With newspapers in terminal decline, what future for arts journalism?
Coverage of the arts is migrating online but unless someone is prepared to pay for it, the outlook is uncertain
By András Szántó. Features, Issue 202, May 2009
Published online: 29 April 2009
Before we succumb to nostalgia, let’s be clear: arts journalism has never had it easy. Culture, especially in its rarefied incarnations, has never been a high priority for the mainstream press. Criticism is a strange bird in an enterprise devoted to “objectivity” and mass readership. And news bosses rarely care about “soft” arts stories. They are into “hard” reporting on wars and money and sport—boys’ stuff. Instead of a reliable income, arts journalism has paid dividends in the form of access to art and a voice in cultural debates—that, and an occasional VIP pass, dinner invite or goodie bag.
Recently, though, the situation has taken a turn for the worse. The imminent demise of printed newspapers is no longer a panel discussion topic, but a reality. Many US cities including Denver and Seattle are losing their second papers; others (including, possibly, San Francisco, Miami and Philadelphia) are contemplating life without a printed daily. The Detroit Free Press is only printing a paper edition three days a week. Even the New York Times, its stock worth barely more than its Sunday edition, has sold its Renzo Piano tower, imposed steep cost cuts, and is threatening to close its subsidiary, the Boston Globe. The massively overleveraged Tribune Company, owner of dozens of newspapers, is in bankruptcy, leaving the fate of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times in the balance. At the Los Angeles Times, newsroom positions have been cut by half over the past decade, and arts coverage substantially reduced. An aptly named blog, Paper Cuts, counts 24,000 newspaper jobs lost in the US since the start of last year. The outlook for newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic is dim.
Arts journalism as we used to know it is sinking with the ship.
The forces undermining the news business are the same everywhere and have been extensively catalogued by now. Studies show, however, that arts journalism is not being singled out for inequitable rollbacks. The problem is that the cuts are deepening an already miserable shortage of resources, set against a cultural universe that continues to expand. We are past the tipping point: it has become acceptable to run a paper with just a skeletal culture staff. Specialised writers are giving way to generalists. Culture sections are being tossed overboard (standalone book review sections, in particular, are a dying breed). Article lengths and “news holes” (space for editorial content) are shrinking. All this has eviscerated newspapers’ ability to deliver quality arts coverage, which, as a result, must migrate elsewhere.
Beyond the tipping point
But where? Many experts believe that daily newspapers will never find a way back to sustaining solid arts journalism. Magazines are doing marginally better, but they cannot shoulder the burden of timely local arts coverage, especially for non-specialist readers—and some are folding. The news industry, on the whole, was too slow to embrace the internet and deploy its once abundant war chests to find new ways of capturing readers seeking information, services and communities. Myopically obsessed with their traditional product, newspapers failed to acquire, let alone invent, game-changing technologies such as Craigslist, Facebook or the Kindle.
Under relentless shareholder pressure, publishers have tried every game in the book to monetise journalism on the web—from charging for online subscriptions, to fencing off “walled gardens” of premium content, to surrounding journalism with clever advertising. Lately, some executives have been pinning their hopes on an iTunes-style micro-payment scheme. Last month, the Associated Press threatened to make sites that link to its content pay up or face legal action, while Rupert Murdoch warned: “People reading news for free on the web, that’s got to change.”
But so far nothing has worked. No substitute for newspapers’ monopoly on local and classified advertising has emerged. For Douglas McLennan, publisher of ArtsJournal, a popular arts newsletter and link aggregator (with 50,000 daily users), it is simply too late for papers to innovate their way out of this quandary. “We just need to regretfully bid them adieu and get them out of the room, because they are sucking up oxygen. It is going to make it difficult for the new models to take hold until some of this dead wood is pushed out.”
Now the good news: it is only a matter of time before someone puts the pieces back together again. The search for a hopeful future begins with the insight that although journalists and publications are suffering, readership is up by wide margins. More people than ever are reading and writing about art, thanks to the web.
The problem is not the scarcity or the quality of arts journalism (the latter has always been mixed), but that no one is paying for it—at least not yet. Broadly speaking, there are three ways forward from here.
Recreating economies of scale
Clearly, arts journalists aren’t disappearing. They are just moving online. Technorati lists 185,000 “arts” blogs at present, including 5,396 on “art criticism” and 1,858 on “arts journalism” (disclosure: I am a co-founder of one of them, artworldsalon.com). From a business standpoint, the question is how to generate audiences around these atomised writers to allow them to collect paid advertising. One strategy is for individual blogs to scale up to a size where their writers become popular “personal brands”. This has happened in political punditry and may happen in entertainment writing. But it is unlikely in visual arts journalism, where audiences even for top writers are thin.
A more realistic, already extant scenario links blogs to heavily trafficked journalism, entertainment, or aggregator sites, which attract large numbers of readers by providing access to a wide range of news content. ArtsJournal, for example, currently hosts 42 blogs on a variety of arts topics, including the widely read visual arts blogs Modern Art Notes and CultureGrrl. Under such arrangements, bloggers get a cut of the advertising fees along with greater visibility (which can lead to other paid gigs), while the umbrella site captures readers and turns more “sticky”. Something analogous is happening with some established journalism brands. Innovative newspapers like the Guardian in the UK and VG in Norway are putting together a kind of layer-cake of content that attracts a sizable number of online readers. At the top are editorially supervised staff journalists. Below are blogs, written by staff and freelance writers with latitude to shape their content. The third tier is the vast, unsupervised “commentosphere” of opining readers. The whole machinery works in unison to congregate a wide, lucrative ad base. In view of these developments, today’s do-it-yourself blogs are destined to be a transient phenomenon. Many talented arts journalists will carve out a satellite franchise in the orbit of larger media entities.
How soon such bloggers can tackle the full journalistic workload left unattended by newspapers is another question. In terms of commentary and plain kibitzing, especially about local arts scenes, we may be there already. When it comes to fair and balanced reporting, the record is mixed. On the one hand, bloggers are breaking stories, with arts organisations (or their disgruntled employees) obliging them with excellent scoops. The Getty Center’s leadership crisis, in 2006, when internal memos trickled to the press via blogs, was an early example. Much “insider baseball” that may not get ink in a newspaper is now routinely covered by blogs. Deaccessioning stories alone have become a minor cottage industry.
However, journalism is not just about scoops. It’s about due diligence, evaluating accuracy, giving subjects an opportunity to respond, and providing non-judgmental context. Such protocols are more likely to be followed under the gaze of professional editors. Major investigative stories are clearly out of reach for even the most intrepid bloggers.
What if audience aggregation won’t make arts journalism into a viable business? Until recently, it was anathema to suggest that newspapers could become not-for-profit organisations. Yet hospitals and museums offer public benefits this way, and so might the press. In fact, a few smaller US papers are already run as non-profits (with mixed results). Specialised art periodicals, such as Cabinet, have for years survived on donations (with excellent results). Going not-for-profit involves some legal and ethical intricacies for the press. Purists worry that journalism could end up in the pockets of foundations with random agendas and short attention spans. Yet, if publishers can keep a “firewall” between their editorial and business operations, they can also do it with donors.
There are applicable precedents. The Kaiser Family Foundation supports coverage of healthcare, for example. “The NewsHour” on PBS, one of the most respected TV news shows in the US, has 22 foundation sponsors and two corporate underwriters (Intel and Chevron). Some pay for specific types of journalism—and no outrage, so far, over conflicts of interest. Public radio (NPR), with 33 million weekly listeners (as against the New York Times’ 1 million daily circulation), is a haven for quality arts journalism that attracts some of the best reporters in the business. It has also perfected the art of raising money for its coverage—from foundations and legions of listeners. Both PBS and NPR receive government support. Only the trained eye can distinguish the “image spots” of foundation and corporate underwriters on public TV from the sort of advertising that populates the commercial airwaves.
Some fascinating new web-based funding models appear less suited to rescuing the mainstream media than to helping smaller for-profit or not-for-profit publications. A Bay Area outfit called spot.us has a method for “community funded reporting”, which pools small donations for specific stories. People interested in a proposed story can make a tax-deductible contribution (typical budgets are below $1,000). The money is held in escrow until the entire sum for the story is collected, at which point the writer gets the green light. My current favourite payment model is Kachingle, which promises to “sprinkle change on the blogs you love”. A Kachingle member sets a monthly budget for donations to favourite media sources—say, $50. Beneficiaries are identified by pressing a Kachingle button already found on many sites. Everything happens automatically. The $50 is distributed in proportion to the amount of time the donor spends on each of the chosen sites. Genius.
There is a growing realisation that without some form of non-commercial support, certain realms of quality journalism may not survive, especially under current market conditions. Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian has suggested buying newspaper subscriptions for college students—a bailout that would replenish future readers. The Andy Warhol Foundation supports art critics and reporters by means of grants awarded through Creative Capital. In Europe, where such support falls to the state, Jürgen Habermas, the German sociologist, has urged direct government support for the media. Not to be outdone, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged €600m to aid the press with advertising, tax breaks and student subscriptions.
Philanthropy can help to build a new arts journalism infrastructure to offset the collapse of local coverage. Proposals to harness freelance writers in an organised fashion date back to the late 1990s, when David Resnicow and Frederick Schroeder, of the prominent Resnicow Schroeder arts marketing and PR firm, launched an independent company named MuseNews, a national for-profit art news syndicate that sold stories to old and new media outlets for a small fee. The service, which also sought foundation underwriting, was subsequently merged into Bloomberg, where it evolved into the site’s arts and culture section, known to readers of this newspaper as an excellent source of art business reporting. Current proposals for a new kind of art news service are inspired by the success of online news sites such as ProPublica and GlobalPost, which hired top-notch journalists (some recently laid off) to fill blind spots in public affairs and international news coverage, with foundation support. Politico, which was launched by private investors and will soon turn a profit, operates on a similar model, and it has become influential enough to sponsor presidential debates and be called up for a question at President Obama’s first major press conference. Initiatives are currently underway to develop specialised newsgathering operations for science, healthcare and even religion (the Religion News Network). These organisations are recreating alternatives to professional newsrooms with editorial guidance and supervision. According to some estimates, $2m per year—one-fifth of 1% of US foundation arts support—could ramp up a new arts journalism service. Writers at imperiled publications like the Los Angeles Times are following these developments closely.
The real hurdle for non-profit arts journalism, it should be clear, is not technology, or ethics, or a lack of ideas. It is fundraising. To get behind arts writing, foundations and arts patrons would need to steer funds away from their traditional recipients (artists and organisations) towards journalists (who are often considered as adversaries). In other words, a not-for-profit rethink of arts journalism hinges on a rethink of cultural philanthropy.
Arts groups step up
This brings us to the third, and arguably most controversial, cure for the ills of arts journalism—cultural organisations. Until recently, there was an unambiguous division of labour between arts institutions and the press. One side delivered programming, the other provided exposure, evaluation and public scrutiny. Any suggestion that these roles could blend together would elicit howls of condemnation. But if the marketplace or cultural patrons cannot sustain arts journalism, those with a stake in its survival must come up with alternatives. And it’s already happening.
Arts groups are getting better at telling their own stories and directly engaging their constituents. It may not always look like journalism, but it is filling in some gaps. In the US, regional online art hubs are springing up from Chicago to Kansas City, Miami and Los Angeles, supported by coalitions of local arts organisations and philanthropists, to provide information and discussion about the arts. Museums, in particular, have taken the lead in creating an alternative media infrastructure. MoMA’s recently relaunched website features online groups that allow visitors to explore, create and share information via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and iTunes. London’s Tate (which publishes its own glossy, Tate Etc, billed as “Europe’s largest art magazine”) and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis are among the trailblazers pouring resources into deep, polished, personalised online content and public forums. Some museum sites are, in effect, starting to resemble interactive online art magazines.
Their latest features are strikingly similar to the innovations news organisations are deploying to turn their customers into active, participating, loyal partners in the enterprise of journalism.
The next step is pooling resources. “What’s the point of having 1,000 museum websites with separate databases of information?” asks Maxwell Anderson, director and chief executive of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA), where he recently launched two innovations that bridge the gulf between the press and the visual arts. One is ArtBabble.org, a kind of YouTube for art, with high definition videos gathered from a consortium of art institutions (IMA, MoMA, SFMOMA, Lacma, the New York Public Library, Art 21 and the Smithsonian, at present). In contrast to YouTube, the videos are carefully selected and screened for quality. The transcripts of many of them are searchable, locally or via Google, so that a casual viewer or a researcher can find the exact spot, for example, where Ed Ruscha reminisces about the Cirrus gallery in a documentary produced by Lacma. Visitors to the site can add their own comments and engage in online discussions, just like at any savvy news site. ArtBabble, and others like it, may well develop into future platforms for art criticism and commentary.
Mr Anderson’s other innovation at IMA is a digital “Dashboard”, located on the museum’s website, providing up-to-date statistics on the museum’s administration and performance. An array of digital “widgets” tally up everything from the number of museum members to the total kilowatt-hours of energy consumed daily. Some of the statistics are not for the faint-hearted museum director. One of the IMA widgets tracks the museum’s endowment in monthly snapshots (down $120m since last October). Another chronicles admissions with data generated every five minutes. A catalogue of objects slated for deaccessioning is next, along with their sale price and where the proceeds end up. For Mr Anderson, the Dashboard, with its objective measurements of administrative goings-on, is an antidote to the “risk of institutional control” that pervades most in-house publications. It is no substitute for hard-nosed reporters, but for transparency, it’s a start.
The hybrid future
Amid the doom and gloom about arts journalism, such innovations offer a glimmer of hope. There is no going back to the cultural and advertising dominance that newspapers once enjoyed. We should be mindful that the emerging landscape offers asymmetrical odds for art criticism (which can survive by the labour of individual writers) and arts reporting (which requires institutional firepower and protections). Writers will struggle to reclaim the access and influence they achieved with the backing of prestigious journalism brands. Even so, the faint outlines of a new system are starting to emerge.
It’s worth noting that journalism schools are seeing a record surge in applications. Many top institutions, including Columbia, Syracuse, the Annenberg School at USC, and the City University of New York, have recently launched graduate programmes in cultural journalism. Despite the current meltdown, these are among the most heavily sought after specialisations. Certification may be even more important for freelance writers than for those in accredited newsrooms. Do-it-yourself journalism is expanding so rapidly that it may be sparking its own demand for journalism training.
Students may be attracted precisely by the lure of the new and unknown. The most exhilarating aspect of tomorrow’s arts journalism will be its unpredictable hybridity, how it feeds on multiple sources of innovation and energy. It will be an undertaking where nimble entrepreneurs sustain criticism and reporting through a mix of advertising, licensing, social networks, donations, digital space rental, and barter arrangements—whatever works. Boundaries between writers and audiences, channels of communication, and professional constituencies will blur in ways that are at once alarming and hopeful. Our notion of what a “news organisation” or an “art magazine” is supposed to do will be upended as new relationships crystallise between the arts, the media and the public.
“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism,” media analyst Clay Shirky observed in his blog recently. “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper,” he added, “but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.”
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