Will Write for Food. Not.

We’ve all known it for a while now: It’s become close to impossible to make a living as a full-time arts journalist these days.

And it’s not just arts journalists who know it; a friend of mine — a high profile French technology and environmental correspondent who’s based in The Bay Area — told me over the weekend that she is currently being paid 65 Euros (about $85) to write 1000 words for a major National French newspaper.

Here in the arts world, things have equally become a total joke. For example, the Senior Interactive Producer for probably the most highly-respected and trafficked media organization in the Bay Area (no, it’s not the San Francisco Chronicle) contacted me yesterday to find out if I’d be interested in covering the local performance scene for his organization.

The pay? $50 for a 500 word review.

For a split second, I thought the guy was kidding, or that perhaps that there was a zero missing from his email. I was then intrigued by a cryptic sentence following the statement about the fee, that read:

“However there is some flexibility that allows us to reward creativity in the range of things covered and the forms that coverage might take.”

I asked the Senior Interactive Producer to explain his qualifier. His response read:

A basic review would be $50 for a five paragraph, 500 word piece.
Same would go for something like a profile or an interview.
We also offer an additional $50 if you can provide us with a slideshow of 10 images. These would be images you take yourself.
Similarly, we offer an additional $50 if you do a “guide” type piece — IE: The 10 plays to see this fall. We offer an additional $50 for breaking news pieces — IE: 100 year old theater burns down — it burned last night and we have filed a piece by 11am the following morning. (that’s a grim scenario, but it should serve to illustrate.)
Coverage of a theater festival might also provide the opportunity for additional payment. However, that would most likely take the form of an interview or something like that. We want to write about things before they happen so that folks have the opportunity to go and see.
Of course, there is also flexibility in rewarding the creation of something new — that I haven’t outlined here because you would make it up.

Now, there will always be arts journalism. It’s not going away. I am not paid anything to write this blog and I’ll continue doing it because I love to articulate my thoughts about culture and I don’t have to answer to any editors or, god forbid, Senior Interactive Producers to do it in this forum.

But in light of yesterday’s email exchange, I am now ready to call it official:
arts journalism is, at least for the moment, just about dead. I’ll continue to take on interesting journalistic projects of national significance that will grant me more exposure and at least pay marginally acceptable fees in exchange for my expertise and time. Otherwise, I’m starting to make my living in other ways.

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  1. MWnyc says

    ” For example, the Senior Interactive Producer for probably the most highly-respected and trafficked media organization in the Bay Area (no, it’s not the San Francisco Chronicle)”

    KQED, I take it?

  2. Michael Toulouse says

    The Chronicle may not be directly involved in this case, but I’m sure it casts a long shadow. “Senior Interactive Producers” everywhere know they can gouge their talent simply because newspapers are collapsing. Sigh.

  3. says

    It’s sad to read a professional arts journalist declare professional arts journalism all but dead.

    Times are always tough in the arts, only they seem moreso now. I live and work as a jazz musician in one of the best jazz cities in the world, Toronto. We have an inordinate number of world-class players here, and we feed many of the ensembles across the globe with players. Yet, most of my colleagues need alternate means or careers to make a living.

    One hopes that your career, Chloe, arts journalism, and the arts in general can only go up from here.

  4. says

    Welcome to the wasteland. In Europe cultural journalism is a much more common part of newspapers. I live in a tiny village in the Black Forest. The local paper, The Schwarzwalder Bote, serves around 40 thousand people, but it has two pages of cultural reporting everyday. About half of the reports are local and about half national. This doesn’t exist in the USA because most communities do not have enough culture (on the local or national level) to support that kind of reporting. This isn’t an accident or a coincidence. It’s a result of political and economic social structures that suppress the arts in the USA, some of them quite consciously – though I know most Americans would consider that observation preposterous.

    One advantage of your recent realization is that you can now begin to tell the truths that careerists in our oppressive system would avoid. You have successfully passed a milestone and your capacity to speak truth to power has now been greatly increased.

    Can you name an established arts journalist in America who regularly challenges the status quo? Which arts journalists thoroughly examines why Europe has so many more orchestras and opera houses per capita than the USA? Which arts journalists point out that we are the only developed country in the world without a comprehensive public arts funding program (encompassed on the Federal, State, and Municipal levels)? Which arts journalist shows how this deeply limits our cultural lives?

    Which arts journalists note that orchestra and opera tickets in the USA are on average 4 or 5 times more expensive than in all other developed countries and thoroughly examine how this affects our cultural lives? Which arts journalists have written extensive reports on the massive unemployment of our musicians compared to those in all other developed countries? Which arts journalists discuss the massive inefficiency of our private funding system and the huge “development” departments they require? Which arts journalists have shown that the constant financial problems of our orchestras are related to our unique and isolated system of funding the arts by donations from the wealthy?

    Which arts journalists have noted the lack of political art in the USA compared to the rest of the developed world and correlated it to the forms of suppression created by our private funding system? Which arts journalists discuss the oppressive effects our mass media has on our lives and consciousness? Which arts journalists have discussed the cultural hegemony Hollywood creates and shown its correlations to our foreign policy? Which journalists have discussed the ways that the USA has tried to pressure Europe into dismantling its system of public funding for the arts?

    These are only a tiny handful of the topics real arts journalism would cover, and yet these kinds of reports are virtually non-existent in our established media. A journalist writing for our major papers wouldn’t dare address these topics in any persistent manner because her career would be ended.

    Now that you are freed from any physical and psychological dependence on our subtle and sopohisticated system of oppression, your work with research and writing has only just begun. Or will you vanish into a zomboid silence like all the others? I hope and believe you are more than that.

    Yours sincerely,

    Winston Smith…

  5. says

    As one of the small legion of former staff critics at a major metropolitan newspaper, I can’t help but agree.
    I have, for nearly a year now, been blogging at musicaltoronto.org. I’ve been lucky to have a great following online and have been able to sell some advertising (with the resulting qualms about ad sales versus coverage). But the revenue, at this point, doesn’t even cover the monthly grocery bill.
    My former employer still uses me on a freelance basis, but that, too, is at a small fraction of my former pay.
    It’s tough to realise that, in Canada’s biggest city, one with a bulging performing arts calendar, there is no living to be made from writing about it.
    But perhaps arts journalism wasn’t meant to be a full-time job anyway. In the history of the world, the period of mass coverage of the arts represents a short, tiny blip.
    Like you, however, I’ll keep doing it for as long as I practically can.
    John Terauds

  6. says

    I’ve been doing arts journalism for 25 years after a career as a college professor. Thank goodness for annual royalties from my books; otherwise I’d be lucky to make a 4-figure income. I still write features on the arts as a labor of love, but what really galls me isn’t the ridiculously low pay, it’s the fact that one media outlet that publishes my work won’t send the promised checks they owe me.
    Winston Smith’s above list of suggested topics are some I’d love to tackle, but without the prospect of remuneration, it’s hard to justify the time spent on the investigation.
    It seems we’re back to the era when the arts and publishing were dominated by “gentlemen” professionals who could depend on inherited family wealth to make their vocations feasible. It’s either that or the stereotype of the starving artist in the garret, sacrificing comfort for one’s art.