SOME things have gotten a bit better since I published my book two years ago; some have unraveled more or less on schedule. One thing that does not seem to be improving is the state of cultural journalism: Arts critics (and reporters, like yours truly) continue to be laid off as publications scale back and decide — just as school boards do in lean times — that culture, especially the fine arts, is expendable.
This is not a new story: When I arrived at the Los Angeles Times as an arts reporter (a role a bit different than that of a critic, but governed by the same economics) in 2002, I was one of four generalist arts scribes, alongside a dedicated visual-art reporter, pop music reporter, theater reporter, several movie reporters, numerous culture editors, a standalone book section with its own staff, and whole raft of critics including a fulltime dance writer. (This was, of course, the largest and most ambitious paper west of the Hudson, with Sunday circulation above a million, in a city driven economically by culture of various kinds, so these numbers and this commitment to the arts and entertainment was hardly typical for American dailies.) In any case, my, uh, departure in the wake of the 2008 recession was part of a process that would lead to the paper employing a single arts reporter and slicing and dicing most of the rest of the staff. (Oddly, and thankfully, most of the critics remain.)
In any case, Alex Ross — one of my favorite writers on music — has just dropped a story in the New Yorker on the decimation of music critics. I don’t have that much to add to “The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age” — and I applaud its shoutout to my old friend and colleague, former Angeleno Timothy Mangan — so I’ll just quote from it a bit. Ross begins with the seemingly irrefutable logic — laid down by our corporate overlords and the editors who do their bidding — that the arts in general and criticism in specific draws fewer readers — at least those counted online — as just about everything else, so why keep it going in lean times? (In the world of culture, this means every inch of classical coverage competes against coverage of superhero movies and celebrity divorces.) But, Ross says
Those who subscribe to the print edition are discounted—and they tend to be older people, who are also more likely to follow the performing arts. A colleague wrote to me, “The four thousand people reading your theatre critics might be extremely loyal subscribers who press the paper on others. People in power often speak of ‘engagement’ and ‘valued readers,’ yet they still remain in thrall of the big click numbers—because of advertising, mostly.”
Also, even if the data could measure every twitch of every eyeball, should that information control editorial choices? Foreign reporting often draws fewer readers, yet the bigger papers persist in publishing it, because it is felt to be important. One guesses that play-by-play accounts of baseball and football games receive relatively few clicks, yet the sports section is considered sacrosanct.
The trouble is, once you accept the proposition that popularity corresponds to value, the game is over for the performing arts. There is no longer any justification for giving space to classical music, jazz, dance, or any other artistic activity that fails to ignite mass enthusiasm.
Ross hits it on the head pretty well here. And if you value what arts journalists — reporters, critics, and the editors who advocate for their work — please subscribe to one of the few publications that still employs them.