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July 19, 2009

"Traditional Arts Journalism..."

...with its "tradtional emphasis on the review" are quotations from the pen (we want to keep this traditional) of Doug McLennan, writing in his ArtsJournal blog diacritical as linked from another entry of his in this blog. Both entries serve to help announce an ambitious confab, part live and part virtual, that will emanate from USC on Oct. 2 and be devoted to new business models for online arts journalism. The day-long gathering is sponsored by USC and the National Arts Journalism Program, underwritten by various foundations, and has been put together primarily by Doug (who also serves as acting director of NAJP, acting because there's no money involved) and Sasha Anawalt of USC.

The NAJP used to be devoted to the betterment of "traditional arts journalism" until NAJP lost its funding and TAJ started its bumpy journey south. As most of you know, a new board for the now unfunded NAJP was elected following a Pew-sponsored reunion in Philadelphia a few years ago. We (there are seven of us, nicely diverse; I'm chair and Bob Christgau is vice-chair) meet in teleconferences every month or so, and have chipped in with advice (not consent, which is not ours to give) on the conference at USC. But Doug is the driving force, conceptually, and he is a pioneer and prophet for online arts journalism.

His entries on the conference, and on the overall health of arts journalism, interested me on several counts. Above all his passing comments on traditional, meaning print, arts journalism. For him, "the traditional emphasis on the review as the primary form is suicide." He adds that traditonal arts journlism didn't cover "some kinds of culture" very well, singling out dance as an example. (Me, I'd attribute that to latent homophobia among arts edtitors, but what do I know?) For Doug, print journalism remained stuck on the traditional arts and "the old model of experts preaching to 'the masses,'" which "had tenuous hold of an audience long before the internet came along."

I do not react with visceral hostility to such ideas, as I would were they offered by overtly philistine editors, but I would add some caveats. One is that my experience as an arts journalist was largely at the New York Times, which was and remains exceptional. Second, a thoughtful review and preaching down to the masses are not synonymous.

The best critics are complicit with their readers, not snobbishly superior to them. The principal form of blogging on the arts is still the proffering of opinion, sometimes informed, sometimes irresponsible, but opinion (a review or review-ish commentary) nonetheless. People like to write their opinions and other people, depending on the writer, like to read them. Mostly, if you are any kind of informed reader, this has to do with seeking out a countervailing opinion to one you already hold. It's a conversation, even if the reader traditionally could not engage the critic in an electronic conversation, and the critic would not have had the time to respond to all those readers, anyhow.

(Parenthetically, it drives me nuts when outlets like CNN, struggling to emulate or co-opt the internet, waste time soliciting viewers' opinions and then reading out the lucky winners on the air. Who CARES what Joe from Omaha thinks about health care? But maybe I'm just a preaching snob.)

I like to read movie reviews after I've seen a film; movie critics just can't help themselves when it comes to giving away the plot. So after I saw Kathryn Bigelow's "Hurt Locker," I read A.O. (Tony) Scott's Times review. I don't always agree with Scott; who would want to agree with anyone all the time? But he's about the best writer-critic out there, and I happened to agree with him completely on "The Hurt Locker," right down to his terrific final sentence. I wasn't being preached to; I was having my own opinion confirmed, amplified out into the wider world.

Most arts editors desperate to modernize "traditional arts journalism" are hostile to the review, especially the review of something that is finished by the time the reader reads it; their basic instinct is towards consumer service. They want to re-invent arts journalism with more interactivity, more boosterish features, more listings, more attention to, as Doug put it, "participatory community culture." But reading the opinion of someone whose sensibility you've come over the years to admire is not "suicidal"; it remains the core of arts coverage no matter what the medium.

But which arts? If traditional arts journalism has failed to keep up with realities of which arts people today actually practice and enjoy, the failing has less to do with internet vs. print than with the qualifications of those who control the coverage. The upper editors are usually indifferent to the arts or crudely populist, willing to whittle arts space on any pretext. The arts editors themselves, mostly transfers from the sports pages or the dining section on their way (they hope) upwards in the editiorial hierarchy, are just the kind of ignorant, hectic editors Doug describes.

"Running a good freelance section requires editors who have the time and talent to know what's going on in the culture of their community," Doug writes. But that's very hard. It's hard when arts coverage is still dominated by staff critics, who may know their beats but who are of varying quality and may be wedded to their old ways. It's especially hard when the paper in question cares little about the arts and relies on uninformed reviews of the local symphony (on whose board the publisher sits) and random wire copy for its feature stories.

Blogs are cool. There are no space limitations and, for better and for worse, no editors. Doug is certainly correct that we need new business models to help support internet arts journalism, and to pay writers for contributing to it. My main caveats, however, are that many of the problems that afflicted print journalism (overworked, underinformed editors, an unimaginative conception of what culture really is today) apply equally to print and the internet, and that readers still like to read informed opinion. An internet revolution that devotes itself excessively to community and participation may be more democratic, and maybe more finanically viable, but it may also be sadly less compelling.

July 19, 2009 6:49 AM | | Comments (1)



I am following the summit and I liked your article very much, specially when you say that one of the arts journalism problems is the "unimaginative conception of what culture really is today". This is a problem of portuguese cultural journalism too... What is culture today, in your opinion? I am curious.
Thak you,

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