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May 28, 2008

Stand up for each other:enough with the lay offs, the buyouts, the death

This morning we learned that Christopher Page, theater critic and editor at the East Valley Tribune in Phoenix, Arizona, died. His was a suicide.

Three weeks earlier he had been laid off from his job, which in January of this year had come with a promotion, placing him in charge of online features. Chris was one of the brightest, sharpest, kindest and most outrageous critics to participate as a Fellow in the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater its first year, 2005.

Then he was 23. We called him "our NEA baby." It helped that his overall impression was round. His eyelashes were long. You wanted to hug him on sight. Chris had this effect on all of us. By "us" I mean the 24 other Fellows (who had bonded instantaneously, sustained by wicked senses of humor that live to this day on an active Listserv where sardonic musicals, often inspired by Chris, are jointly created on a fairly regular basis) his writing instructor, Barbara Isenberg, our program coordinator, Rachel Uslan, and myself, director.

Chris is the first and, to date, the last Fellow on any program I have ever run in seven years who missed the bus. He missed the bus. And just like "Home Alone," we didn't realize it until we had arrived at A Noise Within theater in beautiful, downtown Glendale -- and had sat down. I think the uncustomary silence, or the sheer lack of Chris's ebullient presence, alerted us immediately: We had left him behind. Chris was missing!

I jumped into my minivan and performed a rescue. Chris was mortified, and so funny about it. From there on in, and for the rest of eternity, we had a Buddy System for the bus. Chris Page and Chris Blank, his fellow Fellow, called themselves "Blank Page." Apt for critics, and a testament to Page's wit and willingness to accept full blame, when he needn't have. "Our NEA baby" was our responsibility.

Who knows why people kill themselves. There is a readiness here to connect his fatal action with having been laid off. But we can't invent a reality like that. Yet, Chris's death is an additional heavy burden on our arts journalism souls. The worry mounts, and it's tempting to make him emblematic.

Here I am about to launch a new Master's program in arts journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication. This same day that I learned Chris died, I heard from another teacher at the NEA Institute. She's one of the lucky ones. A full-time theater critic in the Pacific Northwest. But, she's sitting in an arts newsroom that has 12 desks, eight of which are completely empty, unused, and with no expectation of ever being used again. Her colleagues were laid off or took the buyout. Ghost town -- maybe she is not so lucky.

Alan Rich, 83 years old, who has given his life to writing about music was let go by the L.A. Weekly and a week or so ago was told that "No, he would not receive severance pay," as he had been promised. Without a contract, he hasn't a leg to stand on.

But this is a human being. A life. A life dedicated fully and solidly to writing with surest integrity for us.

Today, I heard from a journalist questioning the intelligence of starting an MA program for arts journalists, when there are "no jobs."  Her tone was hurt, pained, frantic, and it gave me pause -- as if I haven't paused enough to question the future myself.

What right does optimism have to exist? My eye is on the artists and the arts. Will they stop? Is art going to stop being made? Will we be able to stop being interested in the arts? Stop loving and obsessing over them not just for artistic reasons, but for moral ones? Can we help writing about them?

I take my cue from the artists. Writing chooses you, you do not choose it. Dancers move. We must move. Actors act. We must take action. Artists paint. We paint with words. Architects build. Let's build arts journalism programs together where there were none.

I see in this time the opportunity to redefine and shape journalism for the better for the arts and culture. Can I guarantee a salary and health benefits and a job as we know jobs to have been? No. But I honestly believe that we can do better than we have done.

One by one by one. And a place to begin is to call for humane action when writers who have given their lives, literally or figuratively, must be let go. Supply a net, counseling, severance, comfort, whatever it takes, but we must not accept the lack of respect.

Speak out. Ask publishers and editors-in-chief to lower the blade, if they must, with awareness that for some critics their work is their lives.

May 28, 2008 3:44 PM | | Comments (5)

5 Comments

How terribly sad. Glad you wrote this.
And, yes, you are totally right about the question of whether it makes sense to start an arts journalism masters in such a climate. Of course it does! No worthwhile endeavor is guaranteed a certain result. Taking a tip from artists -- and activists too -- as we struggle against the odds is the way to go! (I often think about Elizabeth Caty Stanton and Lucretia Mott making the Seneca Falls declaration in 1848 being certain that neither their daughters or grandaughters were likely to have rights)

So eloquently stated, Sasha, and so very true. We write because we are driven to write. I knew, going into this line of work, that I would never make as much money as someone writing computer code or selling pharmaceuticals or pitching junk bonds. And every day (well, almost every day) I'm thankful that I don't do those things: that I am actually paid decent money to write about subjects that I love. Those of us who vow to stick it out in this profession, and who are able to make it work for us, should feel a sense of kinship with those who follow the same passions -- no matter the size of our publications or what some number-crunching news executive thinks. Like you said, it's all about respect. And we should quietly but confidently remind those who work around us (and above us) of that fact every now and then.

Very nice, Sasha.

I often wonder if the NEA program is a little like those seed banks in massive vaults inside mountains, waiting for the time when they must repopulate a species after disaster has destroyed it.

But after reading your essay, it's obvious to me (and all of us) that we shouldn't be waiting for the disaster -- as long as artists are making art there needs to be people like us to encourage it and critique it, to chronicle its ups and downs, its successes and mistakes. Because most art will disappear as compact discs degrade, paper crumbles, and canvasses discarded, history demands that we write about it. Otherwise, future generations will be left with only the works in collections and museums to learn about this era in history.

Yes, we must keep challenging those in positions of power to think about the consequences of their actions and a time may come where nonprofit or community-based models replace the corporate media that lives from one financial quarter to the next. Arts criticism as a paid vocation may be dying but we cannot afford to let arts criticism disappear. About 99 percent of virtual artists, for example, don't live off of their art.

So stay strong, keep passionate and stay connected. The NEA moved me to become a starving playwright/screenwriter and editing other people's words now pays my bills. But I'll always need sharp, insightful minds like all of yours to help me keep making my art better.

Eloquent and powerful. I'm sorry I never got to meet Chris.
I think what you're doing with the new USC program is MORE important now that full time staff arts writers are disappearing. The institutional knowledge base for freelance contributors and writers in new media outlets is going to have to come from outside the old media establishment, and programs like your new one are one of the few sources available. What with all the technological and economic reconfiguring going on, I do think we're at some kind of turning point, and the new program is really poised to lead the way to the next incarnation of arts writing. As this tragedy and the waves of layoffs show, it's more important than ever to deal with these issues now.

Sasha,
What very sad news about the former NEA Fellow, Chris Page.
Suicide is always a very difficult thing to deal with because, in many cases, you never really know why a person would take their life.
Luckily, more and more people are becoming aware of suicide prevention, but there definitely still needs to be more awareness.

Regarding the other sad news in your essay about the state of arts and arts reporting, I have positive news from Wyoming to report.

I'm fortunate that I work for one of the few newspapers in the country that is expanding instead of shrinking their staff.
I work for the the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.
Cheyenne Newspapers Inc. is a family owned company and I've been employed by them for nine years.
Next week we launch our new redesign.
And we finally get to show off the capabilities of our new German, all-color, very expensive press.
There's a buzz around town about our new daily entertainment section, well it's not just around town every contact I deal with is buzzing about it because they get even more coverage than before.
I have literally hundreds of e-mails from people now when I get in every morning from people who want to get in our section.
Before we shoved their information back in this very difficult to read calendar in the back of our pull out section and people didn't like that.


The new section will have a new name to be announced sometime next week as it hits people's doorsteps.

This new daily section gives us 4 pages on a daily basis to tell everyone in our region all about the arts. We're focusing on hyperlocal arts and entertainment coverage.
People in our community see us as their saving grace and are stepping up to the plate to help us meet our deadlines to get their event out there to our readers.
As of late I'm noticing a younger readership. A demographic we've been trying to rope in for years. They've started sending me e-mails and comment on my stories online.
Arts coverage is being intermingled with sports and outdoors entertainment coverage to make sure we're meeting everyone's interests at once. Plus, those things often intertwine with one another.
I feel very optimistic about arts coverage and feel it's only a matter of time for other newspapers to catch on to how important that type of coverage is to a community.
Our community is all about growth and change and economic development.
There are many studies that show once people know there are things to do in an area they will move their businesses to that area, spurring economic growth.
Community newspapers are that authority and that voice that people trust to deliver that information to them.

As far as being a fellow NEA Fellow now.
Receiving that acknowledgement about my writing also helped my newspaper realize that there is a place for critiquing things and for arts coverage. That it just makes sense.
And, all of the writing workshops I had during the institute time were well worth it.
Shorter and snappier writing is what readers want and now I feel more confident that I can give that to them. Our instructors were marvelous!

I'm lucky that the newspaper that I work for understands that.
It's just a shame that others don't see that value.
But, I'm certain once they realize what a money maker arts coverage can be, they, too, will hop on board.
The key is to localize everything and to write about things your community cares about.

Sincerely, Karen Cotton
2008 NEA Fellow

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