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July 15, 2007

The critical conversation

Joe Nickell

In the past week several Flyover posts have been focused on the question of reader / critic dialogue. Jen has bemoaned how few readers write letters to the editor about arts coverage, and how this usually gives the appearance (at least to our editors) that arts don't matter as much as politics or other "harder" news topics; in the bigger picture, this lack of feedback basically means that the public discussion of local arts tends to fizzle at the proverbial starting line.

John made an interesting argument that maybe newspapers need more reviews instead of fewer, as is the trend.

I have a few random notes I'd like to add to this conversation.

1. John talked about that all-too-common attitude from editors: "If the show happens only once, what is the point of a review?" I've heard this one myself before, though thankfully not from the editors at my current employer. I always scratch my head at this one, since it usually comes from an editor who is pouring plenty of resources into daily local sports coverage.

What is a recap of last night's high school basketball game, if not -- in essence -- a review? Oh, sure, it has lots of numbers and statistics and some quotes from the coach, which might make it seem more objective. But the best game recaps -- the ones that editors at major dailies pay big bucks for -- turn those numbers into high drama. They offer analysis of how this one game fits into the bigger picture for the teams in question. They focus on the turning points -- the dramatic twists, if you will -- when one team pulled itself together and "went on a run." They talk about the crowd reaction.

And, importantly, they answer the editor's question implicitly, by saying, "this was an important event in our community, and as the newspaper of record in our community, we're telling you what happened."

This defense can go on ad nauseum, using every other activity of any responsible newsroom as a reference point. Why write a story about what happened at last night's city council meeting? After all, it too "only happened once." Why recount the sordid timeline of a murder that happened last night? Spectators can't gather to watch that happen again, either.

Newspapers exist to document the things that happen in our communities, and how those things spin together into a community's sense of self and trajectory of advancement. And sometimes, the most important thing that happened yesterday wasn't a murder, or a football game, or a lawsuit filed against the state. It was a concert.

2. I don't want to belabor this point, but in the discussion of last week's posts, the point was made that there aren't many great performances in small towns. This is true, but it must be taken in the proper context: There usually aren't many performances, period. In my experience in big cites and small, the ratio of great performances to .... just performances .... is usually about the same where-ever you go. The fact that there's always something great to write about in the New York Times is, as much as anything, simply a reflection of the fact that there is SO much going on in New York at any given time.

3. Finally, another point I don't want to belabor: One problem that plagues small-town arts criticism today is that there are only so many educated and thoughtful critics in the country, and they tend not to be evenly spread around the country. More often, you'll find that the person who is conscripted to write a review of last night's symphony concert has no background in classical music -- even if she's the paper's arts reporter.

I'll hold myself up as a shining example: I am a trained classical percussionist who worked his way into journalism. I am now the sole arts reporter AND critic at my newspaper. If someone is going to critique a show at the Missoula Art Museum, or a production at Montana Repertory Theater, or a program by Headwaters Dance Company, I'm probably the man for the job. Am I qualified to give a learned opinion? Usually not. I can only hope that people will credit me for having my heart in the right place, my head deeply in my task, and my homework done adequately, on short notice.

So here's my radical thought for the day: Maybe the problem we should be discussing is how few critics deserve the pulpit they've been given, and what we ('we' as in, those of us who know better than to think we really deserve to be the only voice in town opining about arts occurrences) can do to turn that pulpit into a switchboard. Last week's discussion sketched the broad issues of blogs versus print and how editors devote resources to each; that discussion deserves fleshing out.

Posted by Joe Nickell at July 15, 2007 7:05 PM

COMMENTS

To springboard off your radical thought: Could we begin by creating more pulpits and opening up the field?

I'm at a point in my career where it's difficult to do more than freelance on the side, but there was a good five-year period where I would have killed for an arts criticism job. The papers in the small(ish) towns where I've been living require a journalism background for such jobs, but not an arts background.

I do not mean to disparage j-school and journalism training in the least. However, with an arts Ph.D. and years of public relations writing experience, would it not be possible that I might have the writing skills to generate arts criticism for the general public? Yet the "minimum requirements" for such positions inevitably require a journalism degree (rarely if ever an arts degree).

If employers opened their minds and judged prospective critics on their clips and work experience, instead of their degree background, it might be a fruitful beginning to letting artists participate in the public critical conversation.

Posted by: habeas at July 16, 2007 7:30 AM

You're exactly right, unfortunately. Especially now that the National Arts Journalism Program is in dormancy, there are precious few opportunities for journalists to get specific training in the specifics of arts journalism; and yet, most newspapers carry on a too-narrow view of what constitutes a qualified writer.

Yes, people trained simply as journalists can often do a good job covering the arts. I even have a soft place in my heart for the journalistic work of a certain failed musician who never took a J-school class in his life (that'd be me).

But more often than not it seems to me that it would behoove newspaper editors and publishers to look beyond the normal stable of writers when seeking qualified arts critics.

Posted by: Joe Nickell at July 16, 2007 2:00 PM

One of the problems with arts journalism is that it's a hybrid. It's not just criticism. It's not just journalism. It's a mix. This shade of gray is hard to understand in a fast-paced, just-the-facts world of newspapering that avoids value-judgments and prefers things in black and white.

I agree newspapers, when it comes to arts coverage, need to spend more time cultivating writers, not just reporters. But doing so is labor intensive. It takes time, it takes expertise and it takes judgment, and let's face it -- most newsrooms don't have those kinds of resources.

What they have are trained reporters who are more or less like interchangeable parts -- their beats are migratory, moving from the courts to City Hall to county governemt to sports to whatever.

They don't specialize because it's cheaper to remain generalized. The smaller the newspaper's newsroom and newshole, the more inclined the newsroom is to be chock full of generalists.

As far as cultivating freelancers, again that's labor intensive. Few hard-nosed news editors have the confidence to determine whether a writer would be a good critic (my first editor as a staff reporter was a former sports writer). In cases like this, my advice to the freelancer would be lobby and lobby hard. Use that ignorance to your advantage. If they don't know better, convince them that you do.

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 16, 2007 4:11 PM