A vote for reinventing arts journalism

Instead of fighting over the remains, arts writers need to renovate their practice

Somehow it always seems weird for an arts writer to write about writing about art, at least to me. Shouldn’t I just be writing about art? There’s plenty out there awaiting my distortions, er, attention.

But ArtsWatch itself was begun from observations about writing about art, so maybe the whole meta- thing isn’t so indulgent? The primary observation I’m talking about: that longer, well-prepared stories (essays, criticism, narratives, news, and their hybrids) for a general audience would disappear completely from smaller cities like Portland, if the drift of the media continued in its current direction.

Little did I know two-and-a-half years ago when ArtsWatch first appeared online how quickly things would erode, both here and in the rest of the country. Arts writing for the general public, generally pursued by newspapers and general interest magazines, has continued to contract, almost to the vanishing point. You can still find excellent arts writing in speciality publications and blogs (we try to link you to some of it here and on social media), but generally those don’t take the local arts scene into account.

In that context, I think it’s important for the media, specifically ArtsWatch, to talk about its own condition and to mark changes and experiments in the culture that concern it. One recent experiment: The decision of the Chicago Symphony to create an online magazine about its activities with “certified” arts journalists (actually, there’s no such certification) writing and assembling the stories.

The Double Octuple newspaper press, state of the art in 1911

The Double Octuple newspaper press, state of the art in 1911

Let’s start a symphony magazine

What happens when the “newspaper of record” in a city curtails its arts coverage drastically? Stops publishing those previews of upcoming shows and features about the artists and shrinks its reviewing commitment? Well, in Chicago, if you’re the august Chicago Symphony, you create an online publication of your own, CSO Sounds and Stories.

Now, lots of arts groups have their own websites, and the better-heeled ones generate lots of content of various sorts to keep their patrons happy: blogs and videos and the like. A few even publish “magazines” to send to their patrons (the Portland Art Museum’s Portal is a good local example, so is the members magazine that Oregon Shakespeare Festival produces).

Sounds and Stories is different in that the orchestra is billing it as an “arts journalism” site. And it hired arts editor Laura Emerick to serve as the editor of the site. At the Chicago Sun-Times, Emerick was film critic Roger Ebert’s editor for 20 years, edited the paper’s classical music coverage, and also wrote about arts and culture. Emerick has hired other professional journalists, including Wynne Delacoma, the former classical music critic for the Sun-Times.

The site has just started, but my quick read revealed “typical” stories you’d find in the newspaper of 10 or 15 years ago: an interview with maestro Riccardo Muti on Verdi before an upcoming concert, a feature by Delacoma on the conductor of the symphony’s chorus, that sort of thing. The site has all of the symphony’s multi-media stuff, too, so you can spend some time there if the subject interests you.

All well and good, you might say. But not to Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune’s theater critic (and a good one at that). Jones took offense at the characterization of the symphony’s site as “arts journalism,” and went on from there to make a stalwart defense of the practice of arts journalism, newspaper style.

But mostly his issue is nomenclature: unless your editors and writers are independent, you shouldn’t call what you’re doing “arts journalism.” You’re doing something else, namely supporting the Chicago Symphony. And if the symphony grants true independence to its Sounds and Stories staff, then conflict will arise as soon as the “truth” of a situation the writers want to reveal runs into the symphony’s sense of its own best interest.

The real world problem

I posted the link to Jones’s story on our Facebook page, pretty much without comment. Cynthia Fuhrman, the marketing and communications director of Portland Center Stage, responded to it. Now, I happen to know she’s thought a lot about this particular matter. Center Stage creates a ton of interesting content on its website already, and she’s concerned with the diminishing coverage of theater in the city. She was an early supporter of ArtsWatch, gave us lots of good ideas, and her company was an early sponsor (you can see their ads on our homepage!). Here’s part of what she said:

“I think he’s being a bit reactive/protective. He [Jones] states in the article that yes, the Tribune isn’t doing much in the way of previews these days, other than confirming their role as “watchdogs.” (Meaning, I assume, they won’t really write about issues around the arts except when there’s some kind of malfeasance, scandal, or just plain bad news to cover?). So if the CSO is publishing a magazine that features contextual articles about the work they produce, how is that any less “journalism” than when the Trib wrote similar contextual/preview pieces, particularly when the qualifications of the writers aren’t being questioned, and some of them are the same ones?”

Arts organizations, faced with the old problem of reaching as many people as possible with good, useful information, have to think of new ways to go about it. They create websites with rich content, they tweet and they facebook, they try lots of different things…including hiring real journalists to do some of what real journalists used to do.

So, right: as a practical matter, Chicago arts writers are writing stories just like they used to write in the old days before newspapers started dismantling themselves and their arts coverage. A rose is a rose is a rose.

Now, Jones also happens to disparage exactly that sort of story, and I know exactly what he’s talking about. I never really liked writing them myself, primarily because I rarely thought I had time to do them well.

“As any experienced arts journalist will tell you, previews are what arts organizations covet most (whether readers share their enthusiasm is a different matter). Because these stories are written in advance of the artistic endeavor, and because few honest arts journalists are inclined to condemn the artist who has yet to play a note or speak a line, these articles tend to be upbeat. And such well-timed stories can be very effective when it comes to selling tickets.”

Note the contradiction: the implication that readers don’t like previews versus the effect of such previews on “selling tickets.” Actually, we have no good statistics on how enthusiastic our readers are about preview articles, but good ones require a lot of work (interviews with artists, research of the subject) that seems to leave things at the same place: “We won’t really know what the heck this is going to be like until we see it.” Of course, I’d argue that the reader of a REVIEW is in the same boat, more or less!

What constitutes journalism, again?

Let’s say things continue on their current trajectory: Jones himself and the rest of the Tribune critics are shown the door, replaced by cheaper freelancers, or maybe none at all. The big institutions in Chicago in response decide to go the Chicago Symphony route and establish “journalism” websites that cover their activities. (We should say here that our regional government METRO did the same thing when coverage of its meetings started to vanish—the problem isn’t confined to the arts.)

Jones might argue that the citizens of Chicago would then find themselves awash in feel-good (if informative) preview stories in a vast ocean of similarly happy corporate-speak. Worse, they wouldn’t have the “watchdog” stories—I assume he simply meant reviews—to…what? Keep them honest?

This is a peculiar way to think about reviews these days, the old adversarial approach that implies that the symphony or theater company is trying to pull one over on the populace by serving up shoddy goods. Critics are important, in this view, because they reveal such chicanery. Actually, most criticism doesn’t work that way in practice, for which we can be thankful.

Or perhaps he meant the occasions when the institution of the symphony makes news somehow, by firing an executive director, running large budget deficits, or (just to name a positive event) receiving a large grant. I agree with Jones here: It’s difficult to provide the necessary context for news such as this from the inside. Not impossible, maybe, but difficult. Because once you start supplying context, the drift might be that the board of directors made some big mistakes, and few arts organizations are going to want to pay for conclusions of that sort.

Yes, the house of Arts Journalism is a large one and contains many rooms. An arts journalist may simply pass along new info from a press release of the Chicago Symphony, call it “news,” and call it good. She also might write the stories that Sounds and Stories writes. Or those explanatory institution stories. Or labor over a review/essay, if she thinks of herself as a critic. Do we have to do all of those things to be considered an arts journalist? And isn’t Fuhrman’s description of Jones’ attitude just about right? That he’s being defensive? Old-fashoned newspaper journalists have fought a rearguard action for more than a decade, except now they (we!) are surrounded, overwhelmed and increasingly angry about it.

The old way isn’t enough

Another reason we started ArtsWatch: We were dissatisfied with the way we practiced arts writing (the traditional way) and we wanted to change.

We didn’t know in what way we wanted to change, but we’d gotten the distinct impression that our well-worn pathways didn’t get us where we wanted to go, and didn’t seem adaptable to either the mechanics or the readers of digital formats. Maybe there was a little too much of that whole “voice of god” reviewing style, the simple structure of the reviews themselves, the unwillingness to consider other opinions (even to debate them), the compression that made it difficult to indicate uncertainty or provisionality, the lack of natural digressions, the failure to integrate other media.

Each of us at ArtsWatch works on these issues, day to day. Some we’ve had more success with than others. Maybe you’ve noticed! All of us here have been affected deeply by a review or essay about the arts, so we believe that the enterprise is important; and our business, story by story, is to try to do the same thing for you: Make a difference in the way you encounter the art the culture produces. After all, that art is our highest achievement, as John Dewey (the patron saint of ArtsWatch) argues, and we need what it offers us.

How do we know we’ve made a difference? Well, it’s not easy. Your indifference says a lot, when you are indifferent. Your engagement with us helps (more comments, please!). When you circulate one of our stories, we celebrate. Ditto when you share something on social media or over coffee with a friend (though we’re rarely in a position to overhear). Our experiments will continue as long as ArtsWatch does, because this activity is so open-ended.

So, no, we aren’t trying to protect all the practices and rules of the past. And if Portland Center Stage were to hire an arts writer to report on the company by writing previews and feature stories, we would 1) probably link to the best of them, 2) rejoice that a writer was receiving a regular paycheck and hope that the same writer would have time and energy to write about other things, and 3) go about our own business, our own wrestle with understanding the art and artists of the past and of this time, with arts institutions and government arts initiatives operating within the culture, with figuring out ways to talk about the arts in a meaningful way to people of various ages and cultural backgrounds.

We would not worry about the competition: There are plenty of stories to go around, some that an “embedded” journalist couldn’t tell as well as we could and some that maybe they could tell better.

When interests entwine

Just for the record, as if you didn’t know already, ArtsWatch is independent: We don’t serve any particular arts group or government entity. We ARE committed to helping to create as thriving an arts scene in Portland and Oregon as we can. Arts groups sponsor us, but they know we go our own way, which just means that they know we serve you, our readers, not them specifically, though all of our interests are closely entwined.

I think newspapers of the past didn’t quite understand that. Maybe even newspapers of today. The stronger the arts, the more adaptive the culture, the better the democracy, the more productive the economy, the happier we are as individuals. I go into detail on some of that argument in our ABOUT section, so I won’t reproduce it here. The arts are a public good; so is writing about the arts. And the various ways to do that writing, ways both tried-and-true and ways we haven’t figured out yet, can have a place, as long as readers/listeners are rewarded for their attention.

At the end of her comment, Fuhrman said that if newspapers created the vacuum for certain sorts of stories, then “I’m not sure they have the right to complain about that vacuum being filled.” Which is exactly right. That time and energy is better spent in a more positive way—like writing about art in more and more compelling ways.

Which is maybe, where I came in?

11 Responses.

  1. Carrie Kikel says:

    Barry, you have analyzed this beautifully. Unfortunately, the evolution of arts coverage is as unavoidable as the constant financial challenges of a symphony orchestra:) Mainstream media is now following the dollar and the momentary sensation, rather than substance and culture. I thank you for taking your wisdom and experience to an independent and accessible forum. I also agree that arts organizations must be creative and dedicated when it comes to illuminating the art for their audiences.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks, Carrie. And I think you’re on to something: Maybe we should be praising the Chicago Symphony outright for trying something different!

  2. Bob Hicks says:

    All sorts of things happen under the rubric of “journalism,” although newspaper folks tend to think of their approach as the One True Way. But newspapers have largely bailed on serious cultural coverage, and as Barry and Cynthia point out, that makes it a little tough to moan about what crops up to fill the gap. Certainly there’s a lot of promotion-in-the-guise-of-reviewing that happens, but that’s always been true: it’s just easier to see it now that the newspaper forest’s been thinned out so much. I do think new forms of coverage will be invented, and inevitably, some of them will be in the sort of partnerships that make old-time newsies who believe in inviolable firewalls cringe. But without the sponsorship of strong print publications, arts journalists find they have a lot in common with the groups and artists they cover: a love of the subject matter and a comparative lack of funding. Maybe we’ll see a new sort of empathy emerge to take the place of the old adversarial relationship (although I think that’s already often been the case); the danger, of course, is that it’ll encourage softball coverage. It’s also true that with the near-demise of newspaper cultural coverage, some bad things are dying, too. In my many years at dailies, arts news rarely hit the front page, and when it did, it was either because something had gone wrong (a group died or was in severe financial trouble) or because something cost a lot (a multimillion-dollar painting went on view). That largely financial and/or “gotcha” approach severely misrepresented what was important about cultural writing, usually to the dismay of the writers themselves. I see a legitimate role for arts-journalism outlets that don’t fit the daily-newspaper mold. Readers who are interested in these topics aren’t dumb. They know how to gauge where stories are coming from and what the perspective of the writer or news source is. The Metropolitan Opera publishes Opera News: it’s a highly informative, highly regarded publication that never tries to hide where it’s coming from. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival publishes good explanatory-journalism background pieces in its members magazine (I’ve written for it in the past, without feeling in the least that I’ve entered enemy territory). Neither readers nor writers nor editors expect what’s published in such forums to be “critical” in the sense of being rigorous analyses of a specific show or organization, but the pieces are illuminating and worthwhile nonetheless. Same thing with the essays on composers or musical works that are regularly published in opera and symphonic orchestra programs. It’s still journalism. It’s not criticism, in the generally accepted sense. Yes, it’s a huge loss that rigorous reviewing has largely been abandoned by mass media. But the people who pulled the trigger really don’t get to complain about where or how the body’s buried. My hope is that new ways of thinking about culture and cultural coverage will emerge. My guess is that less of what we see or read will be of the thumbs-up/thumbs-down variety, and actually, I think that’s a good thing. What we want is more conversation and less cultural gatekeeping. What can we learn from the people who actually make art? A lot of artists are also very good writers. Maybe news sources should be asking them to write about their own work: readers are quite smart enough to understand that a self-explanation is not an outside assessment. And further … blah blah blah, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. This could go on and on. Anyone else want to chip in?

  3. Drew McManus says:

    Fascinating post Barry, kudos on bringing up the topic. I noticed you linked to orartswatch.org About page and did you notice that the CSO Sound & Stories site has no about page? Likewise, there is no terms of service, editorial policy, or privacy policy; in fact, there’s no description I’ve found other than what has been referenced in press releases.

    Also worth noting is the CSO Sounds and Stories site does have content at the /about URL but it contains instructions on how to use their integrated audio player.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks, Drew. I didn’t notice an ABOUT page, you’re absolutely right, which says something about the squishy-ness of its aims, at the very least. I think they’d abandon the “journalism” description pretty easily.

      Just to make it a little clearer. I don’t think their site and ArtsWatch are equivalents (we occupy more rooms in the House of Journalism). I do think many of their stories read like stories that once appeared frequently in daily newspapers, though now less so. ArtsWatch wants to “renovate” that sort of simple preview/interview story somehow.

  4. Dan Wasil says:

    When I ran a gallery in San Diego, and as a curator in Los Angeles, much joyful time was spent with critics about exhibitions: background, insights, doubts (!) hopes, long term consequences, artistic vision, community. If you wrote for the Union Tribune or L.A. Weekly, Art in America, or Artforum, there was an understanding that there were many and varied opportunities for producing art, showing art, discussing art and critiquing art. And we looked upon this terra firma, and it was good. If fraught. An important component was copying newspaper/magazine ‘reviews’, to bolster grant applications. “See? Bob Pincus loves our stuff!” The seeming external validation was, and is, sought for many reasons, including monetary. What has changed for the better: an almost instantaneous discussion can be had, with anyone with the will and a keyboard. That this is also a downside forces greater consideration all around, and much less ‘voice of god’. There is still no substitute for someone with real knowledge, curiosity, and above average scribbling skills. Whether toast or riposte, some of us still appreciate that critical writing, and have the ability to discern self-promotion from discourse. Viva Artswatch!

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks, Dan!

      That kind of “dense” weave of story, description and opinion, served informally on the street and in the gallery and formally in the form of reviews and essays is deeply connected to the health of an arts scene. I love how you describe it. ArtsWatch wants to take part in just such an environment!

  5. Tom Strini says:

    Thanks, Mr. Johnson, great insight here. I’m living the dream — or nightmare — in Milwaukee. 27 years as music and dance critic at the shrinking Journal Sentinel, four years as senior editor at the absurdly undercapitalized Third Coast Daily, now proprietor of my own arts blog, striniwrites.blogspot.com. I’ve limited the blog to reviews, columns and quirky stuff like arts crosswords and my own songs, but coming soon: Paid content, comprising the sort of advance feature stories we all used to write for print. Truth is, they were always promotional. I won’t feel bad about taking a little money to write them now.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Tom, Thanks for the reminder that the careers and livelihoods of all arts writers require careful tending these days.

      Best of luck with your blog! I’d love to know how you’re approaching this. I’m at barry@orartswatch.org if you don’t mind explaining a little more. Thanks!

  6. Jerome Weeks says:

    My apologies to Ms. Fuhrman, but I once read a tough-minded definition of journalism that, to me, remains a good rule-of-thumb: Journalism is writing and printing something the people involved don’t want others to read. Most everything else is public relations.

    In other words, journalism isn’t simply a craft, a conduit of information, a way of thinking about events — ultimately, it’s a responsibility. That responsibility needn’t be fulfilled by everything printed in a newspaper or website. But somewhere, sometime, the responsibility needs to be met, the paper or site will face that test: Will we publish a report or review that’s going to be painful for the subjects to see in print because it reveals calamity or financial failure or because it argues a show is guilty of artistic cowardice?

    In short, I agree with Jones — until such arts-group-funded sites publish articles whose news or views might reflect badly on the parent group, then the sites can’t really be trusted to give readers a full picture of what’s going on. They can be entertaining, informative, enlightening, even profound. Why not? Some of the smartest writing, photography and editing around can be found in marketing and advertisements. I worked in P.R.; I respect it when it’s well done. But I’m not blind to its inherent limitations.

    It’s perfectly understandable: The failures and cutbacks of newspapers – because of the mass departure of advertising dollars to the web – justify such arts-backed efforts in the minds of the affected directors and arts managers. But as one of the few remaining, full-time arts journalists left in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, it seems to me that what the arts have actually lost in the decline of the big-city newspaper has been, more than anything, intelligent, informed, independent, critical voices.

    But also voices with a city-wide audience. At the moment, there are significantly more self-designated theater critics in North Texas than at any time in my 27 years here. But collectively, they probably don’t have the readership of what the critic for the Dallas Morning News used to have. Readers have so much more to choose from, so much more freedom, as the digital folks love to remind us. In practice, this means audiences are left to do much of the work, trying to find some source of news and reviews they can trust in the internet swamp.

    And I believe, even if it’s completely unconscious on the readers’ part, people won’t fully trust such a source until it passes the test outlined here.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Jerome, I agree that somewhere in the arts journalism ecology it’s absolutely vital that someone ask (and answer) the hard questions that inevitably arise, whether in a particular example of art or the conduct of organizations and governments. But I don’t think that that possibility has to underly every successful piece of “journalism.” We’ll see how interesting the Chicago Symphony site can be with a combination of explanatory, process, and profile journalism, but I don’t think it’s necessarily doomed to failure.

      Our readers by now are used to aggregating their information, features, opinions, and real news from lots of sources. That’s the good side of the web: We aren’t reliant on one or two sources for those, sources that are inevitably limited and biased, one way or another. In larger American cities they can still assemble a reasonable “report” on the arts from various sources, though going forward, I have my doubts: serious, formal essays and news stories about the arts are hard to write!

      I’m not sure our readers “fully trust” any site or correspondent at this point, a skepticism I think that is probably warranted and that we try to overcome provisionally, story by story.

      Newspaper critics/arts journalists are used to writing stories limited in size, scope, and ambition, sometimes even independence. (See the once ubiquitous “special” sections.) The “full picture” eluded us, necessarily perhaps. We comforted ourselves sometimes by doing smaller slices well. And that’s what the Chicago Symphony may be doing. Again, we’ll see.

      In any case, it’s an honor to have you here at ArtsWatch!

      (For those of you who don’t know his work, Jerome Weeks was the very fine book columnist for the Dallas Morning News before his paper got out of the criticism business. He now works for KERA, the city’s public broadcasting station.)

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