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June 7, 2010

Of Castles, Peter and NAJPers

Wow. Just wow.

I'm referring to Peter's rant about the lack of NAJPer discussion about John's Castles in the Sky post below and his subsequent Castle-building, step two. I must admit, I saw John's original post and sighed with a kind of Groundhog Day feeling. Not because it's a futile topic. Not because it's a bad topic. Not even because it's not a really worthwhile topic. But this is a conversation I've watched and participated in hundreds and hundreds of times in the past few years. Hundreds. Really. I've approached foundations and philanthropists looking for money. I've helped write some business plans, even.

That this is a well-tread topic isn't a reason not to have the conversation. No, my deja-Bill Murray reaction was because the part of the conversation John started is the easy part. Sure a publication. Sure a philanthropist. We can spend a ton of time talking about what the publication might look like. Whether it's online or print. That it will pay arts journalists. That it covers the arts in meaningful ways. Check, check and check. And then? Of course it comes down to money.

And yet, it doesn't really.
In the past year I've spent a lot of time talking with artists and arts organizations all over the country about the changing media landscape. They've already largely adapted to the idea that the old model of arts journalism is going away. And they're not exactly broken up about it. Sure there's some anxiety, but many of them also see new opportunities to speak directly to their communities without traditional filters. And they're also finding more meaningful discussion of their work in other places.

I've also spent a lot of time with young journalists at the various NEA institutes and students at several universities who want to be arts journalists. Do they feel - how was it that Peter put it - that the "very profession seems to be circling the drain"? Um, no. They're actually excited about the idea of reinventing something. Sure, they're worried about how to make a living. But that's tempered by the perception that there's something interesting to reinvent here. Applications to journalism schools to study journalism generally and arts journalism in particular, are significantly up.

Then there's what I see out there while scanning stories for ArtsJournal. If arts journalism was "dying" I'd expect to see a steep fall-off in the quality of stories we see daily. Not happening. Indeed, there's more diversity than there ever has been, and I can't say that the quality overall has been diminished. There's still a lot of crap. But then, there always was a lot of crap. From traditional arts journalists. In 1999 it was more difficult to find good stories than it is today. Really.

Unquestionably, arts journalism in the places that didn't have great arts journalism is often worse now. Entire cities have gone arts journalism-ly dark in the traditional press. And the recession has diminished the resources that some larger newspapers have put towards arts coverage. Not good. But among the 300,000 arts blogs currently tracked by Technorati, there are some awfully good ones. And there are cities where the best arts writing is not in the local paper but on somebody's blog. Then there are the dozens and dozens of arts journalism startups that have launched in the past five years. Perhaps curiously, many of them aren't as good as the best sole-proprietor blogs.

But this is a much bigger issue than just journalism in the arts. When well-established icons such as Gourmet and Newsweek (almost) fall and half a dozen of the largest newspaper companies are in bankruptcy, there's something fundamentally changing here. Newspapers have lost 55 percent of their ad revenues since 2005. Last year 143 newspapers stopped publishing. One-third of all newspaper journalism jobs have disappeared since 2001. Print readership is down, but digital readership is pretty good.

It's not that people have stopped wanting news. Indeed, more people consume more news now than ever before. Companies like Gawker reach 30 million readers in a month. Huffington Post now reaches more people than the New York Times. It didn't exist five years ago. The quirky Gary Vaynerchuk's Wine Library TV gets 80,000 viewers a day. Hundreds if not thousands of people are making money online for their journalism even if it might not be the kind of "journalism" traditional journalists might embrace. Hell, AOL (AOL!) has hired 4000 journalists for its various micro-properties (some of them are pretty damn good). And Yahoo!'s purchase of Associated Content will add thousands of unpaid and underpaid citizen journalists to the mix.

Is anyone saying there's not enough information or opinion out there? Hardly. One might even say that there's more journalism about the arts now than there ever has been. Certainly more discussion of the arts. As Clay Shirky asks: what are we trying to save? Journalism or journalists' jobs? Journalism isn't dying, he observes. What's dying is the traditional structures that supported journalists' jobs.

Personally I'd like to find ways to save both. And I believe it's possible, but it's not likely to look like the system we used to have. This is not all bad. In a lot of places the old system didn't serve good arts journalism very well.

Okay. So it shouldn't only be about numbers of readers. And quality writing has often not been commercially viable. Supporting quality journalism is important. ProPublica (investigative news) and GlobalPost (international news) and MinnPost (Minneapolis), CrossCut (Seattle) and the recently-launched Bay Citizen (San Francisco) are all examples of philanthropically-supported projects that exist because people believe quality journalism is worth supporting. NPR is an older model of this.  And there have been countless Little Magazines that have been philanthropically-supported and have made out-sized contributions to the world of arts and letters.

One of the things I was disappointed by at last fall's Arts Journalism Summit was how conventionally most of the participants were thinking about arts journalism and the models to support it. NAJPers generally voted for the models that were most familiar to them. No surprise there, I guess. But reader expectations are different now than they were even five years ago. Recreating a conventional notion of arts journalism online isn't going to cut it.

That's not to say that many of journalism's traditional values aren't worth preserving. Yet what I see among a lot of arts journalists is unwillingness to consider new ways of critical response to work. Who says that the 500-word or 1000-word review is the apex of that response? Let's not forget the audience, the community. They expect more from an interaction with us. They have valuable things to offer, and I don't just mean commenting on what we do.

Perhaps one expanded role of a critic/journalist is to curate the best people/perspectives out there and not only report what those people think but find ways to have them interact with readers. This is journalist as facilitator-of-smart-discussion rather than journalist only as explicator. Everywhere, arts organizations are looking at their changing relationships with their audiences and trying new things on. And we think arts journalists don't have to do the same? 

The thing that dismays me about Peter's response is that he seems to assume that because the structure that supported the journalism he excelled in is collapsing, that arts journalism itself is collapsing. This just isn't so. Journalism about the arts is thriving in many ways and in many places. No, the old structure isn't supportable in many other places. But we're in transition, and we have to figure out a lot of new things. And eventually we'll figure out the economics too.

So yes, let's have a conversation about a new publication. But it can't just be about trying to shore up the old thing. Even if we were to find a philanthropist to fund such a thing, what would be the point? Another mouth to feed? I just don't see how it would be sustainable. Worse, I don't see what it would actually add to an already noisy crowded world.

Finally, a cautionary tale: Flyp Magazine, which I know Bob hated, and which was a finalist at last year's Summit, was probably the best-funded arts journalism project out there, and in some ways one of the most forward-thinking. But when its founder lost interest earlier this year, the funding disappeared and Flyp closed. So it often is with philanthropists.

Really lastly: I don't want to leave this without saying I'm a huge admirer of Peter and his work. He is a stellar example of a great arts journalist. And I love his posts on ARTicles, which are incisive, full of wit and provocative. As was the post to which I am responding. That more NAJPers haven't responded to Castles is likely not so much an indictment of their enthusiasm as it is their fatigue with the topic.
June 7, 2010 4:36 PM | | Comments (0)

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