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June 8, 2010

Whatever. Let's Just Put Out a Publication

Mr. McLennan's post is exactly one of the kinds of responses to John Rockwell's two "Castles in the Sky" of which I thought there'd be a whole lot more, real fast. I also thought there'd be some "Well, Rockwell's OK as far as he goes, but here's an even better idea," but so far, I'm wrong. And other than the typically constructive comment from Laura Collins-Hughes, the only one I got was from a writer who said it was unreasonable of me to expect quick responses from "an extraordinarily busy group of people" (of which she is one), and that, having finally read John Rockwell's "Castles" post, didn't have anything to say because she didn't have "a spare $20 million or any ideas of where to get such a sum." (Sigh.) First, you've got to have the idea, the plan; THEN you go hustle the twenty mil.

2. The "conversation" about arts journalism and a new (kind of) publication has doubtless been had many, many times before. But not on the new iteration of "ARTicles," which seems tailor-made as a site for it: by arts journalists and for arts journalists. It's on "ARTicles," I thought, that the possibility/discussion might take off and something might actually get done.

3. All this stuff about "new opportunities to speak directly to their communities without traditional filters," "finding more meaningful discussion of their work in other places," "applications to journalism schools to study journalism generally and arts journalism in particular, are significantly up," "there are cities where the best arts writing is not in the local paper but on somebody's blog," and a lot of pie-in-the-sky enthusing about "new models" and "diversity," etc., are somewhat beside my "circling the drain point": fewer and fewer arts journalists seem to be able to derive a significant portion of their incomes from--let alone make a living at--arts journalism. "I'm an arts journalist" is soon going to have all the cred that "I'm a screenwriter" does in L.A.

4. In my own specialty, art criticism, there's been a crisis going on for so long that it's ready for an art history dissertation. There is, in fact, an art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, James Elkins, for whom the crisis in art criticism is a scholarly specialty. Hardly any major dailies have art critics--or even art + architecture or art + music critics anymore. Magazines don't either; after Jed Perl at The New Republic, Jerry Saltz at New York magazine, Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker and (kind of) Richard Lacayo at Time, there's almost nobody. OK, you say, all that's in on-its-way-out print. Well, on the Internet it's mostly bloggers, and bloggers mostly do it for free. Save for the rarity such as Tyler Green who managed to move the great "Modern Art Notes" to and get paid for keeping it going, or a few blogger-entrepreneurs who scare up a few advertising dollars or conduct the equivalent of DIY NPR-type pledge drives, art bloggers do it for free.

5. Doing arts journalism for free over the long haul is the province of either the privileged amateur with enough independent income so that he or she can devote erstwhile working time to freebie arts journalism, or somebody with a cause or agenda. While you can get good stuff from such writers, especially in the short term, over the long haul the writing suffers from a lack of, well, professionalism.

6. "Diversity" is up in "the new model," but quality is down. Yes, one can find some good stuff in the self-publishing blogosphere in the same way you can sit on a bench in Central Park and overhear a nice philosophical remark once in every few thousand eavesdropped conversations. But in terms of per-minute eyes-on-the-screen, finding good-quality writing in self-published blog arts journalism is a losing proposition.

7. The main reason why quality is down in blogsphere arts journalism is pretty simple: no editors. This comment, Mr. McLennan's post, and John Rockwell's two "Castles" posts all would have been better had there been somebody to edit them. (I have a contrarian opinion about editors; to me, they're people who make you look good in public and get no credit for it.) And editors don't work for free. Really, how many arts blogs--others than those that are sidelines for print publications--have editors?

(Somebody's going to derive from what I'm saying about arts blogs that I'm anti-arts blogs. Au contraire. Three years ago, I did a big piece on art blogs in Art in America, and I had the atypical good sense to do it in the form of a "roundtable" so that most of the words were the bloggers'. It's just that blogs have their problems being professional unless someone is paying bloggers to write them. Ah ha! you say, what about "ARTicles?" Well, most of the people who post bring with them a certain professionalism they acquired in the "old model" of arts journalism, especially being edited over and over and over.)

8. Arts journalism is more than arts criticism. "Reported stories," even more than criticism, require a support structure that the "old model" used to afford and that the "new model" doesn't. No travel funds, no expenses, no getting paid for the days you're pounding the pavement visiting the subjects or sourcing stuff, no subsidies for lunches for interviews, etc. No, Google doesn't replace those things. Neither does a smartphone.

9. Legit arts journalism also requires a certain independence, which used to come from working (freelance or staff or something in between) for a publication that paid you. In the absence of that, arts journalists slide into being arts publicists, writing copy for (to take the example of art criticism) gallery catalogues, artists' vanity publications, press releases, etc. The other arts have their equivalents of non-journalism arts journalism.

10. Finally, my "What the Hell's Wrong..." post wasn't really long enough to be a "rant." It was more of, to quote Fred Sanford, "one across the lips." But THIS, to paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, is a rant.

June 8, 2010 7:45 AM | | Comments (1)


Starting with John Rockwell's "Castles in the Sky" and culminating most recently in this post by Peter Plagens, I've read with great interest the recent discussion regarding a possible new arts publication spearheaded by NAJP. The following is my long response, made not necessarily directly to this particular post but to the multi-post conversation overall. That said, Mr. Plagens' "Let's Just Put Out A Publication" exhortation well sums up my own conclusions.

What comes across most forcefully in the series of "Castles in the Sky" posts (including "Castle-building, step two", by John Rockwell; "What the Hell's Wrong with NAJP'ers?", by Peter Plagens; and "Of Castles, Peter and NAJPers", by Douglas McLennan) and in the related comments is that while there is a strong desire for a new arts publication, and a new approach to arts publishing in general, there's an overwhelming sense of exhaustion at the idea of organizing and raising the money for such a venture. Not surprising. It's fair to say that a plan that hinges on raising $20 million before ever producing anything, isn't much of a plan at all. A better plan, and I think a viable one in this day and age, might be to start small and cheap. If it works, great, keep at it. If it doesn't, no problem, just go back to the drawing board and try something else. So I offer here, my own small, cheap solution to all of your problems: An arts publication, in e-book form.

As I'm sure you've all noted, Amazon, Google and Apple are not investing massive amounts of capital in magazines, or newspapers, or blogs. They are, however, investing in e-books. E-book readers and e-book stores. While advertising and subscription sales for newspapers and magazines online and off continue to erode under pressure from the always-on, mostly-free world of the internet, sales of e-books are increasing at an amazing clip, and companies are investing accordingly. Luckily, with some basic systems in place (technology to create the files, distribution agreements to sell them), individual e-books can potentially be published with very little capital.

The most valuable thing the NAJP can do in any venture is to leverage its authority and professional standing. In a world where any a**hole with an internet connection can review and comment on the arts, your advantage is not in your talent--the a**holes have plenty of that--it's your authority. So, bring it to bear on the most pressing, most interesting, most current issues and trends in the art world. Imagine a e-book with a half dozen essays by NAJP members (or members of affiliate organizations) on the ethics of museums renting out their collections, or on contemporary figurative painting, or on the state of arts journalism. Books are no longer only for the past. They can now be produced quickly and still remain permanent, authoritative records of timely events.

I want to encourage you, dear writers, to give up on the idea of getting paid to write. Instead, you need to write to get paid. Rather than getting a $500 check for an accepted article, get a percentage of the sales that article generates. Earn it. And earn more when you do it well. The better you write, the better you work with your colleagues to make that writing better, the better you promote the book to your network, the more you make. Take responsibility for the quality of the publication you are involved in, and get rewarded for excellence. And this is for everyone involved, writers, editors, publishers. Everyone takes a risk, everyone gets paid with their collective success. And remember when I said e-books could be published with very little capital? By exchanging up-front writing and editing fees for longterm equity, the initial capital investment necessary to publish an e-book (aside from any marketing) is more like $200, not $20 million.

Yes, there's risk in publishing like this, and even in good circumstances, it's surely not a cure-all. The economics of e-book publishing won't make anyone rich and the competition is stiff. But then again, an e-book is not only an e-book. It's a print-on-demand paperback book. It's a website. It's an app. It's an unbundleable, chunkable collection of texts to be sold and repackaged and resold year after year. It's a beginning. And it's easy to try.

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