[NOTE: The first part of my memo to the new NY Times culture editor, Jon Landman, was picked up yesterday by the Poynter Institute’s Romenesko aggregator, which means that it was “cc’d” to media mavens at news organizations around the country. UPDATE: Now this post has been picked up by Romenesko too!]
My suggested solution to the flaw in the NY Times‘ cultural coverage that I discussed in yesterday’s post is easy: There’s no reason for the paper’s cultural journalists to turn their backs on a major arts story just because someone has beaten them to it. All they need to do is cover it better—in more depth, with more expertise. With their large roster of deeply knowledgeable, experienced writers, and with the unsurpassed access to sources that comes with the newspaper’s clout, they’ve got a leg up on the competition, even when they enter the race late.
More difficult to remedy is a more insidious deterrent to enterprising journalism: The Times’ culture cadre has become accustomed to having its scoops handed to it on a silver platter. Cultural institutions that want the Times to give them extensive, favorable coverage feel compelled to give news and access to the Gray Lady first.
This was evident again yesterday, when the Times posted online the welcome news that San Francisco mega-collector Donald Fisher had reached an agreement with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to house his holdings for at least 25 years in a new wing. Although I knew about that announcement last night from Carol Vogel‘s online account, the press release didn’t hit my own inbox until 9 a.m. this morning. It was headed, “Release Date: September 25, 2009” (today). I don’t object if arts writers from the hometown publications are given the story before out-of-towners. But why is the Times allowed to jump the gun?
That New York’s premier paper applies pressure to enforce a “Times First” policy was explicitly acknowledged by Sam Sifton, Landman’s predecessor as culture editor, in recent public comments about his staff’s shakedown of news sources:
We bully them, essentially. We say, “We want that material before you
give it to someone else. Give it to us first!” And we broker our
million-plus readers into getting that information.
Which brings us to the least easily remedied and most serious problem with the Times’ arts coverage: When you grow accustomed to having stories spoonfed to you by arts institutions and even government officials, complacency sets in. If you can usually get the news first without even trying, you lose the motivation and energy to ferret out stories yourself—particularly those that sources hope will escape your attention. Before long, you become an extension of the artworld’s PR apparatus. When people make a deal to give you the news first, it’s easy to feel that you owe them respectful or even favorable treatment.
That’s an inherent danger for all beat reporters: If you investigate and criticize an institution or an individual too much, you may fall out of favor with a source whose cooperation you must rely on for the news you need to report. Despite the risk, the Times can overcome such difficulties better than most, thanks to its preeminence and its reputation for professionalism. Being fair and thorough counts for a lot, even with sources who haven’t liked everything you’ve written.
For that reason, it is inexplicable to me why the Times has allowed itself to co-opted by the art auction houses, reporting prices in a manner that makes sale results appear better than they actually are.
It’s also hard to understand why the Times missed the important story of the final proposed regulations of museum deaccessioning being promulgated by the NY State Board of Regents. It was no secret that the Regents were considering new, far-reaching deaccession guidelines. They have been widely circulated in the field. But nobody proffered that text to journalists on a
silver platter as NY Assemblyman Richard Brodsky did when he introduced legislation to regulate museum deaccessions. The Brodsky bill, languishing in the legislature, made it into the Times. The Regents’ regulations, more likely to be adopted imminently, didn’t.
All of this is to say that the Times’ culture staff needs to engage in coverage dictated less by invitation, more by initiative. Given the fact (as the paper’s Public Editor reported last February) that the Times’ online audience is larger than the hardcopy holdouts (and there’s little overlap), its reportorial enterprise needs to be 24/7. That’s especially true of the sluggish ArtsBeat blog, which should be up-to-the-minute, but is usually behind the news by hours or, sometimes, a day or more.
Take the recent release of the report of Brandeis University’s Committee on the Future of the Rose Art Museum. That news was on the website of the Boston Globe (which is owned by the Times) on Tuesday afternoon. But the story didn’t surface on ArtsBeat until 2:37 p.m. Wednesday and it finally made it into the newspaper yesterday, two days late. Neither the Times nor the Globe linked to the full text of the report. For that, you had to go to CultureGrrl.
That said, there are only four news websites that I open every morning in my Internet browser’s “Quick Tabs”—ArtsJournal (which hosts CultureGrrl); the Wall Street Journal’s Arts & Entertainment page; Bloomberg Muse; a foreign-based art news aggregator (which I’ll keep to myself); and the NY Times Arts page.
The Times is still the gold standard for New York City arts coverage. What is needed to shake its culture staff from its reportorial torpor is some serious hometown competition—something it lost a year ago, when the NY Sun, with its feisty arts staff, folded. But there’s some good news for cultural news buffs: Rupert Murdoch has indicated that his Wall Street Journal will soon launch a New York-only weekly arts section.
That wake-up call should provide the most effective tonic for what now ails the Times.
[Full disclosure: I freelance on art and museums for the WSJ‘s “Leisure
& Arts” page and I’ve also published many articles in many sections of the NY Times.]