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May 16, 2006

And The Survey Says... The Pay Sucks!

by Douglas McLennan

Here on our final day of this blog, I'd like to return to a question that Anthony asked early on and that some of our commenters have also brought up - where's the money? Why would an accomplished writer with prestigious print gigs like Terry Teachout write a blog for free? Or Greg Sandow or Kyle Gann or Tobi Tobias, Maud Newton or Alex Ross? There are many many others who do other things but somehow find it useful to write for free on a blog.

In the past few years I've talked probably more than 100 such people into blogging, and one of the first questions I'm usually asked is the money question. What I always say (and believe) is that blogging gives you a different relationship with an audience than you get being in print. It's an interactive experience that puts you into conversation with an audience of people who seem to care about what you're saying. And that can be an extremely valuable (and gratifying) resource for a writer and it seems different from the traditional print relationship somehow. The editor who hires Tyler Green not only gets Tyler but an extensive web of people who have been having a relationship with him online for some time.

That's not to say that traditional print journalists don't have extensive contacts too. But the interactive, immediate and personal nature of blogs such as Tyler's and Greg's and Terry's and Maud's and Kyle's are such that these bloggers have access to a pretty amazing network of resources. Tyler, for example was first to break some of the stories about the Getty's recent troubles. I frequently hear from well-placed sources at major cultural institutions eager to share their inside stories.

Yeah, yeah. So a blog is personally stimulating, and it's a great resource for a writer. But the question still remains - who pays for all this free work?

Good question. But it's a question not just confined to the online world. One of the things we haven't talked about here is the crisis of pay for arts journalism. These days it's all but impossible to make a living as an arts journalist in most cities if you're not employed by the local newspaper. And with local newspapers dropping staff critics like so much dirty laundry, even many of those remaining jobs are going away.

Freelance pay is abysmal. Many newspapers are still paying what they were 10 or 15 years ago. How are you supposed to live stringing together reviews at $50 of $75 apiece? And as more newspapers rely on freelancers, the quality and depth of cultural reporting inevitably goes down. Even national publications which once paid decently, have slipped behind. This is a profession that is rapidly turning into a hobby rather than a viable way to make a living. How are younger people supposed to even think about becoming arts journalists if the prospects of making a living are this bleak?

One of the things I have thought about doing here on ArtsJournal is a salary survey - a way of tracking who's paying what where, on the premise that sharing this information might help journalists negotiate better rates. But the likelihood is that such a survey might be too depressing and have the opposite effect. Still - don't the lack of prospects for earning a decent livelihood as arts journalists doom us to a mediocre status?

That's not saying, by the way, that getting paid well is a guarantee of good writing. Indeed, one could make a case that having one of those cushy well-paid staff critic jobs sometimes breeds complacency and arrogance. I've also heard good arguments for term limits for critics so they don't get stale. Still, that old cliche about the starving artist making for better art doesn't work any better if you apply it to critics...

Posted by mclennan at May 16, 2006 11:11 PM


I am saddened by the way the print media is cutting cultural reporting. In Philly it is hard to find reviews of most of the exhibits. When making a profit is more important than enlightening the society we all loose, artists, producers and critics. The internet with blogs has returned some of what we all need, light on our passion. Thank you AJ and others who work for little return.

Posted by: Charles Hankin at May 17, 2006 4:03 AM

Thank you for raising this issue. I am a freelance arts writer, logging in here from my day job. There have been a lot of exciting approaches to reporting discussed on this blog conversation, all of which I am confident I will never get to do. The local paper is probably not going to hire me (it's shedding writers) and what's been discussed simply takes too much time for someone working 40 hours a week on other projects. All I can really do are reviews, and sometimes (in all honesty) it's a struggle to do those properly.

I would also like to note that many freelancers would enjoy providing more context, in-depth analysis, and style in their reviews, but they are limited to a great extent by the space that newspapers allot to them. Certainly I have a prose style (of sorts), but because there is so much business to transact in the scarce column inches available to me, I am rarely able to indulge in any fillips or prose doodles, much less to step back and discuss the cultural moment in which a certain work is being premiered (for example).

It would be great if I could actually make a living as an arts freelancer, or if I had a sugar momma who could subsidize my career as an arts freelancer. (It would be even greater if a newspaper was willing to hire me and teach me how to report things, to supplement what I may immodestly call my critical acumen, but that ain't a-gonna happen, and anyway reporting's not really something I think I would want to do every day.) I'm doing the best I can in the time made available to me by economic forces and the space made available to me by editorial decisions.

And I have a blog. (But not an arts blog, so it doesn't really count for these purposes.)

Posted by: Lindemann at May 17, 2006 5:42 AM

Yeah, let's discuss this. The next time you see a blogger talking about print journalism's speedy vector into the ground, ask yourself whether he's suffering from technology-induced alt-media triumphalism, or whether he simply looked at his last paycheck from a freelance arts writing job and realized that he was watching the newspaper die in real time. Print has already voted with its wallet on how much esteem it will grant to art and coverage thereof, a point brought home to me with great force several years ago when Jerry Saltz - Jerry Saltz! - showed me a folded-up, warn piece of paper, pulled from his pocket, that had hundreds of little notes scribbled on it: his teaching schedule, which he needed to to make things work financially in New York.

Posted by: Franklin Einspruch at May 17, 2006 6:10 AM

There are two threads here worth noting. The artist/writer piece is worth a deeper, less dismissive (Ms. Lopez) look. I've been an arts writer (jazz mainly, performance occasionally)and a practicing artist for years--and find that the integrity I bring to a critical, historical grasp of the genre is directly informed by my immersion as an artist. This has nothing to do with effluvial "artist statements" or lack of specious objectivity--it's a real concern that the music or art that is "as serious as your life" is not misrepresented and the stories are sincerely and honestly told to a reading public that places little value on sincerity or jazz usually. Most of us are cheerleading for marginalized forms or aesthetics that are never going to be on the same playing field as big budget production musicals, Impressionist retrospectives, or Bruce Springsteen--so the words and the actions are chosen more carefully. Many of us who make and write about making emerge as writers first, critics second.

On to the other point: blogs. They're immediate, reflexive, don't pay a dime, won't hurt you and allow many of us the opportunity to reach an audience in a different voice, with an arsenal of perspectives and latitude that isn't burdened by the limitations of misanthropic editors or shrinking word-counts.Moreover the blog has allowed me to flex and produce writing that shows a deeper connectivity between the arts--talking about "intermedia" and the expanded arts as something other than a gimmick involving a dance company with a video screen--and go beyond the jazz ghetto and look at things like
performance festivals or subjects that
might ordinarily not be accorded print space.

Posted by: Tim DuRoche at May 17, 2006 9:49 AM

I am graduating in a few weeks from Syracuse University with a masters degree in arts journalism. My program is the only program in the country designed with the arts writer in mind.

However exciting the prospect of fulfilling my dream as a critic, the closer I get to graduation the more I regret my decision to enter this field. Only one out of 16 of us has received a job offer; the rest of us are reevaluating our career choices, albeit now thousands of dollars in debt. I still plan to pursue my career, but I've realized that waitressing is probably my only option until I can scrape together the measly wages of freelance jobs.

It's hard to enough for a person right out of college to pitch cold, but to pitch arts pieces along with thousands of other writers who critique subjects that seem to matter less and less to the print media is just downright discouraging.

I'm not sure if my career will ever pan out, but what I do know is that I owe the government money for my training regardless.

How can a girl like me who is green to this business get by when more experienced writers are more or less standing in the bread line?

Posted by: cantspeakitgood at May 17, 2006 11:28 AM

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