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March 12, 2007

Old tips, but good ones

John Stoehr

No doubt many Art.Rox readers are already familiar with this tip page from the Poynter Institute's website featuring helpful comments on how reporters and editors can take small steps to improve arts journalism.

Notice that most have to do with how to change the way people think and talk about the arts, and the words used when people are talking about the arts, such as "culture" and "pop." I think the discussion is helpful in two ways: It points to the future and it points out some of the old-fashioned thinking we face in newsroom in the Outback. So in case you did miss (it's from 2003), here it is again.

The participants were: Diane Bacha, assistant managing editor of arts and entertainment at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Steven Winn, art and culture critic of the San Francisco Chronicle; and Christopher Blank, performing arts writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Highlights
Bacha: "In most newsrooms, the word 'art' scares people. Let's face it, it just does not have enough Y chromosomes for the average newsroom crowd. It is seen as a nice but non-essential part of the daily news report. The word 'culture' is not far behind, but it's OK if you put the word 'pop' in front of it. 'Culture' is elitist. 'Pop' is fizzy and fun and it means you are OK if you watch a lot of TV. We can talk about why it has gotten that way, and what we've done to contribute to this perception. But let's not. Let's talk instead about how old-fashioned this point of view is, and how we can grab a lot of attention with arts and culture stories if we pay enough attention."

Winn: "The risk of depth is tunnel vision. Over the years, I felt a kind of creeping alienation. No one but a critic attends the theater 150 times a year. I was becoming, gradually and inexorably, self referential. I wrote about theater in terms of other theater, because that was what I was living. Real people, which is to say readers, experience the arts in an altogether different way. They go to movies, read books, visit art museums, go to work and the beach as well as the theater, argue about politics, listen to the radio, watch television, fall in love, love (or despise) ballet. I wanted to write about that, about the way that the arts and the world we live in every day are woven together in intricate, overlapping ways. I wanted to write critically and analytically about those things without being dutybound to review, rank, and finely calibrate my responses to a series of stage productions."

Blank: "1. Try fanaticism for a change. ... Sports writers want you to feel that every game is earth-shatteringly IMPORTANT. I feel this way about the arts in my community. I'm not saying we should treat the subject matter with a velvet glove or go easy on a bad play. But there's a subtle difference in a review that calls a bad show an affront to all art and a review that chalks it up as a loss for the team."

2. "Expand the repertoire. ... Performing arts writers -- me included -- easily get bogged down in a routine of reviewing and previewing traditional art forms. However, more people are experiencing a wide variety of arts that pass under the radar, such as through church concerts or at sporting events. ... Find stories that tell people, 'Hey, you may not know it, but the thing you've been watching is art.'"

3. Speak the gospel, hear the gospel. Being receptive to feedback and open to change is essential. Arts reporters should adapt to the tastes of the community, not the other way around. ... For arts groups, constant shapeshifting is a crucial means for survival. Applying it to arts coverage isn't far behind."

Posted by John Stoehr at March 12, 2007 6:06 AM

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