Everybody’s talking about arts journalism

After last Friday’s summit on new media affecting those who write, read and listen produced by the National Arts Journalism Program/USC Anneberg Center, I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s Future of Music Coalition session “Critical Condition: The Future of Music Journalism.”

It comes as a climax of the FMC’s Sunday-through-Tuesday “Policy Summit” on digital options and challenges for musicians, with an emphasis on intellectual property rights and compensation as well as new tools for music-making. A “high-quality, interactive webcast” of the FMC event is being produced by web.illish.us and you can get a free “virtual seat” from which to watch it here.

Here’s are questions I’ve been asked to consider by the two moderators:

a) How, in such a noisy media
environment, can artists win the attention of music writers? 

b) What’s the value of music writing
when listeners can rapidly access the sounds themselves?

c) How is niche music coverage faring
in the age of American Idol? Should it be left to the citizen and fan blogs or
is there a reason for maintaining coverage “beats” at trad outlets?

d) What impact has user-generated
reviews at Amazon, etc. had on criticism? Is there a need for professional
arbiters of culture?

A) As we fret over the crisis in
journalism, it’s worth asking: Were traditional media really doing such a great
job to being with? What were we not doing well before that new outlets and
sources provide?

B) Given that the old business model
for journalism is broken beyond repair, how will we pay for the kind of music
journalism — be it criticism or reporting on the music industry — that new
sources (amateur, logarithmic, etc) don’t consistently provide?

C) How has the form changed the
function? How has the change in how we access music as listeners/consumers
affected the job writers and critics perform? Is the tweeted record review
really useful? How about the 10,000-word essay?


and here’s list of other panelists, only two of whom I already know (starred*):

– Maura Johnston, Editor, Idolator

– Greg Kot, Music Critic, Chicago
Tribune; Host, Sound Opinions, NPR

– David Malitz, Staff Writer,
Washington Post

– *Tom Moon, Music Critic, NPR;
Author, 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You


– Scott Plagenhoef, Editor-in-Chief,

– Mike Riggs, City Lights Editor,
Washington City Paper

– Todd C. Roberts, Co-founder, The
Daily Swarm; Artist Manager/Consultant,

Truant Media

– Raymond Leon Roker, Co-founder, URB/URB.com;
President, NativeSon Media,


– *Molly Sheridan, Managing Editor,
NewMusicBox.org; Director,


– Eliot Van Buskirk, Staff Writer,

– Fiona Morgan, Journalist

– Casey Rae-Hunter, Communications
Director, Future of Music Coalition


I understand though our condition is critical, we will NOT be webevised, but perhaps audio-documented. I’ll either blog from the panel, or report after it’s all over. Panelists are encouraged to come up with our own questions, too (good thing) and we’re going to have general statements followed by smaller group action-oriented brainstorming. If you as readers, writers, listeners have questions you’d like me to bring to the august group, post them here, please, for consideration . . ..

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  1. says

    I’m not sure how to phrase this as a question, Howard, but I’d be interested to hear what the panelists have to say about solo journalist/entrepreneurs who must, out of necessity, also become involved in the business side – selling ads, soliciting sponsors and donors, and so on.
    It’s kind of hard to insist that there’s a “wall” between advertising and editorial when both are being handled by the same person.
    It hasn’t come up yet for me personally, but I can forsee complications if I were to write something less than flattering about a person, business or organization that also was advertising on my site.
    Then there’s the flip side of that problem, the situation in which a company or person assumes they can guarantee coverage or a favorable review by purchasing an ad.
    How do others deal with these issues? Do you explicitly address them in some sort of policy statement for potential advertisers – “buying an ad will not affect our coverage of you, for good or ill” – in hopes of heading off potential conflicts before they happen? Or is it better to just deal with individual situations on a case by case basis?
    HM: I’ll speak to this if it comes up at the summit, Dean, but I personally could only raise this as a question if I thought there was any doubt as to the answer. For me there isn’t. I do not think it is possible to ensure and project journalistic integrity if you are selling ads to the people you yourself are then going to turn around and cover. It is, to my mind, an untenable situation, conflicted by definition. Anyone who sells and writes copy is clearly serving the payer — or betraying their trust in the sale.
    I know there are publications in which this happens, and I can’t endorse the practice. There is one small regionally challenged publication that is published by the same man, a friend of mine and member of the Jazz Journalists Assoc., who also produces the concerts he covers in the mag. He is honest about this to his readership, and does a good job of educating the audience he wants to attract about the artists he wants to attract them to buy to see — yes, from his own organization, of his own shows. I think this publication is acceptable as a public relations handout and audience development piece, and I agree the publisher/editor/producer uses journalistic skills, but I don’t consider that a credible thing for a journalist to do.
    I’ve worked for publications that are essentially house organs — the JVC Jazz Fest program guides in the ’90s, and just this year the Tanglewood Jazz Festival program book — but I’ve done it as contracted, covering what’s been programmed by those who are paying me, not selling ads or raising funds and then servicing those clients directly. Perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference, but I’ve never felt I crossed a conflict line. Others in editorial positions might disagree.
    Publications and their readers are best served by a publisher having ad sales and editorial in the dark about each other, that’s my ideal. An editor should not sell ads and should be able to resist covering an artist or release just because an ad is appearing in his pages; the editor should be making assignments to writers who won’t know if there’s going to be an ad or not and don’t care anyway, because they’re guaranteed they’ll get paid for what they say. An ad salesman should be able to guarantee that the ad will look go and appear as planned, to the promised audience. Even at the most sophisticated level of critical discourse, an editor selling an ad to a record label, for instance, that he intends to cover is making an implicit promise of respect for that record label, if not for each individual album. The guarantee of fairness and responsibility for good reputation sits on the publisher’s shoulders. I don’t think they can be walking a tightrope, but instead should establish clearly the independence of editorial. Then they can call what they do journalism.

  2. Andrea Wolper says

    Well, I can’t help but think about writing itself. Writing, journalism, criticism. As skills. As arts. Crafts. Whether, in this age of tweets, blogs and, yes, consumer reviews, any of that matters anymore.
    HM: It matters, there’s just no certainty it produces revenue.

  3. says

    I appreciate the prompt and thoughtful reply, and I understand where you’re coming from, as the existence of an impermeable wall between advertising and editorial was a given when I went to journalism school (University of Missouri-Columbia, class of ’79, news/editorial sequence, in case you care…), and these sorts of conflicts have never come up when I’ve written for print publications.
    So what would be other options for a arts-journalism “solo act” on the Web who wishes both to get paid and to retain a semblance of journalistic integrity?
    – Ad networks – Google Ads produce literally pennies of revenue per day on my site. Other affiliate programs haven’t even done that well. I’m currently looking into a couple of other national ad networks, but the earning potential is limited for sites like mine that have only a few thousand readers, as they are essentially still in the business of aggregating large numbers of eyeballs.
    – Donations from readers – I haven’t tried this yet at St. Louis Jazz Notes, but plan to in the near future. My guess is that while some readers will contribute, it won’t amount to a lot of money in the aggregate. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, and find that I have a wealthy, eccentric-but-generous reader or two. I can only hope…
    – Grants from foundations, arts funding agencies, etc. – I have not made formal application for any grants, but informal discussions with a couple of local people involved with arts funding suggest that that while what I’m doing with StLJN may indeed be perceived as having value to the community, it doesn’t really fit their criteria for funding.
    (Technically, it might meet some definitions for a “media arts” grant, but those dollars are intended for people who are doing digital art, not journalism on the Web.)
    – Corporate sponsorship – Presumably, if I could find a corporation who had nothing to do with the presentation or selling of jazz – say, a big bank, or a supermarket chain – I could accept them as a sponsor or underwriter without fear of conflicts, since I’m writing about music, not banking or shopping for food.
    However, this seems like it would be a fairly tall order for a niche site that doesn’t attract large absolute numbers of readers.
    As I understand it, the value of St. Louis Jazz Notes to a potential sponsor primarily would be that it aggregates people in a specific geographic area who are interested in jazz. I don’t think the absolute number of readers is sufficient for a corporation to sponsor me, in hopes of cultivating good will with that jazz-loving audience for when they eventually get around to shopping for groceries, open a checking account or what have you. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it seems like you could spend a lot of time and effort trying to locate this type of sponsor and still end up with nothing to show for it.
    Any other ideas? I’ve gone on much too long, but if you or the panel have more thoughts on this topic, I’d enjoy hearing them.
    HM: Dean, you describe the dilemma accurately. My experience with this blog is the same as yours with Stljazznotes. The experience of the Jazz Journalists Association (an international non-profit) with our website Jazzhouse.org, appended by the annual Jazz Awards and panel discussions at jazz fests around North America and and variety of other programs over the past 16 years is also similar — and we have applied for numerous grants, gone after corporate donations,etc. with limited success. We’ve brainstormed on the problems for the organization and our 400-plus members continuously, without (so far) a breakthrough.
    I’ll be interested in any solutions anyone can suggest at ANY of these summits — that’s why I’m attending them. To date, the answer has been that the blogs and websites can be loss leaders promoting some other activity that we who run them can profit from. This works for musicians who can collect performance fees, but not, regrettably, for journalists, whose books won’t produce the necessary income, either, whose marketability as lecturers is limited and whose assignments in free-standing publications may not increase much based on the brilliance of their blogging.
    This is the root of the problem. I hope I’ll come back from the Future of Music Coalition panel with some answers, and if not, we’ll just keep looking, won’t we. But I don’t think selling ads that compromise our work is the way out. For one thing, who’s supposed to be buying those ads? Record companies? The artsjournal.com experiment with ad sales, presumably appealing to buyers because we can aggregate all the blogs to build viewer numbers, is ongoing, but not bringing in much more than associates programs, nothing like what would compensate the bloggers’ work.