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May 27, 2010

Castles in the Sky

The other day Laura Sydell was in town and she and I got together at Bob Christgau's for a mini-NAJP board meeting/social hour, more the latter than the former. But we did find ourselves talking about yes, arts journalism, and how best to map out its shaky path into the future.

What we decided was that one way to enliven the profession would be to start a publication, in print or online or both, with a real staff devoted to arts journalism in all its facets. To do that, we figure, would entail real money, ideally provided by someone who cared enough about the cause to provide an endowment that would spin off enough money annually to subsidize such a venture. That wouldn't preclude further income streams, contributions or advertising, but it would provide an ongoing base of support. The notion of engendering such a publication on a purely commercial basis seems long gone.

The various models that emerged from the "summit" Doug McLennan organized at USC a few months ago would be a start, but we'd like to build on them to create an actual publication of our own. The Goldring arts journalism program at Syracuse, the one Joanna Keller runs, was made possible by such a donation ($20 million, as I recall). We need another Goldring. More than we need a foundation, no matter how generous Pew was to the old NAJP. Foundations can (and maybe should) cut off their support at some point; they don't provide the kind of basis for the future that an endowment does.

So the questions for the readers of ARTicles are these: Think about anyone you know (or about yourself, if you happen to have a spare $20 million plus) who might endow such a project. And think about what that project might be. We would rather envisage the publication we want, one that would best serve the arts and arts journalism and arts journalists, rather than let a philanthropist determine the project. We'd like to inspire an endowment with the brilliance of our ideas, not beg for one, vaguely. 

We have a potential basis for such a publication in this blog, and a potential editor in Laura Collins-Hughes. But maybe a publication is not the way to go. Maybe such a big (if still phantasmagorical) endowment would be better spent elsewhere (I mean to support arts journalism, not to feed the hungry, however important that may be). Anyone have any bright ideas?
May 27, 2010 1:27 PM | | Comments (4)


Unsurprisingly, John, I strongly believe that a publication — in print and/or online — is the way to go. Too many arts stories that demand real reporting are not being covered; too much arts journalism that requires time and thought and expertise is not being written; and far, far too much experienced, genuine talent is going shamefully to waste.

It's late at night, and I really should wait for clarifying caffeine tomorrow, but John's post excites me past restraint. Here's what I think:

* A publication, ink on paper. The Internet may be the quantitative future, but a) print will still be around, b) its "expensive" real estate still has cachet that digital doesn't, c) and it's the wavering of print in part that's put arts journalism in this precarious position and it would be good to take a stand-by-example that arts journalists aren't going to be run out of Print Town. Besides, there's still an anticipation about the weekly/monthly issue of something in print that you just don't get in the constant flow of the Internet.

* A commercial publication. It aims to sell a bunch of copies, to make enough money to pay the editor(s) and contributors decently (another raison d'etre of NAJP), and to make a splash. Yes, a splash...

* ...with a magazine that contains (for my taste; others' menus may vary) mostly opinion pieces--reviews and reviews expanded into "thinky" (as they say in weekly journalism) essays, by--get this--the greatest effing roster of readable critics in the Western world, on all of the arts. It would take a bite out of the behinds of The New Yorker, TNYRB, The New York Times's "Arts & Leisure" and Book Review, "Culture Monster," The Atlantic, Harper's, etc.

* No "the" theater critic, book reviewer, music critic, art critic, etc., but rather a quality-dependable but ever-varying bunch of bylines. NAJPers only? No. Mostly, maybe, by dint of quality, but open to the exceptional non-members. Demands on the editors would be great: gathering the right pieces by the right writers on the right works in the arts, and really tough editing about copy quality for readability. (This comment sure as hell wouldn't pass!)

* Keep the website, but it'd become more of a spit 'n' argue about what's in the publication rather than original posts. (I say "more of a..." and it'd have to evolve to that naturally, because the publication's so worth arguing about, rather than a sudden policy shift.)

* The whole idea would be that a national audience would chomp at the bit waiting for the next issue of the publication (weekly would be best, bi-weekly at first a reasonable compromise), in which it could read really toothy, fearless, and above all well-written opinion pieces on current plays, movies, novels, ballets, operas, symphonies, art exhibitions, pop music concerts and CDs, world music, etc., etc., etc. All in one place!

* Problems, yes: Competing with newspapers and mags whose critics' jobs we're trying to save, the death of a thousand cuts from blogger resentment, and maybe the whole quixotic nature of a print publication in the 21st century. But I'd even go so commercially far as to do "fall previews," "summer movies" sections, and year-end top ten lists. (I don't think this is a time/place for purity. There are thousands of academics in the arts who, allegedly, supply that.)

* Advertising? Hell, yes. From BMWs, Rolexes, and Bushmill's to concert halls and art galleries. It's the great firewall debate, which is why $20 mil would be a nice grubstake, so that the credibility of the publication would attract advertisers who'd rather have their products looked over than overlooked by us.

I'm pooped. Sending this in unvarnished. My considerable nose not at all out of joint if people summarily reject this.

Me! Me! I want in! I wanna help edit!! Me! Me!!

Ahem ... sorry, I've composed myself now ...

(Actually, you just know that many of the people reading John's post had that very same reaction.)

John's-and-Laura's-and-Bob's idea is, of course, a wonderful one.

In terms of fleshing out that idea, it's worth remembering that, not so long ago, we had - at least in the field of classical music and opera - something like a prototype of the publication John's post envisions.

Remember the online magazine at

I'm proud of and a bit amazed by what we accomplished there, at least until the money started running out.

The stable of contributors we assembled was pretty wonderful: our US-based writers alone included, at various times, the likes of Anne Midgette, David Patrick Stearns, Tim Page, Steve Smith, and Joshua Kosman (as well as talented younger writers like James C. Taylor and Eric Valliere); we had Hugh Canning, Michael Church, Stephen Pettitt and others in London, Shirley Apthorp in Berlin, Larry L. Lash in Vienna, Harriet Cunningham in Sydney, and writers in places from Buenos Aires to Brussels to Hong Kong to Tokyo to (yes) Tasmania. (The delightful Carlo Vitali even ran a little Italian bureau for us out of Bologna, with a group of very bright young Italians who wrote for us in English. We called them "Charlie's Angels.")

One thing of which I'm particularly proud is that was, I believe, the first English-language outlet to report on the young Gustavo Dudamel: we were there in 2004 when he won the inaugural Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition.

My apologies for all that bragging. But I'm here to tell you that a publication along the lines John suggests really can happen. It has happened. And if it happens again, I'd dearly love to be involved.

More issues and ideas about making a publication like this work will come to me when it's not 3:45 am. But here are a few to start:

* Non-profit status and income from an endowment would definitely be the way to go. (If Andante had had an endowment, I think we'd probably still be operating.) Advertising? Sure; once the readership was there, even luxury goods advertising would be dandy. But it couldn't be the basis of the business plan, at least not in the current environment.

* I must disagree with Peter Plagens and say that the emphasis should be on the Web rather than on paper. (Of course, I would say that, wouldn't I? Almost all my work has been for the Web.) I'm envisioning something like an all-arts version of Peter's idea of an audience chomping at the bit for the next print edition is an appealing one, but at this point in history, I think the Web operation would need to drive the print version rather than the other way around - something like the current incarnation of Wired, as opposed to The Economist.

* Keep the focus on journalism and avoid multimedia joint ventures like, say, streaming live performances à la That leads inevitably to uncomfortably close ties to the people and institutions we're covering.

* Pay your contributors well and promptly, and they will be very loyal to you.

* To start, focus on news. Arts writers always get excited about doing reviews, and reviews certainly shouldn't be neglected, but a steady stream of news stories is what draws traffic. Regular news, preferably every weekday, is what gets arts industry people, journalists and editors reading you regularly, and they're the ones who spread the word and give you early credibility.

I think we all want to find a place for serious arts journalism. All this discussion of what it might look like is great. Ultimately, I think we'll need a good proposal that we can run past a person with passion and money to support it for the long haul with an endowment.
Alas, I must disagree with Mr. Plagens about going for a print edition. It's very costly and I just don't believe that is where the future will be particularly as tablet computers really take off. However, I could imagine some kind of annual print edition that was a best of kind of feature.
I think a non-profit model is the way to go. The endowment would be a base from which to operate and keep the publication going even in tough times. Then, there could be ads and donations to put some gravy on top of endowment money.
We are living through times when culture is changing fast and furious and there are fewer and fewer voices helping us to make sense of it all.

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