Arts Issues for Journalists: March 2007 Archives

I've been toodling around the Web today, trying to add the arts pages of newspapers around the Inland northwest to my list of bookmarks.

I say, "trying," because I've been thwarted at nearly every stop, and simply saddened at others.

Top story under the catch-all "Entertainment" link at the Idaho Statesman today? This story, about a certain restaurant's cheese steak. Local arts stories -- or, I should say, the one local arts story -- is buried on the page below the AP entertainment wire feed.

Meantime, over at the Spokane Spokesman-Review site, I just find myself plain lost. As best I can tell, their only online arts stories are consigned to the blog entries of their correspondents at their hipster online feed, "7". And most of those entries are little more than calendar listings and such. There's good arts writing there (and I know there's good writing at the Idaho Statesman as well; my old pal Dana Oland is there and she's no slouch!), but it's not just hard to find; it's almost impossible.

The same is true elsewhere -- including at my own paper, the Missoulian, where you'll find some of the arts coverage under the "Entertainer" link (IF you can find the Entertainer in that endless list of section links); and some of it simply in the daily news section. It just depends how it ran in the paper.

I know that there's tons of stuff happening every week in Spokane and Boise -- the biggest cities in this sparsely populated part of the world. I know, anecdotally, that some of it is pretty interesting.

And now I know how frustrating it must be for people outside of our newsrooms to find out what that stuff is.

March 21, 2007 11:00 PM | | Comments (1)

Seems the rest of the industry is finally catching up to us. USA Today reports that competition to "own" a niche in the journalism marketplace is forcing some reporters, like ABC's Bob Woodruff, take up a cause. Some feel this is a healthy sign of journalism's future. Others worry.

The "social journalism" that made Oprah Winfrey an international fairy godmother is the new rage in network and cable news, and it's expanding to other media. Increasingly, journalists and talk-show hosts want to "own" a niche issue or problem, find ways to solve it and be associated with making this world a better place, as Winfrey has done with obesity, literacy and, most recently, education by founding a girls school in South Africa.

Experts say the competitive landscape, the need to be different and to keep eyeballs returning, is driving this trend, along with a genuine desire from some anchors and reporters to do good.

In the process, some are becoming famous. And they're allowing news organizations to break away from the pack, as old and new media fight for viewers and readers, says Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"News outlets have found they can create more momentum and more identity by creating franchise brands around issues or around a point of view," he says.

(Thanks to Peter Johnson of USA Today)

March 14, 2007 6:06 AM |

Many people take dim view of news media
A report points to 'shrinking ambitions' in news organizations but not a fade toward irrelevancy.

"The news media face a challenging, uncertain future as the public's confidence in them continues to slip, according to a sweeping study to be released today.

"News organizations have entered a 'new era of shrinking ambitions,' according to the report from the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based research group. 'In a sense, all news organizations are becoming more niche players, basing their appeal less on how they cover the news and more on what they cover.'

"Yet media outlets have not adequately thought through this transition, said Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director.

"'If this means simply doing less, the public will suffer," he added. "News organizations have to become smarter and more authoritative in certain areas, even as they pull back in others. And I suspect that means more than just being more local.'"

(Thanks to Hal Boedeker, TV critic for the Orlando Sentinel)

March 13, 2007 6:06 AM |

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."

March 12, 2007 6:06 AM |

Throughout the NEA Institute, we constantly heard how theater is an ecosystem, not a hierarchy.

I'm coming to believe the same of newspapers, especially when it comes to arts coverage. In Lansing for the past week and a half, arts coverage has focused on the murder of Robert Busby, a beloved artist, businessman, and community leader. His memorial service this past Tuesday drew more than 1,100 people on a cold afternoon in the middle of a workday.

The coverage of the events from the finding of his body to his memorial was truly outstanding. At the daily paper, there were numerous stories (more than 35 in a 7-day period) written from several different departments--feature stories, crime, entertainment, columnists, and the editorial page. There were videos posted on the Website and several mid-day updates each day. Nearly every single story had reader response to it. In letters to the editor, readers described the coverage as giving them solace.

Most importantly, the coverage focused on Busby himself, with only minimal coverage being given to his killer. Instead, the newspaper covered his death, the impact he had on the community, and what his loss is going to mean to Old Town, to jazz musicians, to visual artists, and to theaters. The coverage showed a deep understanding of the community and why this quiet man who was rarely in the headlines before his death meant so much to so many people.

Eight days after his death, the weekly newspaper that used to have its office two doors down from Robert's apartment and gallery came out with its dedication to him. His picture adorned their front cover and I picked it up wondering what more could possibly be written that hadn't already been said. What I found was coverage of a different sort. They printed a lengthy biography of the man, a historical retrospective on his life. They emphasized his role as an artist and patron of the arts.

Yes, the Lansing State Journal and the Pulse are competitors, but in this case, both of them had something valuable to contribute to the biggest and most heart-rending arts story of the year in Lansing. The community would have been worse off without either of them.

March 8, 2007 12:28 PM |

USA Today launched a newly designed website over the weekend. The overarching aim of the site, according to this report from Editor & Publisher, is to "create a community around the news."

"Using the new features, users can see other news sources directly on the USA Today site; see others readers' reactions to stories; recommend content and comments to each other; interact using comments and in public forums, upload digital photographs to the site; write arts and culture reviews of their own; and interact more with the newspaper's staff."

My newspaper is attempting something similar with its website. So I feel I can contribute at least one constructive comment about this trends in newspapering: This new paradigm of "creating a community around the news" can be good for arts journalists or bad -- to a large degree, it's up to us.

Here's what I mean. Notice the report mentions that readers can "write arts and culture reviews of their own." At a large newspaper like USA Today, where reader demand drives the need for a staffer to writer music and CD reviews, the raison d'etre of the critic is likely unchallenged (we hope, anyway).

However, at a small newspaper, like mine, where arts coverage, especially criticism, is already on the margins, if not marginalized, this new "creating a community around the news" paradigm could ultimately pose some questions. One, for instance, I can easily imagine (in the voice of management): "What are you doing that I can't get for free from our readers?"

This is not to disparage management, mind you.

I actually think this trend can be a sign of positive change, because this newfound interest by the newspaper industry in engaging with readers has been what arts critics have been doing for a long time. Moreover, I think criticism and arts journalism can only improve if we're forced to interact with readers more, to serve as moderators, so to speak, of the arts and culture debate taking place in most cities.

For too long critics have been seen as sitting atop an Ivory Tower. This of course is bosh for most of us. But there are historical grounds for that perception. Perhaps a renewed campaign of engagement can serve two purposes: rebuilding the critic's troubled relationship with his readers and reminding management of the reason for hiring the critic in the first place.

March 7, 2007 9:32 AM | | Comments (1)

A concept that never really got fleshed out, but that has no less left an impression on me from the 2005 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music was that of ethnography.

Why not, as a critic of classical music, write not about the concert but the people attending the concert? Why not democratize the experience, diversify the voices of assessment and enrich the chatter?

That's what Jeffrey Day did the other day when he wrote this article for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

Day, the arts writer for the newspaper, demontrates a kind of cultural journalism that I'm currently obsessed with -- in which the dominant paradigm is inquiry, not evaluation, though it may be an inquiry that leads to evaluation.

By asking what's important to people about the arts, the cultural journalist is far better able to know how to relate what is critical to his readers.

A more sophisticated form of Day's article might be inviting three or four distinct personalities to a play or art exhibit, taking them to coffee and recording a discussion of the experience for print, audio or webcast.

The critic in this case acts more as moderator than critic, but isn't our goal in telling people what we think to shape and influence discussion? Like a moderator?

March 6, 2007 1:31 AM |

At the NEA Arts Journalism Institute, we kept hearing how the future for critics is brighter than we think. Given the masses of information people are forced to consume everyday, someone has to sort it all out, make sense it all, discern what's important. In others, use his or her analytical powers to provide greater meaning beyond the news.

That's just the kind of thing Mitchell Stephens talked about in his latest piece for the Columbia Journalism Review.

A historian of American journalism at New York University, Stephens addresses the threat to traditional newsgathering posed by emerging technologies by suggesting a strategy that we can do even now: by giving readers more than just the news.

As Stephens writes:

"The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information [my bold]. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

"Here's more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals -- weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time -- stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back."

Elsewhere, Stephens writes of an American newspaper committed to deploying this strategy: The Times Herald-Record, in Middletown, N.Y.

Stephens continues:

"No one is suggesting that reporters pontificate, spout, hazard a guess, or 'tell' when it is indeed 'too soon to tell.' No one is suggesting that they indulge in unsupported, shoot-from-the-hip tirades.

"'It's not like talk radio,' explains one of the champions of analytic journalism [my bold], Mike Levine, executive editor of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York. But it's not traditional American journalism either.

"Levine, a former columnist, had noticed that the analyses reporters unburdened themselves of in conversations in the newsroom were often much more interesting than what ended up in the paper. Some of that conversation is mere loose talk and speculation, of course. Yet 'walk into any newsroom in America,' Levine says, 'turn the reporters upside down, and a hundred stories will come falling out. They know so much about the communities they cover, but they don't get it in the newspaper.'"

I can't overemphasize the importance of this article to our jobs as arts journalists. If we are to matter in the future, we have to make the case for more analytical journalism. We have to make the case for what Joe Nickell, our co-host here at Art.Rox, calls "critical relativism."

Joe just wrote a piece for the Montana Journalism Review, outlining with brilliant clarity the meaning and significance of this concept. He'll likely post something on the article soon.

March 5, 2007 1:01 AM |

I should preface this by saying that we all make mistakes. Certainly, given the pressures of space and time, we have all at one point or another chosen the road more frequently traveled. And I don't single out the errors of this particular journalist for personal reasons.

However, a review Sunday in the Charleston Post and Courier on a performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra exemplifies why I believe reviewing as it is popularly understood to mean has a problematic future in the newsroom.

The review, as it is put into practice here, follows the tenets of journalism: what happened, where did it happen, who did it and was it good. It is a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach that falls in line with the logic of consumer journalism -- give the reader value by telling the reader what's worth spending money on.

With this ideology in mind, the critic does not provide context, meaning, observation beyond the event, commentary or insight -- all the things that would give reviews a raison d'etre both for those who did not attend the concert and for those who did.

This is the kind of thing that Mitchell Stephens talks about in his brilliant and convincing article in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

"The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information [my bold]. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

"Here's more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals -- weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time -- stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back."

I can't add much to Stephens' article, because it is so comprehensive and so insighful. However, what I will say is that the more we write in the fashion exercised by the Charleston writer, the more we are undermining our own jobs.

That's because thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews can be done so much better in venues other than newspapers. Yahoo!, for instance. Perhaps Yahoo! can't connect on a local level, but consider how the Wikipedia model seems to be giving the newspaper industry cause to consider the viability of reader-generated reviews.

Why not? All the newsroom staffers are doing is going to concerts and saying who, when, where and if it was good, right? Why pay them a salary and benefits when we can get the same product for free and get readers to buy into publications, which are "no longer in the newspaper business, but in the information business."

Thus Spake Management . . .

March 2, 2007 1:01 AM | | Comments (6) | TrackBacks (1)
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