A Call to Reinvigorate Arts Journalism in New Jersey and beyond

Posted on by By Ann Marie Miller, ArtPride NJ Executive Director

While the news media is changing at lightning speed and its outlets growing exponentially, the news itself seems harder and harder to find. The avalanche of what passes as news is too often lacking meaningful and credible content whether in print or electronically. It exists in the mad shuffle to empower and instantly access consumers, and do so profitably.

Ann Marie Miller, Executive Director, ArtPride NJ

Even the old reliable Walter Cronkite (yeah, I remember him fondly) style of fair and factual daily reporting is now fragmented into dozens of screaming outlets of political posturing that are mortgaged to the pharmaceutical industry.  As a result we are more knowledgeable about the side effects of exotically named drugs than we are of things of value and importance around us. And in this devil’s bargain for what will sell and what will trend, many truly valuable things are falling off the map. Certainly “news” about the arts, which is rarely judged as hard or sexy enough, and critical content about arts and culture, are sad casualties.

Lucky as we are in New Jersey to benefit from State of the Arts and more recently The Arts Project on NJTV (thanks to the conviction of public broadcasting, though I have to say the July 8 brief on “Kim Kardashian visits the Jersey Shore” does NOT qualify as arts and entertainment news), and the ever shrinking Star Ledger, art and culture are losing.

Where have all the local arts-beat reporters gone? Where are the art, music, theatre, and dance critics? They appear to be vanishing from traditional public media except for some venerable old war horses that report dwindling readership and viewership. And they exist amidst the Wild West of Internet news where journalism standards are nonexistent and viewership is dependent on popularity, forcing arts organizations to publish their own news as independent online magazines.

That art and culture are falling off the organized news media’s map certainly is an affront to those who know and cherish their value, because it translates to a judgment from publishers and content providers that the arts are less worthy of public attention than what else sadly passes for news. Worse, though, in time it has potential to become victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy if everyday people have less access to art and culture, and eventually less incentive to find it.

So what is the future of arts journalism, separating it from the context of all journalism?  Rob Bettmann, Board Chair of DC Advocates for the Arts and publisher of Bourgeon, poses that question in a recent ArtsBlog and hits the heart of the issue. And the big questions that remain are, “Whose responsibility is it to fund arts journalism and train arts journalists while the field reinvents itself?”

The CriticCar in action

A few major news sources have, in desperation, taken on outside resources like The Greensboro News & Record that accepted $15,000 from Arts Greensboro to print 70 articles on arts and culture. Crowdsourcing  by the Minnesota Post was the vehicle used to raise $10,000 in 10 days to continue its arts blog, book reviews and arts and culture feature stories. Each example challenges journalistic ethics to the max, and yet it is clear this is a local and national issue that signals a crisis fit for the most ardent arts advocate.

The National Endowment for the Arts partnered with the James L. Knight Foundation in 2011 to form the Knight/NEA  Community Arts Journalism Challenge and fund creative solutions to the arts journalism challenge. Recently CriticCar Detroit received $45,000 from the NEA to support a mobile arts journalism and cultural criticism project designed to engage the public. CriticCar is on location at identified Detroit arts and cultural events and invites individuals including first-time attendees and expert critics to record their views of the event on camera. Conceived by journalist Jennifer Conlin, CriticCar records 30- to 90-second critiques and observations from attendees. The raw critiques are edited, graphics are added, and the reviews are uploaded on CriticCar’s new website, YouTube channel and Facebook page. In more than two years, CriticCar captured over 700 video interviews at 100 events and is expanding its definition of culture to cover block parties, auto shows, the culinary arts and other recreational activities as the definition of arts participation also evolves.

The Dodge Foundation has adopted Media in its grant docket to confront issues that are unique to New Jersey and to support traditional and innovative uses of media to educate and engage the public around issues of importance to New Jersey and its citizens, including the arts. Debbie Galant takes on the challenges of journalistic reporting in the very recent Dodge blog post (make sure you read it!), and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, through its inspired partnerships with the NEA, Dodge and by itself supports journalism and media innovation, engaged communities and fostering the arts. Unfortunately, the nearest resident Knight community for philanthropic purposes is in Philadelphia.

Clearly, this is a topic that requires more discussion and if folks post interest in the comment section of this blog, further exploration will be pursued.  In the meantime, the lingering and sometime nagging questions remain:

  • Who is training arts journalists (you’d be surprised at the number of Masters Degree programs that exist) and for what jobs?
  • What has happened to now unemployed arts journalists (ArtPride NJ’s Culture Vulture fee paid bloggers are, by and large, former print journalists)?
  • What is the future of arts participation without a healthy arts journalism component in New Jersey?
  • With access to bloggers in a variety of different formats (including video), what is credible, never mind reliable?
  • Is it up to the general public to crowdsource their arts and culture news like the recent indiegogo campaigns of Createquity, Lamplighter Magazine and New Jersey Stage?
  • And what are the priority goals for arts advocates when there are fewer sources that will post events, offer quality arts criticism, and write feature stories that show how valuable the arts are to other aspects of life?

We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Ann Marie Miller is Executive Director of ArtPride NJ, a statewide advocate for the arts. Learn more at http://artpridenj.com/. Above, a recent episode of The Arts Project with Maddie Orton on NJTV.

11 Responses to A Call to Reinvigorate Arts Journalism in New Jersey and beyond

  1. Gary Wien says:

    Ten years ago, I published Upstage Magazine, a monthly print publication covering the arts in Central New Jersey. We had good success from an audience standpoint, but ad sales were difficult as many advertisers stuck with the same newspapers they had supported for years. After five years, I decided to move on.

    I’m returning to covering the arts full-time with New Jersey Stage. As mentioned in the article, we ran a crowdfunding campaign to help us out a bit. The reason? We’re trying an entirely new business model — one I believe can work in today’s environment — and will be producing an entirely digital magazine. This requires a unique set of skills and marketing.

    Anybody that covers the arts knows that they won’t get rich doing so. Newspapers are paying less and less for theatre reviews or features, and there is an abundance of freelancers available these days due to layoffs. I believe the answer is independent publications focused on providing the arts the coverage it deserves.

    I hope New Jersey Stage will be successful, but one thing is certain. If organizations WANT coverage of the arts, they need to support those willing to cover the arts. That generally means independent publishers. It has to go both ways.

  2. Great comment, Gary. And amazing that facebook engenders the conversation. Just what we wanted. I failed to mention the great work that is done at the local US1 newspaper http://www.princetoninfo.com by Rich Rein as editor Dan Aubrey and a host of contributing print journalists including Jon Elliott and Ilene Dube.Their hard copies are archived in pdf form online and are rich in arts content. Wish there were more like this.

  3. Molly de Aguiar says:

    Hi Ann Marie -

    Thanks for this thought provoking piece. This paragraph in particular jumped out at me:

    >>Where have all the local arts-beat reporters gone? Where are the art, music, theatre, and dance critics? They appear to be vanishing from traditional public media except for some venerable old war horses that report dwindling readership and viewership. And they exist amidst the Wild West of Internet news where journalism standards are nonexistent and viewership is dependent on popularity, forcing arts organizations to publish their own news as independent online magazines. <<

    What you point out as a concern – arts organizations being forced to publish their own news – I see as a huge opportunity. Let's encourage everyone to be an arts journalist. We have access to the publishing tools we never had access to before, capable of reaching audiences far beyond what used to be possible.

    Don't fret that the old model doesn't work anymore – the old model was filled with gatekeepers, deciding which news and information was worthy of publishing. Nonprofits, including arts organizations, should not wait for others to tell their stories or validate their work. Instead, nonprofits should draw on their subject expertise and become the go-to sources of information that people need and want.

  4. Thanks, Molly! I am really encouraged by the dialogue resulting from this post. My personal facebook wall had a long thread yesterday that was quite interesting, and a few writer/editors who are in the throes of creating new arts journalism platforms reached out via email. You’re right about the old model–hopefully it will evolve into a healthy array of digital vehicles and we also hope that the sense of collegiality that characterizes New Jersey arts will be evidenced in lots of sharing. I do have a wee nagging fear about editing, though. While editors may have been perceived as gatekeepers, they have value in their very definition as “a person who edits written material for publication.” I guess we’ll have to see how that job evolves as well!

  5. Gayle Mahoney says:

    Hi Ann Marie,

    Thank you for writing about this very important issue which is adversely affecting both artists and arts organizations. As both an artist and arts marketing professional, I have found that it is nearly impossible to get quality coverage of events and exhibitions, particularly reviews by knowledgeable arts writers. Journalistic objectivity is important, and difficult to implement when an organization is left to review its own shows since there is no one else to do it.

    I appreciate Molly’s comment and your response about “gatekeepers.” While we have much more access to a broader audience through web, social media and other channels than we did 20 years ago, the art industry is still very reliant on “gatekeepers” in order to lend credibility and merit to artists and exhibitions. In the art world, the gatekeepers are gallerists, curators and art critics. As an artist, there is much more value to me if a review of my work appears in a respected art journal or blog, than if another artist says they like my work on their Facebook page. Social media, hyperlocal news sites, etc. are great for sharing event listings, but it is rare to find a quality review of work, especially related to visual arts.

    I have had many discussions with artists about this in the last month or so, I am glad that the issue is being addressed. Thanks again for writing about this!

  6. Lou Harry says:

    Thanks for this piece. Here’s my story: Seven years ago, the Indianapolis Business Journal, took the leap of adding an arts journalist (that’s me) in a full-time position. In my role as Arts & Entertainment Editor, I write a weekly review column, multiple blog posts a week, and a weekly eblast of previews, I also produce an annual season preview special section, represent IBJ on TV, radio, and public events, host bus trips to arts events out of town and have become a executive committee member of the American Theatre Critics Association (even staging a conference here in Indy). The risk that IBJ took has paid off, not only generating ad revenue (without influencing editorial content) but also expanding the reach of the publication. The presence of this much arts coverage in a business paper sends a message to the wider world that the arts–particularly local arts–are worthy of attention and the arts community has embracecd what we do. Innovation, though, requires those in power in media to be willing to take bold steps–to disregard the fact that more people might click on a column about TV celebrities than a dance review and run the review anyway. In a world where every click can be counted, That can be a tough leap to make, but it’s the one necessary for vibrant arts coverage to continue.

  7. Good discussion going on here. Ann Marie, I agree with you that the “old” model of arts journalism included some important qualities that are at risk of being lost with the ongoing evolution of online media. Expensive, hard-to-do work like original reporting is what has suffered the most, in my view. It’s easy to give hand someone a platform and ask them to bloviate about some topic they think they know about. Even if they’re right and what they produce is actually very good, it’s still analysis that’s based on existing information. The process of uncovering new information is vital and very few nonprofessional outlets have tried to go down that path. I’m glad that old-model arts journalism hasn’t completely died yet, as we couldn’t do what we do at Createquity without it. Ultimately, I suspect that as channels for media consumption become increasingly fractured, it’s going to be up to interest groups to get it together to pay for their own news, whether it’s about the arts or any other specialized area. I would consider it a legitimate area of investment for a philanthropist, though not such a great fit for crowdfunding as it’s currently constituted (since most journalistic outlets publish on an ongoing basis). That’s why we treating our own recently concluded crowfunding campaign as a launchpad covering one-time expenses, rather than an actual business model (that comes later).

  8. Ann Marie miller says:

    Excellent comments, and I’m so glad you took the time to respond to the thread. Gayle, you touched on delicate territory I was fearful to tread because I wanted to stick to art journalism, but my concern regarding editing was similar to the concern I have about curating. There is certainly a great sense of exhilaration and freedom that results from the ability to “put your work out there” not unlike the Salon style of hanging art or the awesome conglomeration of art that is displayed at Art All Night in Trenton. And yet there’s also nothing like the sense of validation you mentioned when someone you respect offers a critique rooted in knowledge that is deep and well versed. Reconciling the two is the proving ground we are now experiencing and where this will all go is unpredictable. I admire Lou Harry’s admonition about leaders needing to publish that dance review despite the clicks resulting from the celebrity curious and I’m so glad to learn about the Indianapolis Business Journal’s wisdom in hiring him. I really admire Ian David Moss for taking the resolute steps needed to put Createquity on firm ground. And we haven’t even touched on how net equity affects any or all of this. I hope enlightened philanthropy will find its role in assuring that we land on our feet, and I urge arts advocates to stay engaged in the evolution.

  9. Hi Ann Marie,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on the need for arts journalism and the need to increase the engagement of NJ citizens and visitors in order to increase participation in the arts.

    Cindy

  10. Gary Wien says:

    Either way, here’s what the crowdfunding helped us produce — I hope you enjoy it. Our debut issue is at: http://www.joomag.com/magazine/new-jersey-stage-july-august-2014/0429985001405570859

  11. The first issue of New Jersey Stage looks great. I ran across this yesterday in email about a similar project in Dallas called “Theatre Jones.”

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