Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shocking News! Some Newspapers Actually Expanding Art Coverage!

The issue of how, exactly journalism should cover art in (a) the digital age and (b) the traditional-media-outlet-profit-plunge age has been a topic of some discussion recently in Toronto. Last week, I attended a panel on this topic sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation that I'd posted on here previously.

In the wake of the panel, various reports have been posted. JSource posted a fairly cut and dried summary that reminded me of how questions of box office-vs-critic value had gotten caught up in the digital discussion. View on Canadian Art also posted some notes that reflected, again, the fairly wide ranging nature of the dicussion, all the way from "do critics matter?" to "does anybody make money blogging?" Mondoville brought the pointed (and at times deserved) megasnark, while Socialite (who pointed out to the panel in person that Ebert is a great example of a mainstreamer gone respectedly digital) found the panel basically old-folks/non-networkedy.

For my part, I did find it regrettable that most of the panel members didn't seem to have much substantive experience online, and it showed in their questions and comments. Of course, they all brought many years of experience in print and traditional broadcast TV, which is great--that's what a lot of younger online writers can't bring to such a panel, and perhaps it reflects the experience of many members of old-guard (or as they called it, "legacy") journalism.

In any case, one thing I had hoped the panel might touch on (but didn't) are some of the few initiatives where newspapers are (against all logic, some might say) expanding their arts coverage online and elsewhere. The New York Observer's expansion online looks like this and does have a bit of a bloggy feel, linking out to other media stories as well as providing original reviews and reportage (most old-school media tend to hit a wall with the aggregation thing).

Also of interest on this front (albeit not, perhaps, as critical as writers like myself might like) is the Washington Post's Real Art DC project. In this project, artists are invited to upload their work to the Post's Real Art DC site. Then, from May to October, the Post's critics will choose ten artists to receive a studio visit writeup online. Readers will then vote for best artist, who will receive a profile in print and online.

In a way, the Post's contest reinforces the old "print is best" value dynamic, but uses some of the free content of artists to achieve its ends (and inch up pageviews). I don't think this initiative is necessarily the answer to arts journalism's woes online--as did come out at the panel, much of those woes are financial, whether in print or elsewhere--but it would have been nice if the panel had sought examples like it out.

On related fronts, could you convince a newspaper to expand its art coverage online or in print? If so, how?

Image of old-timey papers from Bernar McFadden


Kim Simon said...

Hmm, thanks for the report Leah. Any news via panels or back-room banter about what on earth is going on at the Globe? Are they replacing Milroy? I hear Dault's column will be ending soon. I've heard everything from rumored names about the new "Globe critic" to the idea that they're not going to bother with visual arts at all anymore. Is the National Post really going to be the only paper in the country with a full time art critic? Pathetic (unless they have some great, intelligent, engaged group of contract writers lined up waiting to write, in print and online).

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Kim,

Thanks for your comment.

I've heard a bunch of discussion about what's been happening at the Globe, all of it speculative and none of it airtight-reliable -- so I'll forgo reproducing it here, and wait to see what happens.

Still, I will clarify that my work for the Post (which I feel pretty lucky to be doing) is freelance, and that very few Canadian newspapers seem to have full-time/dedicated art critics anymore. I think the main instances that come to mind of those that "officially" remain are Murray Whyte at the Toronto Star, and maybe Nancy Tousley at the Calgary Herald and Kevin Griffin at the Vancouver Sun (?) (All of these guesses are based on just seeing what bylines appear next to art articles -- no insider knowledge. Others are welcome to chime in and correct these guesses.) Looking over to the franco side, Le Devoir seems to have a couple of people filing art reviews and reports, which is great -- Marie-Eve Charron and Jerome Delgado -- but it's hard to tell, looking at their site briefly, what the rest of their staff or freelancer role might encompass. I do think the greater role of the arts in Quebec could be a factor there.

There's a few things that come to mind for me when looking at this situation:

1) Labor in all fields is going increasingly to the contract or freelance realm; a recent cover story in Business Week on "The Disposable Worker" is an eye opener on this point - http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_03/b4163032935448.htm. If this is true of telemarketing, and, it must be said, of journalism/writing in general, why not art criticism? (I say this "why not" from a business perspective, not a moral/community building one.)

2) As you suggested, one could argue that, in a country as big as Canada, having a stable of nationwide art-critic freelancers could be a better way of reflecting the nation's creative production than having a single staffer based in Toronto trying to cover same. I see that. But the column-inches would likely have to be reserved in the paper (or online) either way. (I've heard from non-TO freelancers that their pitches seem to get minimal reponse.) This leads me to...

3) A phrase Rosemary Heather uttered at the Bring It panel that continues to pop up in my mind. Responding to the question of whether art criticism is marginal, I recall Rosemary saying something along the lines of "Well, art is marginal. Current art practices are marginal." The way this translates into this media discussion is that if art is no longer central to mainstream culture, how can we expect a central place to be made for its criticism and reportage in mainstream media? Especially (I say with zero judgment) when there are few consistent advertising dollars or seemingly few consistent readers attached? It seems the only way that things stay in the paper (by which I mean any paper) nowadays is good old reader outcry and/or good old advertiser outcry.

It's all to say, as I oversimplified in my original post, that a lot of the problems related to media nowadays are financial. Old-school journalists are reluctant to do online activity for zero extra pay and zero reduced workload elsewhere, while old-school publishers feel stretched just keeping circulation stable.

What's your view from the art community? How would you justify continued coverage?

Kim Simon said...

Thanks Leah,

Right, I mistyped, of course it's The Star that I know keeps Murray Whyte on salary... as for "justifying" coverage of contemporary visual art, I'll let the money people argue about money, but personally, as an engaged citizen I expect my dailies to both reflect and contribute further to my knowledge and understanding of a range of conversations taking place in the world, including all aspects of contemporary visual culture.

That aside, naming those rumored names now that Andrea Carson has spilled it on her blog... The one interesting thing I see about RM Vaughn potentially writing about art for the Globe is that maybe he'll bring back criticism to the paper. I still remember Milroy saying years ago that she had so little space to cover art why would she cover something she didn't like. For me that's a mistake, and treats art criticism as service journalism and all news readers as consumers to be sold on art. I say take the high road, give people some credit that they might enjoy a decent conversation and some critical debate.

I can't tell you how angry it made me to have an ad sales person from the Globe call me at the gallery asking if I wanted to advertise in their upcoming visual arts special section. I wonder if the existence of visual arts coverage at the Globe is dependent on these gallery ad sales... if so, they need to convince me they're actually committed to some kind of ongoing coverage and actually articulate what that means to them.

Leah Sandals said...

Hey Kim,

Thanks for clarifying... it does say something that the media can be interchangeable, even in a Freudian slip way!

For those who missed the View on Canadian Art post (myself included) it's here:

I'd be delighted if RMV took over art crit duties at the Globe or anywhere else -- I really like his writing. But as with all things in the world of media, I will only truly beleive it when I see it (If it might provide some perspectiv, I still often feel this way about the things I write as well!)

Interestingly, I don't think "service journalism" has to be a dirty word. A "bad" review is service journalism in that it provides a service to the reader about what might or might not be worth their time. But yes, some critics do feel that because they have limited room, they are better off using it to shine a light than snuff one out.

If you're interested in these general types of issues, you might want to check out the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, which has a brief feature on different philosophies of art crit in Canada, using RMV's past Canadian Art feature on Vancouver artists as a case study.

And I do say that if you are upset with any media outlet, and you are being pitched for advertising for same, that is an opportunity for you to make your position to the paper clear (eg. "No, I won't advertise until I see x, y, z")

Kim Simon said...

Indeed, the Globe advert sales person and I will be having a chat.

Leah Sandals said...

Just to be clear -- what I hope to reinforce in my comments is that both advertisers and readers have opinions that newspapers and magazines pay attention to. If you don't like what a publication is doing, write a letter to the editor or publisher and identify what is at stake for you as a reader or advertiser. Though you may not see any action externally, these opinions are often seriously considered internally.