A threnody: books and arts coverage

This morning in The Dallas Morning News, editor Bob Mong explained some of the changes that will be appearing in the paper soon, changes that we, the readers, supposedly requested. Bigger, more colorful comics, the return of the 500 most active stock index, etc.

Nowhere is any explanation given for the reduced arts coverage, especially when it's now the stated purpose of the paper "to provide local news and information that you can't find anywhere else." The likely reply would be that it hasn't been reduced -- it has the same space. But with the departure of both TV critics, the visual arts critic, the architecture critic, the pop music editor, the film critic, the arts editor, the books editor and, yes, the book critic (me), the Morning News now presents David Kronke -- of the Los Angeles Daily News -- as its de facto TV critic (meaning pretty much no local TV coverage), John Freeman, a fine freelancer, as its lead book critic and any warm body from the Associated Press or one of the LA papers or the Washington Post as a film critic du jour.

Yes, it's a changed media world for daily newspapers everywhere. Yet no one in a position of authority at any paper has managed to explain why the sections that serious readers would be interested in -- the kind of well-off, educated, committted readers whom newspapers would want to keep with in-depth coverage of politics, the arts, books, lengthier feature stories -- why those are precisely the sections that are getting cut? When the mantra was "chase the younger reader," those sections got cut because teens don't read that stuff. Management finally realized that trying to give young people who don't read even less to read wasn't working. So "local is best" became the new theory (one that makes a fair amount of sense to me) -- and those sections still get cut.

In Dallas, when a marvelous advance -- a freestanding daily arts section called GuideLive (yes, a stupid name -- tell that to the marketers) -- was first proposed, designed and tested, the response from management and its sainted focus groups and surveys was overwhelmingly positive. Ad revenue from the movie companies even increased. Let's repeat that: Increased ad revenue in a daily newspaper. Yet all of those facts in favor of better cultural coverage vanished when the new banner of "local is best" was hoisted.

The problem for newspaper arts coverage has little to do with editors' fears of cultural ignorance or what readers want. The problem has to do with the fact that local arts (and book publishing) do not generate much ad revenue. That might explain why the only critic that the DaMN is currently replacing with someone actually in town is -- the restaurant critic. Restaurants provide ad revenue.

Even so, in most major cities, the daily newspaper remains the only single place one can find local arts coverage of a thoughtful quality, and all of it -- dance, opera, pop music, TV, theater, books, film -- all of it in one place. No website I've found (other than the wretchedly designed ones put up by newspapers) manages anything like that breadth, that "connectivity" among a city's arts and its national and even international peers. The result in city after city that I visit is that while the daily paper is whittling away at its local cultural coverage, TV does next to nothing except happy puff pieces, radio does next to nothing locally (and this often but not always includes the area PBS and NPR stations), the city magazine does the occasional tout or glossy profile but no serious sustained coverage (not the way it covers restaurants) and the alternative weekly paper covers pop bands, nightclubs, local theater and food but little else other than the occasional profile or news feature, provided the coverage can be made aggressively, even pointlessly controversial.

This is now (more or less) the rule for local arts coverage in print in America. There are profound exceptions, of course, and people may tout this PBS station or that alternative weekly or even two daily papers locked in sufficient competition that they actually try to top each other when it comes to discussions about authors and artists. But they are exceptions, and I don't see the internet, with its intense, bifurcated development of personal blogs and corporate distrubution systems (just books, just theater, just pop music), providing the same kind of city-wide discussion or spotlight. Before this, it was very hard for live performing arts (theater, dance, opera) or slow-impact arts (books, museums) to cut through the opening-weekend, mass-market, sweeps-week, billion-dollar clutter of the media.

Now, I don't know how any of them manage it.

January 3, 2007 8:10 AM | | Comments (8)




This is good to know that how we would change our style.


One can heartily agree with your analysis, Ms. Ornish, but disagree with your conclusion.

I'm not a convert to the New Media as Our Salvation Church -- yes, even though I'm blogging away here. As my post indicated, in the swarm of blogs and corporate retail websites and wiki-think video-community networks, I still see no real substitute for what a big-city daily newspaper does (or once did or should be doing) with local arts coverage. I wish there were a healthy substitute, and if someone manages to invent such a thing and make it work on the web -- with a cluster of professional, local critics and reporters in different cultural fields all available at a single site -- I'll sign up.

Good luck with ClassicalTexas, and thanks for writing.

This is exactly why I started my classical music and arts website, ClassicalTexas.com.

I'm an award-winning ex-WRR-FM announcer/interviewer/documentary producer and print arts journalist.

It became clear to me in the late 1990's after radio deregulation and newspaper dumbing-down that fine-arts coverage by traditional media was becoming kaput, and most classical radio stations around the country were sold and had their formats changed.

If anything is going to save arts coverage-- and the arts themselves-- it's got to be New Media/New Technology.

The first thing when I thought when I read Mong's note on page 2 of the Morning News was to wonder what was going to be cut to make room for the expanded international, national, and regional news (the only thing he listed as being an improvement that I was personally excited about). But, as you point out, many of the cuts have already happened.

It's interesting to me that as the DMN ships its good (local) arts writers away (to the Internet, in the case of you and Mr. Bark), the paper is becoming more and more like so many blogs: editing content that is produced elsewhere rather than trying to generate good content itself. When it's done well, that job of selecting worthy pieces is all well and good, but it's not really making anything.

David Kronke is way too kind. But his comments are typical of the gracious and generous guy he is. He's also a terrific writer whom I'm privileged to still call a colleague. Damn, I'm getting soft!

Anyway, Jerome and I now are both trying to make a difference on our respective websites, reporting on and reviewing what's being largely ignored in he pages of the DMN. It can be a solitary existence at times. IS ANYBODY OUT THERE? But it's gratifying at times like these. Jerome nails the DMN's hypocrisy sharply and firmly. And David weighs in with plaudits I don't deserve but certainly will accept from a writer of his caliber.

Glad to see you're keeping this site going, Jerome. But missed you at our Christmas party, you SOB. Warmest regards,

Ed Bark

Thanks for writing, Mr. Kronke, but I need to correct a case of mistaken identity before it becomes hardened into an accepted piece of internet trivia.

I am not portrayed in Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation." I've checked the relevant passages and it's plain to me (and to others who worked at the News at the time) that the character is based on the late Russell Smith. The misidentification is understandable: Russell and I both worked with Ms. Wurtzel, we both lived near her; as a result, we both gave her rides to and from work. Unlike Russell, however, I didn't visit her apartment and commiserate with her about her unusual love life. The misidentification is also understandable, given Ms. Wurtzel's writing: No other character is quite as real, quite as focused, as her own self-obsession.

For anyone who cares, I discussed some of this in my April 12, 1998 review of Ms. Wurtzel's subsequent book, Bitch. But you'll have to buy the full text at the DaMN's archives.

As a former Dallas Times Herald employee who was "invited" by the Morning News, when they shut the DTH down and steamrollered the paper into a parking lot, to apply for a job, then was summarily ignored, as well as a great fan (and good friend, I like to think) of Ed Bark, let me say that the idea of my replacing Ed is as abhorrent to me as I'm sure it is to all his readers.

Ed's one of the Top 5 TV critics in America and therefore irreplaceable; I'm merely a guy on a wire service who costs the DMN nothing. Not that this means anything, but one of my first links on my Daily News TV blog was to Ed's Uncle Barky site.

Jerome and I never met even though we co-existed in Dallas for many years (he was a theater critic when I lived there, opposite my friend Michael Phillips), but we do share one thing in common: We were both vaguely referenced in Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation," which I imagine neither of us are particularly proud.

But, hey: Bigger comics? Cool!

Several studies have shown that white-collar businesses are drawn to cities with a vibrant cultural life, because that's where young, college-educated workers want to live. A daily newspaper with arts coverage is an important part of creating that cultural life.

Even if culture sections don't bring in much direct ad revenue, they indirectly bring in a LOT of advertising -- and readers -- by making the city more attractive to business.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on January 3, 2007 8:10 AM.

It was Colonel Mustard all along, right? was the previous entry in this blog.

Chewing the bookfat is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.