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June 19, 2007

Thoughts on an increasingly freelance industry

Jennifer A. Smith

My fellow blogger John Stoehr recently forwarded the rest of us a piece Greg Sandow wrote for the Wall Street Journal ("Yes, Classical-Music Criticism is in Decline: But the last thing the industry should do is blame the press," June 16). In that article, Sandow explains the decline in classical music criticism from his perspective and argues that the recent flurry of outrage (among some) about cuts in positions may be a bit misguided.

Although I'm of a different generation than Sandow and have a different background as a writer, I also have mixed feelings about arts journalism cuts. While of course I generally feel it's a bad thing--having fewer people getting their critical voices out there can't be good, and I feel for anyone losing his or her job--we must look at the reader's perspective. Some papers have argued that freelancers will fill the gap left by cuts in staff-writer positions. While time will tell if that truly happens (and that's a crucial "if"), cutting staffers does not automatically mean less arts coverage within the paper. As a freelancer myself, I think there are positive and negative aspects to current trends.

First, the negatives: a full-time or even half-time staff writer often has the kind of undivided attention to really stay in tune with a community's arts scene, both in terms of "newsy" items and as a critical voice. When you're a freelancer with a full-time job that may or may not be arts-related (I'm thankful mine is), it can be harder to stay abreast of local arts. Also, fewer staff positions mean that those freelancers who would like to break into full-time jobs have an even dimmer chance of getting one. Arts writing becomes a hobby to satisfy a passion, not a way of making a living.

But being slightly hungry and writing because you love it can be a good thing. At the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, where the other Flyover bloggers and I met, I was struck by how many of us were freelancers. Out of the 25 participants, 10 of us were freelancers, and I don't think you could make the generalization that the freelancers had less education or credibility in their subject areas (for example, two of the freelancers were actually college professors who enjoy writing theater criticism for their local papers). Both freelancers and full-time staff writers held their own in spirited group critiques of our writing, and we learned from each other. And although we didn't plan it this way, we four Flyover bloggers are evenly divided between freelance and staff writers.

Perhaps I'll be pilloried for this, but I think sometimes freelancers who are very knowledgeable in a particular subject area bring even more to the table than staff writers forced to write far outside their areas of expertise, or worn down by the day-to-day grind of their jobs. As an avid reader, I've seen it happen. While the best staff writers carve out a unique voice over the long haul--one you gladly return to time after time, knowing almost intuitively how your views parallel or collide with theirs--there are also quite a few staff writers who seem to have lost their zeal. They crank out tired, unimaginative copy week after week, and if they could be replaced by newcomers with some freshness and expertise, it would truly benefit readers. Lest anyone think I'm making veiled comments about any particular paper, I'll make it clear that I am not. I simply believe that as arts journalism shifts ever more gradually to a freelance rather than full-time vocation, there may be mixed blessings for readers.

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at June 19, 2007 6:00 AM


No pilloring from this perspective. If my memory/count serves correctly, 14 of the 25 of us at the NEA got our main paycheck from a daily newspaper. Even though Sasha and those selecting don't differentiate between fulltime and freelancers in making decisions, I'd bet that with the way the business is going, half of next year's bunch will be freelancers.
I can't speak for others in my position with little or no staff, but I consider myself to be a jack of all trades/master of none out of necessity -- my background includes theater, vocal and instrumental music, television and radio, and I've learned enough about the others to fake it through the years. When I know someone has the background to do a knowledgeable review or story, I am extremely glad to have them.

Posted by: David Burke (NEA '07) at June 19, 2007 11:06 AM

I don't read Sandow's article as expressing "mixed feelings about arts journalism cuts." His point is that arts organizations that go brain-dead in their programming no longer make news and have no right to expect coverage, which naturally should migrate to more vital groups and genres in the arts. And I don't see any kind of blessing in newspapers deciding that they can live without an arts staff of even just one. Yes, good freelancers are worth their weight in gold, and if there is some mythical place where go-getter freelancers are doing good work and a staff arts writer is in terminal burnout, the features editor needs to address the problem and solve it. Burned out reporters don't have a right to a job any more than burned out arts organizations have a right to coverage. But there's no virtue in assigning all coverage to freelancers. A special concern -- don't take this personally, Jennifer -- is that newspapers that rely on freelancers with jobs in or close personal ties to a local arts community risk pulling punches both in reviews and in coverage of controversial arts news. That job takes somebody with the journalistic mandate that only comes with a fulltime staff position, a person beholden to no-one but his/her editors and the readers, and whose steady paycheck and benefits come with strict ethical/conflict of interest strings attached. Of course readers deserve better than burned-out staff writers, but they also deserve journalistic independence. I can't see a mixed blessing, or anything but the road to hell, for newspapers that intend to cover the arts without making a minimum investment in covering them with the same standards they profess to uphold while covering sports or City Hall.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at June 19, 2007 2:15 PM

Hi Mike,

Thanks for dropping in. While I agree with your observation that the point I'm ultimately making is a different one than Sandow's (and I could have lead into that better), I do think it's telling that he begins with talk of the cutbacks as a segue into his most significant point--that arts groups not doing anything particularly noteworthy shouldn't feel entitled to coverage. To me, this suggests that worrying about cuts in jobs in not where arts groups' energies should be; they should be more concerned about producing compelling programming (though Sandow doesn't say who will write about that programming). In my view, an on-the-ball staff writer or an enterprising, informed freelancer should be part of this picture, helping to articulate to an editor why something might (or might not) be worth covering. Sometimes papers go on autopilot and just routinely cover the major arts organizations in their communities, regardless of the level of innovation, while ignoring smaller but more intriguing developments. Discerning writers, whether staff or freelance, can be part of the solution.

I feel the need to clarify one thing - I never said it would be a good thing to get rid of all staff positions, nor did I claim that there was "virtue" in giving all coverage over to freelancers. A paper that relies too heavily on freelancers risks fragmentation and a piecemeal approach to its arts coverage. But I do know of papers where I routinely see better pieces by the freelancers than the staff writers; I don't know whether the staff writers have gotten bored, lack expertise in a specific area, or what--and editors are clearly not stepping in to really fix this.

I will agree with you on some of the ethical issues, though. When people balance multiple roles, there is perhaps a greater possibility that conflict-of-interest issues will crop up. But reputable freelancers are smart enough to see when this is happening--and even if they're not, their editors should be and take action accordingly. Personally, I have declined certain assignments when I felt closeness to a subject would be a problem. And, of course, staff writers face ethical dilemmas, too. Good judgment is necessary for either type of writer. And particularly for those of us working in smaller cities, whether you're staff or a freelancer, it would be quite hard to not know people in the arts community you're covering. I'd like to take up this issue in a future blog post since it is more than I wish to get into here (as this is already becoming quite long).

I'd also like to talk about the role of readers in cuts to arts coverage, but that's also something I'll get to in the future rather than make this comment too long.

Thanks for your feedback, Mike.


Posted by: Jennifer Smith at June 19, 2007 5:12 PM

This is a big can of monkeys here. On the one hand, we have the problem of uneducated, uninvolved and burnt-out staffers -- who number all too common in this era of more-is-better journalism. On the other hand, we have freelancers who can -- and often do -- come to newspapers motivated by bones to pick and friends to stroke in the community. The dangers to readers and to artists are great on either front.

I doubt there is any magic formula that will apply across communities and media. At individual papers, I think it ultimately falls to editors to keep an engaged eye on what's actually happening and how well reality is reflected in their papers. As well, it falls to readers to call writers to account for what they're purveying in the community.

But in the big picture, I believe that the most important thing in this fragmented era is for active and open dialogue -- the kind afforded here, and all too frustratingly rare at local papers, where lively discussion between readers and writers is commonly considered anathema.

Posted by: Joe Nickell at June 19, 2007 11:46 PM

As a longtime freelancer, I know that my colleagues and I are as knowledgable as many staff journalists -- but the downsizing and reliance on freelancers is likely to not be matched by increases in budgets for freelancers (which is why college profs can do this work -- they have a day gig). Freelance arts journalists face tremendous challenges in getting assignments, maintaining contacts, getting paid adequately and on time, getting the respect of their sources -- my fear is that more reliance on freelancers is actually a move toward more amateur (and unpaid) work, rather than new opportunities for professionals who are informed, trained and expert.

Posted by: Howard Mandel at June 20, 2007 6:40 AM

Jennifer here again... I hope my comments are not being construed as pitting freelancers and staff writers against one another. I am making what I consider a fairly modest point -- that, given a staff writer and a freelancer, you can't automatically assume who is going to bring a higher level of writing to a particular assignment. You can find underperformers in either camp, as well as talented, committed writers.

I agree with Howard that freelancers face big professional challenges. In fact, a number of the freelancers at the NEA Institute this past January suggested that, as an idea for a future panel, there could be a professional development session geared to the specific needs of freelancers. While those full-time staff jobs may be the ideal, they are increasingly harder to get, for reasons much larger than any of us individually.

Freelancers have been part of the mix for a long time, and will increasingly be so. In trying to look at this from a reader's perspective (not our job worries for ourselves), I'm arguing that readers are not always losing out. While the paper who gets a college prof as a freelancer may be getting a fantastic bargain for some expert knowledge, the lucky reader also gets the benefit of that knowledge.

As far as the paid/unpaid thing goes, I would hope freelancers are not, as a general rule, accepting unpaid assignments. I never have (though I'd consider it for a nonprofit publication), so this possibility was not on my mind when I wrote my original post.

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at June 20, 2007 7:00 AM

There are a lot of good points being made here, from the onus on arts groups to produce news-worthy programming to the ethical minefield many freelancers who are part of the arts community face.

The one big danger I'd add if you see a paper relying too heavily on freelancers is a basic fact of business: freelancers and freelance budgets are much easier to cut. Once a paper has gone to the point of putting the bulk of its coverage of arts or a certain genre of arts on the shoulders of a freelancer, that coverage becomes much easier to eliminate entirely if money or interest dries up. Cutting a staffer, on the other hand, gets into human resources and PR issues. The staff position represents a publication's commitment to coverage of culture.

On Mr. Sandow's WSJ story, I would echo the idea of cultural coverage becoming more diversified as opposed to smaller, in numerous instances. Since I came to Lexington, Ky. in 1998, we have scaled back the number of groups that get "automatic" preview pieces to virtually none, but we are as busy as ever covering a wider array of disciplines and groups.

Posted by: Rich Copley at June 20, 2007 12:03 PM

I don't know that this is in reality a day of more sweeping change than any other era. I can remember when rock and roll was a new thing, and the "critics" were hysterical. Elvis was not only naughty, he had to be a communist. But we forget. BAD for the youth of America (they must be protected, poor things). People just don't remember. Fortunately, people forget, too, the stupid positions critics frequently take. It's not about the critic. It never has been. It's a second-rate issue. It doesn't come as a surprise though that in a culture that feels more comfortable turning to peripheral, epemeral issues versus confronting fundamental problems (like decreased artistic education in just about every elementary school in America in favor of more and more and more testing and the teaching-to-the-test) that, in fact, face culture, where the entire issue of who shall be the critic becomes the cause celeb of the artistic moment; the culture finds more value in a discussion about critics than in how art itself is nurtured. It hardly surprises that the NEA would chime in. Anything to focus away from art. Criticism is NOT art. It is not sacred. It is not a cow. It is often not even analysis. It is juxtaposition and opinion. Most of it evaporates quickly enough; we like that, too, in "American culture." A contradiction in terms. The "Art" of criticism? And I never, ever use a question mark. It's a patently absurd notion. The idea that I as a consumer of art do not have enough sense to decide what to consume and what to ignore is so patriarchal as to be distastefully condescending. It's the POWER of the critic that is changing. It is refreshing to see them go with their opinions between their little legs. Good ridance. Maybe someday we'll even get back to wondering about what Art is versus how to subdivide it into the fetish of the box. Elvis was right. Rock and roll is here to stay. I am grateful I was never "protected" by the cultural keepers of the gate. From time to time, the gate does need to be not only stormed, it needs to be burned to the ground. Sometimes Art can do that, too. Especially when it has the inherent potential to be great. It TRANSCENDS. Critics rarely find the power to transend themselves because they are so in love with themselves it nauseates. When I asked my kid what he wanted to be when he grew up he lit up like a fuse: "I want to grow up to be a literary critic, Dad." Not.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at June 21, 2007 3:59 AM

Hey, Tim...Count to ten, take a deep breath. Which is what good critics do before they write...although those unlucky enough to be on tight deadlines may have to skip the count to ten part. You make some crucially excellent points. It is nauseating to encounter smugness or overt egotism in journalistic writing, not least of all in criticism. Storming the gates, challenging orthodoxies....that's what it's largely about for people who care about artistic expression, and it's not unheard-of for some critics to reflexively defend the status quo standards rather than try to understand new eruptions (such as rock n roll, which is here to stay, but twelve-tone music, maybe not...and it was Danny and the Juniors, not Elvis, who coined the phrase). I myself flung opinions as a rock critic for daily newspapers from '85-'99 before opting for the much saner and easier life of a general assignment arts writer doing news and features, and no reviews (a luxury my employer, the LA Times, still affords some of us on the arts and entertainment staff). What you need to understand is that criticism definitely is an art, or at least a worthy creative endeavor, albeit a secondary one. It may not be the flower, but it's at least a nutritious component of the fertilizer that helps the garden grow, to use a metaphor you probably won't argue with. Part of the evidence is how rare it is to find truly excellent arts criticism, same as with truly excellent art. But that doesn't mean there's no value in what mere mortals can produce day after day after day after day. Calm down, realize it's just one person's opinion, that your feeling of being dictated to rather than engaged in a conversation is probably your own resentful projection and not the critic's -- who should know that his or her role is to fuel the conversation, not end it with the FINAL WORD. Aristotle, Sam Johnson, G.B. Shaw, Sam Beckett, John Updike -- arts critic isn't that insidious a profession, at least not always. And I assure you, if you look hard enough, and read with an open mind instead of a mind already made up (rule one for a critic), you'll get more out of the experience than the heartburn you seem to be getting now. This is getting long, but here's the FINAL WORD on criticism (just joking), from Louis Menand, writing in the June 26, 1997 New York Review of Books (a little clip I still keep in my wallet): "A good critic is someone who doesn't know what he or she thinks before the experience but who has an idea about it afterward, and is able to explain that idea to someone else. Going in with an open mind is as difficult as coming out with a formed opinion; neither is as difficult as expressing the whole experience in clear and compelling language. People who can do this successfully, over and over, occasion after occasion, are as rare as people who can create poems and paintings worth explaining in the first place, and there tend not to be a lot of them around at a given time....Admire, and move on."

Posted by: Mike Boehm at June 21, 2007 4:18 PM