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September 25, 2007

The Life and Times of an Every(art)man

Joe Nickell

Over the past couple of years, I've attended two separate institutes funded by the NEA, aimed at providing small-market arts journalists with immersion in the best practices and most current theory of the arts journalism world. One institute, held at Columbia University in New York City, focused on classical music journalism. There, I sat at a table and listened as a concert review I'd written was critiqued by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Justin Davidson, and met with people like John Rockwell of the New York Times, Alex Ross of the New Yorker, and pretty much every other important classical music critic in New York. I got a great taste of the music and the writers writing about the music of New York.

The second institute, held last winter at the USC Annenberg School of Communication, focused on theater criticism. I soaked in lectures by John Lahr, the theater critic at the New Yorker; had drinks with Michael Phillips (formerly the lead theater critic at the LA Times; now film critic at the Chicago Tribune); and generally developed a sense of what life as a full-time theater critic is like.

That is not, however, my life. Nor is it the life of any but a few writers in this country.

Here's my life, sampled from the past two weeks:

Preview a concert by a classical guitarist, a concert by a blues sax player, a concert by a south African choir, and a bunch of rock shows at local clubs (the last of which didn't seem to end up online).

Write an essayish piece about a show at the local art museum, and a straight-up news piece about the same museum's triumphs and troubles in the past year.

Preview and, later, review the first concert of the 2007-2008 season by the Missoula Symphony Orchestra.

Write a spot news piece about a poetry reading at a bus terminal, and a different spot news piece about a party celebrating the end of fire season in Seeley, Montana (please excuse the typo in the first sentence of that one; it was inserted by an editor).

And, finally, write two different columns (first this one, then this one) following up on a question I asked here at Flyover a couple of weeks ago, regarding why free performances draw such better crowds than ticketed performances.

All of this - yes, even the spot news stuff -- falls into my job as arts and entertainment reporter at the Missoulian, a 30,000-ish circulation daily published in Missoula, a town of 60,000-ish people. Because of the staff-size of the paper and the peculiar characteristics of our local culture scene, my job description is quite broad: I am reporter and critic of all arts visual, theatrical, musical; highbrow, lowbrow, and otherwise...And in my "spare" time, I get the occasional fire roundup or car-crash report to write.

My job description calls for me to produce upwards of 250 articles a year, chronicling the entire breadth of our local cultural scene.

In these respects, I am like most arts journalists in America. From what I've seen at those NEA institutes, we tend to be semi-specialists in a certain area of the arts (I'm a former classical percussionist), who by necessity must obtain (or feign) authority in a host of other arts that we may only know passingly, if at all.

Our jobs are not really much like John Lahr's job; but then, our local theater isn't like New York's local theater, and our local cultures aren't that culture.

Make no mistake: I'd love to be the full-time staff theater critic for the Missoulian. After all, that'd mean I'd only have to produce a maximum of 30 or so stories per year for the paper. That's how many productions we see in this town; and that's counting one-off independent productions, community theater, university shows -- pretty much everything.

Realistically though, I have to be a generalist. This fits my nature pretty well, fortunately. I get bored doing just one thing over and over again.

But I know my broad and shallow knowledge may not serve some of our local arts organizations as well as if I were devoted to their particular artistic idiom.

So it's a quandary, not just for me, but for the whole of my local arts scene: How to keep the level of dialogue high in the newspaper, while dealing with the practicalities that come with the nature of the job.

Is it even possible?

Posted by Joe Nickell at September 25, 2007 7:50 PM


Joe, what would happen if you told your bosses that you'd focus on the three best stories each week, and that would be that -- and if they needed more they could pay a freelance writer? I know what it's like to feel loyalty to an arts scene and want to cover everything. But what's in it for you? And what are you sacrificing personally? If that equation doesn't balance out for you, maybe the Missoulan, which I trust is highly profitable, needs to give you a break and secure a visual arts freelancer to hold down that fort while you attend to your musical and theatrical fortes.

Hi Mike, thanks for writing. I wish I had that power, but the situation here is that we are still sloooowly transitioning out of a period when every byline was literally counted (by the accounting department!) and it was part of our evaluation. During that time, we had a strict 7-per-person-per-week minimum. This was not averaged out across writers; each writer had his/her own byline count to hold to, come hell or high water. Now, it's averaged out across writers. That's an improvement, since it means that on some weeks I might get away with just one byline so long as it's a major story AND other writers in the room can cover my other six toward the total pool. But there's still an overall count that must be hit, or we have issues.

So story-count-wise, we're stuck where we are, for now. This isn't my editor's decision, incidentally. It's a publisher thing, and another writer within Lee Enterprises tells me he suspects this general byline-count strategy is at least suggested company-wide.

As to my lack of authority on the other arts subjects, it would definitely be ideal to see us find someone who was a theater-head or a dance-head to write about those topics. But practically speaking, I don't see it happening, since I was hired to be an "arts and entertainment" reporter and am thus expected to be broad in my knowledge. I know from these two NEA institutes that I'm not alone in being expected to cover more than one area of the arts.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at September 27, 2007 10:04 AM

Hey Joe, where you goin' with that gun in your hand?...I'm goin' down to see my publisher....(no, I won't go there; just kidding). Just humming a rock oldie, folks, but it does sound as if the old Montana mine-labor wars may someday have to return on a different front.
Having been on both the news and the arts side as a reporter, and in-between as a critic, I can testify that arts stories are far more labor-intensive than school board stories, crime stories...etc. etc. If you write a profile, you have to do what any other feature writer does in getting to know and express the essence of the person under consideration, plus you have to learn about the artistic tradition in which your subject is working, about how that work has been received elsewhere, how the recent work fits in with the artist's past work....and you have to tear your hair figuring out how to explain important terms-of-art to lay readers, unlike the sportswriter who assumes everyone knows what a field goal is. Tell your publisher that 3 bylines a week in the arts is worth at least 7 elsewhere in the paper. The LA Times, where I work, probably runs more corrections for arts and entertainment stories than any other section, and it's not because we're slouches. It's because there are far more moving parts in an arts story, a far greater density of facts to get wrong, complex history to recount, entire genres or individual artists' oeuvres to condense into a sentence or two, trips to the dictionary to look up "oeuvre" for the 50th time (this time I guessed right!), names to misspell, wrong actor to attach to right role, and more ways to have a brainfreeze on a tiny detail because you're already overworking every cell in your cranial cavity trying to make the big picture intelligible and do the zestful descriptive and narrative writing that good arts coverage requires. Reviews? I'll bet your publisher figures two hours in the concert hall and one writing it is all that's required. Never mind the at least equal amount of time you have to spend preparing so you'll have half a chance to look as if you know what you're talking about.

Your plight inspires me not to grouse about my own job for the rest of the year...I'd think that one well-developed, must-read arts piece a week (half a week's work, minimum) would do more for culturally-attuned Missoulans' loyalty to your paper than a bunch of filler you have to churn out when you could be using the time to make the stories that count really sing.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at September 27, 2007 8:11 PM

In Lexington, I am very fortunate to have an A&E editor concerned with quality over quantity who is constantly telling me to bring my story count down and go home every once in a while. I am fortunate to be one of two A&E writers here. Jamie Gumbrecht covers dance, visual art, television and fringes of pop culture while I handle classical music, opera, theatre, film and fringes of fine art. I love the setup because it keeps both our feet in "fine arts" and "pop culture" and hopefully helps us talk effectively to readers on and on either side of the fence. We also have a handful of freelancers who do a lot of the local reviews, though Jamie and I do several a month.
Anyway, one of our big initiatives has been to break the preview-review cycle. Scott Shive, our editor, demands a good, fresh angle on any event before we put time and effort into crafting a preview. So, a community theater presenting yet another Neil Simon play doesn't automatically get a preview story. There needs to be a good story to tell about the play or production. That's not to say it won't get any bump from us. We'll often give shows that don't get a story a photo and brief in our Friday Weekender or Sunday Arts section, or something like that.
But breaking that cycle has been important in allowing us to pursue broader pieces about the local arts scene, like a piece I did on the Fine Arts Extension Program the University of Kentucky is starting in rural counties or Jamie's story on how the UK art building is falling apart. Those and others are stories we could not have done if we were being held to 7-byline-a-week quotas.
Of course a lot of those bylines are self imposed because, like most arts writers, we cover these beats because we love it, and we have a desire to cover everything. But here, being discerning about stories and careful with how we spend our time has helped us -- I think -- do better work.
As for being a generalist, it would be ideal if we could all have shops with a different writer devoted to each individual genre, but at small and midsized dailies, that probably isn't going to happen. Going back to being discerning and taking time on bigger stories, I like trying to find stories that will help me learn more about what I am covering, particularly in areas where I'm weak. Sometimes colleagues here will say things like, "I could never cover classical music," and to that I say, it's reporting. It is good and important to have a strong base of knowledge, but a lot of what ends up in the paper is good ol' reporting and telling a story.

Joe Nickell replies: Rich, it sounds like you're in a fortunate situation indeed. I've been meaning to tell you that when I was in Lexington for a family reunion back in early August, I caught some of what you'd written and I was indeed impressed with the obvious care that went into selecting the stories that matter and doing them well.

Your comment about how it's all ultimately reporting is quite correct. So many writers are intimidated about writing about topics as laden with cultural baggage (and elitism) as most arts; but in most cases, a good reporter can do the job just fine. That said, I do think there's an argument that people on the arts beat are obliged to get some degree of education in all the areas they cover. Maybe not formal education, but at least some good overview books to work from. Later this week (when I'm at home where I can pick over my library) I'll start a thread on good resources for arts journalists to at least get a baseline knowledge of the various arts. I don't know all the good ones but I know a few to start the conversation....

Posted by: Rich Copley at September 27, 2007 9:40 PM

Quantity is job one!
That's not an unheard of management principle, but of course it's an awfully short-sighted one.
Thankfully I'm at a shop where the pressures tend to be at least partly self-imposed -- that feeling of obligation to the arts community you cover; someone else mentioned it above here I believe. At The Oregonian, we have an available pool of freelancers on a variety of subjects (though budgets fluxuate) and as both theater and dance critic, I'm the only one of eight arts/entertainment staff writers (two of whom are concentrate mostly on features) with a dual beat. This hardly means things are leisurely, as we have a very active arts scene for a city our size (I'd almost never get far enough down the list of theater options to review a community or college production), but at least we're able to do more than play journalistic whack-a-mole.
I haven't tracked weekly story counts, but out of a similar feeling that arts writers produce at a better rate than lots of news reporters and feature writers. A simple byline search since January '06 coughed up something like 460 hits for me, and similar numbers for my colleagues in this section (nearly 700 for our compulsively busy film critics, who also writes books on the side!). Most weeks, I'm writing an assortment of blurbs and a few previews (in either the 250- or 500-word range), two or three 600-word reviews, and usually either a multi-part A&E section cover package or a 1000+-word Sunday feature/essay and/or some sort of feature or newsier arts story for our Living section.
But the issue with quantity isn't about how much typing you have to do. The thing I've always felt that news-side editors undervalue is the work (not just accumulated expertise but reporting detail and analysis) that goes into the interpretive content of an arts story. I think that may have been what an earlier post here meant when talking about having so many things to keep track of in addition to recording the facts precisely -- making the facts, critical analysis, story structure and writerly style all work together smoothly is a challenge. I don't mean to suggest it's a non-existent challenge in hard-news writing, but I do think it's much less central there.

Posted by: Marty Hughley at October 1, 2007 1:52 AM