts critic, is distributing the free content. Yikes in every direction. It's a fascinating if sometimes bumpy mash of art maker, art artbiter, art consumer, new media wonks, journalism ethics and the policy world. The lines are mixed up and unruly, but the product — stimulated and stimulating conversation around Shakespeare — has been as promising as it is provocative. Have a look at the ShakeStonington blog: http://shakestonington.blogspot.com/

  3. says

    As the founding Executive Director of a theater on the rural coast of Down East Maine, as well as a former journalist, I could not agree more with your statement that the 19th century model of arts journalist has outlived its potency. It is simply too superficial a model to provide the level of dialogue the arts and our communities need, deserve, and are capable of providing. In response to this vacuum, and to the needs of our community, we have been developing a new model for extending what theaters do best–creating multi-dimensional, multi-media content and meaning for our communities–into the space of arts journalism. We suspect and hope you will be intrigued by our project application.

  4. says

    I could not agree more with you. Cultural journalism in Portugal is also fighting with many problemas, mostly the same. It´s a global phenomenon. I will certainly follow the summit on the future of arts journalism.
    Thank you for your work and commitment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *