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May 16, 2006

Other voices


The internet gives great opportunities for innovation, but I'm not ready to give up on print and the guiding hand of journalism. Over the last year or so, we've experimented at the San Diego Union-Tribune with a number of new approaches to covering arts events. For coverage of a lengthy summer music festival in La Jolla, we've assigned general assignment writers to do saturation coverage, looking with fresh eyes at the annual gathering of some of the world's best classical musicians and writing features, interviews, brief bios and scene pieces. We've had some of our critics interview the subjects of their review -- sort of a post game lockerroom chat -- before sitting to write the review. (Not so surprising, artists are harsher than most critics about their own performance). Our opera critic attended practices and had pre-performance interviews with the director and leading characters before watching and evaluating the performance. We've also diversified voices whenever possible, assigning a theater critic to review an opera; sending the dance critic to do the same. In addition, we have endeavored to free the photojournalism of arts coverage from the limitation of being tied to the event review. In the most dramatic departure, our review of The Barber of Seville ran inside the section, but a 12 column photo of the dramatic set (it wrapped from front to the back of the section) ran on the section cover with a short essay on the visual and staging efforts that opera offers. The result of that photo -- not that this is our job -- was a run on the box office the next day and a sellout for that show. It seems almost trite to say this, but the arts are invariably among the most visually beautiful events in most communities, yet our "game'' coverage, as I like to call it, is too often driven by the 15 or 16 inches of evaluation the review offers. We have also started a new, full-page feature called "Decodings,'' which uses photos, graphics and text to explain in detail elements of arts. One "decoded'' a modern art installation from the artist's and critic's point of view. Another explained the secret signals in Mozart's "Magic Flute.''

We need to take people into the process in varied and creative ways. Pre-game chats, post game interviews. Creative photography and graphics have their place here too. I'd like to start embedding small, remote control cameras in scenery and in smart places at concerts to take our readers into the experience in ways that will look new and fresh. All of these could have energetic presentations on the web as well. Other ideas?

Posted by at May 16, 2006 11:23 AM


These ideas from San Deigo seem great to me, but they do show that there IS a difference between writing for print and the internet. Newspapers are still think of themselves as a "broadcast" medium. They don't aim for reaching the experts in the field, but somewhat educated people who might become interested in a particular topic. Often, blogs are of a personal nature, or narrowly focused. That lends itself to a completely different kind of discussion. The important question for critics, is not just "Do I know what I writing about?" but "Do I know who I am writing FOR?"

Also, expanding the logic used in some posts, it would seem that some people here have predicted the end of paid arts journalism, as newspapers cut space, and the hordes bloggers take over. Is that what you really mean?

Posted by: Jonathan Gresl at May 16, 2006 11:55 AM

Newspapers should not be 'textbooks' where the under-educated masses go to receive an introduction to art. Remedial arts education does not equal news.

Furthermore, newspapers should not be cheerleaders for the arts, arts organizations or for artists. (Given that we seem to be stuck in a morass of sports analogies, I'll point out that most major newspaper sports sections are really, really good at not being boosterish.)

There is nothing about seeing an opera or a Matisse that is 'better' for someone than, say, sanding a table or climbing a mountain. Proselytizing and educating should be left to the education departments of arts organizations, schools, etc.

Art critics and arts journalists ought evaluate and examine, critique and contextualize, investigate and judge.

Posted by: Tyler Green at May 16, 2006 12:33 PM

I don't know how closely related Australian media are to the US press (significant differences certainly in concentration of ownership etc, though you could think of us as a kind of Petri dish - trends can happen quickly here). I come from a sports fanatic country. In Australia, the wittiest, most informed and sometimes the most lyrical journalism happens on the sports pages. Moreover, nobody is ashamed of being an expert discussing abstruse or even arcane aspects of a sport, because they assume anyone interested in the sport will understand these complexities as well. This simply is not the case for arts journalism, where expertise is considered, if anything, grounds for suspicion, a bit of a wank, and critics hold themselves at arm's length from practitioners because of fear of "influence". Complex ideas tend not to get space. Most critics - I have sat on endless panels "criticising the critics" - consider themselves part of a dialogue, but they do so for the most part in an extremely limited way, exercising their judgement from on high as a fiat. Very few - I can think of one, a dance critic - involve themselves actively in a dialogic way with arts practitioners.

There are exceptions, of course - the arts coverage in The Australian, for example, where ideas are explicitly encouraged, and in general expertise in the visual arts, such as a knowledge of art history, is considered permissible. Performing arts, and especially theatre, are treated as entertainment, and there is little decent, informed coverage of the artform in the mainstream daily press. Because the coverage is so dull - a problem reinforced in many cities that have only one daily newspaper aside from the national paper - it reinforces the prejudice that the artforms are dull, merely worthy, at best a minority or elite interest, although surveys have shown that Australians are among the most enthusiastic arts consumers in the world. This is the context where I feel it's worthwhile doing my blog.

The people who write about sport are all fans; a job on the sports desk is absolutely coveted. It is not so true of arts journalism, which is where they tend to assign people not considered good enough for hard news. Although those with an arts bent will get assigned there too, this can be just as bad - a fuzzy liking for the arts doesn't necessarily translate into sharp, informed or critical reportage.

Personally, I think the first duty of arts coverage anywhere is not to be dull. If mainstream coverage is inadequate or arrogant, those who want something more will look elsewhere. The internet is beginning to provide that elsewhere. The question - here in Australia at least - is whether traditional media will pick up the challenge that it represents. I don't think it's a question of either/or - the situation is much more interesting and complex than such a simple binary.

Posted by: Alison Croggon at May 16, 2006 6:05 PM

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