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July 10, 2007

Where do readers fit in? And what do we want from them?

Jennifer A. Smith

A few weeks ago, I had a brief conversation about local arts writing with someone I greatly admire. A third person had asked me how often I get letters in response to what I write in the local alt weekly, and I told him it didn't happen that often. Mostly (as one might assume) people write in when they're unhappy with something in a review; the positive comments I get are more likely to be personal notes directly from artists, not something published in the public sphere. At any rate, I asked these two educated, connected people why they don't think more people write in to papers about arts coverage and one of them responded, "I'm more likely to write in about a political issue. That gets me more fired up."

I hear her. Politics are one of my other main passions in life, and the times in recent memory I've sent a letter to the editor, it's been about a local or national political issue. But this got me fretting again about one of my pet issues: why don't readers write in more to their newspapers about arts coverage? Especially now, in this time when many are lamenting cuts in arts journalism positions, why don't people send in letters to show editors they're reading arts coverage? Whether the comment is a positive or negative one about a writer's work is of less interest to me; it's like that adage that any PR is good PR. What I want most is to see that readers care about the quantity and quality of the arts coverage available to them.

One caveat: I'm talking specifically about print coverage here. One of the great things about the blogosphere (a dumb yet efficient term) is the ease with which it enables give-and-take. Responding to something in a print publication takes a little more work--one can fire off a letter via e-mail but still needs to wait to see when (or if) it will be published. Things are slower and more static.

It should also go without saying that I'm also not worrying about that segment of the population that is not interested in arts coverage. I skip the sports page, they skip the arts, and that's OK. We don't all need to have the same interests. What intrigues me are people like this woman that I know--highly intelligent, culturally involved--who don't usually respond to arts coverage.

I've got a few theories about this phenomenon (in general, not in reference to this individual). Partly, I feel that many arts people, especially in smaller cities where arts are not always a big part of the local identity, feel disempowered. They get used to being ignored or not taken seriously, so they start opting out of the larger discussion or they feel grateful for any coverage at all.

Another issue may be the "complaint syndrome": we're more likely to write in when something moves us passionately and negatively, like a political controversy. I'd liken this to how most of us would only call a store or restaurant manager if we had a bad experience in their establishment; we don't normally contact businesses to let them know they did something well or simply OK. Thus much arts coverage (lots of which consists of inoffensive previews and feature stories) doesn't really inflame readers' passions. And, of course, most people are just plain busy; I don't want to read anything nefarious into readers' silence on cultural matters.

Then again, maybe I'm living in a bubble of relative quiet regarding readers and arts coverage--though I doubt it. I'd like to hear from readers of this blog how they feel about the role of readers in local arts journalism, wherever "local" is for you. Are things lively? Curiously silent? And do you feel that if readers were more vocal, we'd see more and better arts coverage?

Of course, this concern of mine could be written off as merely ego or self-interest on my part (naturally, every writer wants to feel read and get a compliment from time to time), but I feel my point is larger than that. Call me naïve or overly sincere, but I really do believe in trying to have a cultural dialogue; it makes the experience of the arts richer and more meaningful. And it is in the best interest of artists, too. In April, I was invited to be the featured speaker at the annual dinner of a nearby artists' group. Although it wasn't the focus of my talk, I encouraged them to stand up for arts journalism in their area, to write a letter just to show that they're reading.

While visual artists in particular have become more savvy about marketing themselves in recent years, all the press releases, phone calls, etc. in the world don't really matter if no one takes notice. And for the media to take notice, all of us who care about arts coverage need to show it. I may be a writer, but I'm also a reader.

(Update as of Nov. 1, 2007: I'm turning off the comments on this post since, for reasons I don't understand, it is getting a lot of spam comments that seem to be automated. I'm getting tired of having to junk them. If you're an actual, live person with something you want to say about this topic, please let me know [e-mail flyover@artsjournal.com] and I'll turn the comments back on for you -- or you can leave your comment in your e-mail and I'll post it.)

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at July 10, 2007 6:00 AM


Thanks for raising these questions, Jennifer. The problem --lack of participation in the cultural dialogue as it applies to print journalism -- is one that we will no doubt return to in future writings. As I read your post I was reminded of how artists and arts groups have become so savvy (as you noted already) when it comes to lobbying us for coverage, but they have not done a good job at lobbying for themselves. They seem to be stuck in the mindset of mass media, in which all you had to do to get publicity was access the right channels, i.e., we arts journalists. Get the story out, the thinking goes, and the ticket sales will follow. Artists and arts groups continue to look to the media, especially daily and weekly newspapers, for publicity. Even in New York City, where I was a lucky fellow at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in classical music a few years ago, the heads of the New York City Opera complained they didn't get the attention of the New York Times like they used to. Instead of looking at the larger picture -- more cultural options, news and events to cover than ever before, i.e., the issues we address in the artsjournal blog world -- they blame the Times for dumbing down its arts coverage. This was an administrator from an elite institution, but thinking trickles down to the American Outback, and it's not doing anyone any good. I have spent more time than I liked to admit explaining to artists -- especially community theater groups (is there something about theater folk I don't know about?) -- that I don't have any obligation to cover them, that I probably won't review them (that's another story) and that they need to get the word out themselves. There are far more options for communicating with audiences than ever before, i.e., blogging, email lists, etc. They can even blog on the newspaper's blog site if they so choose. Many of them are not satisfied with those options, because they want the imprimatur of the newspaper, which perhaps raises another issue. Are we journalists and critics informing and moderating the cultural dialogue or are we using our clout to recommend good purchasing options to readers? Your thoughts?

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 10, 2007 8:26 AM

Hi John, I know what you are getting at, but what I really wanted to address in my post is the role of readers, the oft-forgotten third leg of the arts journalism stool (I'm in a corny-analogy mood this morning). While arts groups fret about not getting covered, and journalists fret about shrinking space, etc., it's easy for both arts groups and journalists to lose sight of readers. What do they want? What do we as writers hope for from them? And why don't they chime in more about arts coverage?

I wish that artists and arts groups concerned about slim arts coverage in their regions would participate in the conversation more as readers (or consumers of journalism) and not just lobbyists for themselves. My thinking is that, in this case, (warning: another corny metaphor ahead) a rising tide lifts all boats. If we live in a culture in which people are vocal about arts writing and participate in some kind of dialogue, this is good news all around for writers, artists and readers. My hope is that, in a climate in which people are vocal and care about arts journalism, we'll see more and better writing.

Posted by: Jennifer A. Smith at July 10, 2007 8:50 AM

I was on a tear, wasn't I? But you're right -- where are the readers? Shouldn't we be concerned about leaving them out of the equation as we become more and more preoccupied with slouching toward an uncertain future? It seems obvious that we should. But how? That's the question.

Perhaps it ought to start with the people in and out of the newsrooms. There was a great post by Doug McLennan recently on his diacritical blog in which he said that if newspapers really took email feedback to stories seriously, they'd give them the same resources given to letters to the editor. If that were the case, there would be some added weight to what readers say and perhaps over time that would become more apparent to readers, who would in turn feel an incentive to continue adding to the overall dialogue.

On the other hand, perhaps this isn't a problem of access; perhaps we're seeking to solve a problem of human nature. Taking myself as an example, sometimes I don't have anything further to add to a feature.

Reviews are different, though. They are qualitative and not confined by the forces of narrative and characterization, as features are. In reviews, there's a chance to disagree or get ticked off or take a stand or whatever.

Much like an editorial or op-ed piece, reviews can stoke the fires of arts dialogue. If you don't mind, perhaps I'll take this idea and run with it for tomorrow's entry. Once again, your thoughts?

Posted by: John Stoehr at July 10, 2007 1:15 PM

Hi again, John. It's interesting that you mention reviews as a good point of departure for conversation between writers and readers. Since about 9 out of 10 articles that I do are reviews, this is especially close to my heart. I'd love to hear more from readers (in a civil way, of course!) if they shared my view--or didn't--of a particular exhibition, play, etc. And that's part of why I like reading other people's reviews, even if I've already seen the show. There's a certain geeky intellectual fun to be had in seeing how your opinions stack up against someone else's, and how two people can have such different experiences of something.

I also saw that post of Doug McLennan's you mention, and I thought it made some great points.

I think the solution some papers have arrived at--and it's a pretty weak solution--it to set up a bunch on discussion boards (similar, but not the same, as allowing commenting below specific articles) and letting readers duke it out there, with perhaps some "dropping in" by the paper's writers. As we all know, these things attract some intelligent conversation and lot of not-so-great stuff, and then you get this whole online stew that is not well integrated with the whole of the paper. I don't claim to have a whole lot of experience with this, but that is my observation.

I guess the question remains: how do we have genuine, high-quality, two-way dialogue?

Feel free to take this topic and run with it -- I like it when one of us can use someone else's entry as a starting point. (I know I've done it before!)

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at July 10, 2007 3:38 PM

Jennifer and John,
I think we are all readers. In newspaper arts writing, I want pictures, efficient descriptions and a clear point of view backed-up with relevant, but unusual observations. What specific kind of art was presented and do I want to get my ass out of the house and go see or hear it. I don't like gossip, personal stories about the artist and - worst of all - politics of the local arts scene.

I don't think newspaper writing calls for a two way dialogue. It starts with skimable facts and ends with excellent thinking and language. A great newspaper writer "finds things". Most arts writing is devoid of this finding because with such limited space the obvious must be coverred. How do you things inside the thing that everyone else is already seeing? A difficult task.

I only write letters to the editors when I think something is incorrect and the newspaper or writer has mis-informed the reader. I write to correct the impression left on the reader by the article, not to dialogue with the writer.

Dialogue is for the dinner table, coffee shop and through the internet - just like I am doing now.

Glenn Weiss

Posted by: glenn weiss at July 10, 2007 8:17 PM

People are afraid. The people who engage in dialogue about Art here in this blogging space are almost always people connected to whatever Art is through art administration, journalism, or some other venue. Professional and otherwise. To find an artist's voice is relatively rare. This unfortunately turns any space that wants to dialogue about issues into a consumer catalogue. I don't understand why they're so timid but they are. I am told time and time again that: "I'd rather make Art than talk about it." And that is fine as far as it goes. I do know this: even blogging here comes with a price. My artist friends warn me that I am perceived as this horrible crank who chimes in far too often. But Art is important to me and so is the dialogue about it whether what we're talking about is being made in Nebraska or Soho. There are blogmasters here who have banned me from their blogs. My opinions and thoughts are passionate and that is interpreted as hostility. I get comments like: Anger management is in order here. Americans in particular are afraid of anger. I am in Italy as I write this and note I fit right in. Censorship is simply a reality wherever you go with something you might want to express even if the blogmasters deny it. There are consequences for being heard in the art world which is a small neighborhood and if you are perceived as someone who exhibts bad behavior the art community will be the first one in line to punish you.

Posted by: Tim Barrus at July 11, 2007 4:50 AM

Jennifer et al.

As a reader of our own small town paper (Daily Courier, Prescott AZ) I find that the Friday Arts section content is more an advertising supplement than a jumping off point for an Arts discussion. Even if there were something to comment on, the frequency of the Arts section (once a week) and the limited space given to the Letter to the Editor section which as you all have pointed out is more likely politically oriented, the chances of discussion are slim. I am well on the way to believing that as a source of community engagement in anything other than political issues, the print media does a poor job. The blogosphere (so Flash Gordon) has a better format but at this point does not engage the community as a community but rather as individuals to one another. Wish there was something in between or that gave a sense of reaching the community like print but had responsiveness like the web.

Posted by: Tony Reynolds at July 11, 2007 8:17 AM

I think the lack of reader feedback reflects something about readers, the arts scene and coverage. I've covered the arts scene in central Illinois for about 15 years now. Unfortunately, vocal passion for the arts is pretty much restricted to people who want to see more coverage or more positive coverage for their respective organizations. Discussion begins and ends there. It's hard to prod people to think about larger issues -- goodness knows, I've tried -- because most activist/arts people are consumed with keeping their own organizations healthy.
Also, a good portion of what passes as "the arts scene" tends not be issue-oriented or bring up big questions. There are exceptions to this (and I tend to jump all over these events when they come up) but "arts" has a way of eliding into entertainment. Trying to broaden the discussion into something beyond "entertainment" is difficult given the conventions of news coverage, which demand topicality and relevance to the immediate geographical area you happen to be writing for.

Posted by: gary panetta at July 11, 2007 10:45 AM

I agree with Gary Panetta's observations about the print media being more a venue for passive entertainment and commercial messaging(including not-for-profit prostelization). The built-in unidirectionalness(?) of newspapers and magazines does not encourage reader feedback. Perhaps the question should be what other venues are better suited for wider discussions between writer and readers and how can we invest better in it? Put another way, is the purpose of print media arts writing discussion or primarily exposition?
I personally see reader participation as greater when response barriers have been decreased or greatly eliminated. The blog construct has been very successful in getting writer and reader engagement. I do not feel, as Mr. Barrus suggests, that readers are afraid. They may be bored or busy but not necessarily afraid. my 2 cents.

Posted by: Tony Reynolds at July 11, 2007 12:43 PM

The question about alternative venues for writers and readers to meet one another is a good one to ponder. Lots of these venues exist outside of journalism, and cover a wider variety of topics. But there's a catch, two catches, actually: (1) These are chat groups and online communities that are devoted to a specific, narrow topic (not "arts" but classical music, or new music, or horror fiction, or whatever)(2) They're not geographically limited in terms of readership.

Newspapers think of themselves as general interest publications and are averse to coverage of overspecialized topics. Newspapers, especially small ones, also think of their audiences in geographical terms. If the topic isn't immediately relevant to the tri-county area, it must not be important.

I think the goal of print media online or off line must be both exposition and discussion. Let's face it: An article that is posted and published and yet not commented on, or passed around or argued about is only half-alive.

Posted by: gary panetta at July 11, 2007 2:27 PM