The New York Times
Photograph: Steve Smith

Shrinking arts coverage – how soon is now?

We’ve all seen signs of diminishing arts and culture coverage in New York’s two premier daily newspapers, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Most of us have heard rumors of more change afoot for what remains – shifts prompted not by a sea change in regard to cultural cachet, but as drastic measures to ameliorate the mortal wounds inflicted by the near-complete disappearance of print advertising. Now, a Deadline Hollywood article by Jeremy Gerard, dated Nov. 9, has spelled out some putative specifics.

What’s confirmed is that the Journal will fold its lively Greater New York section – launched just six years ago to compete more directly with local coverage in the Times, as Gerard notes – into the paper’s main section on Nov. 14. Other culture-pertinent portions of the paper are also being compacted into what now will be called Life & Arts. Staffers reportedly will have to reapply for jobs; superb freelancers for a few days now have been declaring availability for new engagements via social media.

The prognosis at the Times is less clear, and what Gerard reports is refuted to some extent by a company spokesperson he quotes. But the claims he relates reflect what readers have begun to see: fewer stories and reviews, and a decreased emphasis on coverage of offbeat institutions and one-off performances. Citing anonymous staff sources (one of whom predicts “a bloodbath”), Gerard writes:

Critics have been urged to stop covering events least likely to appeal to online subscribers: indie movies having brief runs in art houses; one-night-only concerts, off- and off-off-Broadway shows that aren’t star-driven, cabaret performances, and small art galleries.

Laying my own cards on the table, I retain faith that the Times will never abandon outlier institutions and emerging artists entirely. Having heard executives in other places and situations openly link the viability of covering even local-area cultural events to the size and location of their occurrence – and even the number of audience members (translated: paying customers) who might turn up – I do think the Times maintains at least some of its tenacious adherence to a mission of not only pursuing what’s newsworthy, but also helping to determine what is newsworthy, exercising its role not just as society’s mirror but to some extent as its guide, curator, and prognosticator.

Arts critics are, after all, reporters of a kind, tasked with pursuing novelty, curiosity, and excellence with investigative tenacity and aesthetic discernment wherever they might lead – not just to Lincoln Center, Indio, and Bayreuth, but to a Gowanus work space or a Ridgewood cellar, to Montclair, NJ, or Knoxville, TN. That tenacity and discernment still exist at the Times, and at plenty of other newspapers of repute now underfunded and endangered.

Still, Gerard’s conclusion seems not only chilling, but unfortunately accurate:

…filmmakers, musicians, playwrights and actors, artists and choreographers may have still have had to bus tables and do office temp work, but they could be assured of a Times review or features story that could launch a career, interest an agent, challenge a reader. Those days, too, are numbered.

Certainly, then, it’s less surprising under such circumstances that the Boston Globe should prove willing to bear scrutiny and skepticism for trying an untested new model, wherein a temporary spot for a full-time staff classical-music critic is funded by an outside nonprofit consortium. As mainstream publications shave away at cultural coverage (particularly at the generative and emerging level), the nonprofit world already vested in promoting, preserving, and funding the arts will be called upon increasingly to muster its own reporting, tell its own stories, even manage its own critical coverage – exactly the mission that motivated this journal and others like it. – Steve Smith

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Musing on the fate of music journalism.

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National Sawdust has not only taken a keen interest in monitoring and evaluating the current state of music journalism and criticism from its inception, but also more recently has pursued an active role in fostering its continued health. We talk regularly with journalists, critics, institutions, and other influential figures about the state of our collective affairs – now, we'll be sharing some of those conversations with the reading public.