Goodbye to all that

newspaper3With The Minneapolis Star Tribune filing for bankruptcy protection yesterday, this is a good time to talk about what happens to the arts when newspapers go away.

I was talking to a friend who tracks journalism trends closely earlier this week and he said, “2009 is going to be a real game changer.” He listed the latest casualties, which now include some of the most venerable titles: The Los Angeles Times facing the real possibility of closing. The San Francisco Chronicle losing a billion dollars for its parent company. Seattle’s second paper shutting down. Same in Denver. Papers in cities like Detroit scaling back to publishing a few days a week. The Miami Herald up for sale, but only the building seems to be worth anything. As layoffs and heretofore unthinkable page A1 banner advertising attests, even The New York Times is in deep trouble.

Are we ready for a world in which major metro dailies don’t arrive on our doorstep every morning? Or have they already lost their relevance? After all, in most American cities, a vibrant discourse conducted by dueling critics at rival newspapers is already a distant sepia-toned memory.

My friend, the publisher of a major arts website, worries more about city hall reporting than arts coverage. “Writing about art will always be glamorous and people will do it,” he said. “But what about those unglamorous stories about city government, which nobody else wants to do, and which don’t sell ads?” With so much arts coverage being opinion based — under the fancier name of criticism — blogs have absorbed arts coverage more successfully than hard news. Moreover, many papers say they’re ready to cover newsroom expenses solely with online advertising. The extinction of dinosaur papers printed on dead trees may even leave more breathing room — i.e. ad revenues — for nimbler upstart species of news media.

All points well taken. But call me nostalgic, I still don’t feel the online world fully substitutes for coverage in big metro dailies. Where do we go from here?

2 thoughts on “Goodbye to all that”

  1. I think this is one of those moments when, sure, it’s okay to lament the passing of the era of the big city dailies; but we need to recognize that they were part of specific history–call it the rise of urbanization (or late capitalism)–and that we may now be looking at a very different landscape (I think we all accept this). So, what to lament?

    The first lament, inevitably, goes to the loss of ‘hard news’ coverage; but were the big papers ever the best at this? There was a period of time, beginning largely in the 60s, when big papers, like the LA Times and the Washington Post, began to patronize a new kind of investigative (i.e. ‘hard-nosed’) and in-depth journalism; and all this was largely due to the leadership of uniquely committed people: Otis Chandler at the Times and the Grahams at the Post. Yet it was not always thus. In the first half of the 20th C., these papers, the LA Times in particular, were essentially in the pockets of local politicians and power players. Objectivity in journalism was a joke. And the ‘hard news’ was being put out by independent sources anyway–just think of Izzy Stone’s Weekly. (David Halberstam’s excellent ‘The Powers that Be’, on the rise of the modern media in the US, from the Times and the Post, to Henry Luce and CBS, is the essential reading here.)

    The second lament, more specific to art criticism and coverage, is that with the passing of major print media outlets we’ll find ourselves in a world with some kind of diminished critical discourse; this seems less plausible to me, though not because art writing is more ‘glamorous’ and so people will always want to engage in it. I think it’s the very idea of ‘art writing’ itself, this kind of meandering, quasi-critical, quasi-creative, largely unopinionated and wholly unargumentative but self-consciously learned blather that is more of a threat to criticism and coverage than anything else related to the industry landscape. Blogs have picked up some of this, but the best ones are those that don’t go near this rather cursory world of self-satisfied discourse. (Don’t get me wrong, the writing can often be quite good, a la Cabinet magazine, which is the current capitol of the stuff–it’s just that it all feels and reads so inconsequential.) Yes, the big papers served as a bulwark against art writing, but perhaps unintentionally so; and as long as we remain vigilant against the stuff (and turn our own pens against its practice and promotion), I think we’ll find a renewed mandate for art criticism and coverage that doesn’t require those inky old rags.

  2. There is no question that money is an issue here. One of the things that a publication such as the New York Times has served to protect is some notion of art criticism as the last stronghold of “purity” in an artworld that is redefining its ethical standards at every turn. The event of Tyler Green’s “outing” of Christian Viveros Faune was more of a symptom in an unclosing breach. From my own blog: “Art criticism is vulnerable to market forces, and we have known this since the early days of Artforum. Here is John Coplans speaking as the former editor of Artforum in a 1977 interview:

    “I’m not saying that Artforum played a major role, powerful role, all-embracing role in the marketing. Nevertheless, a bad review sometimes would cause a lack of confidence. Let’s put it that way. Maybe it did not even necessarily affect the market, but it made the dealers work harder and think twice and made the clients think twice. They felt that they were operating under a severe handicap. After all, they were advertising in this magazine and this magazine was panning their artists. Time Magazine or any magazine you care to name, the New York Magazine, if somebody advertised it, there was no commitment, far from it, on the part of the Ford Motor Company advertising in Time for Time to describe or write or yell about the products for Time to be skeptical about the products, and there is no problem. They are buying advertising space. Unfortunately, because of the nature of French criticism as it was and certain other magazines that exist now such as Arts and Arts International where you can literally buy space, the feeling is that if a dealer advertises in a magazine, he expects some results from it. There was a time when it was important to advertise in Artforum at the insistence of the artist or it was the artist paying the money indirectly through commissions who was really buying the ad. Later this began to change. Advertising became very regular. It was part of contracts. They should advertise. This feeling was less and less that and the galleries felt that they were buying the space.”

    There are now gallery-supported blogs that are explicitly “careful” about what they write, and have clear rules about the galleries they will not cover. In order to support themselves as independent writers, some bloggers have turned to the sale of russian brides and escort services.

    And in its institutional autonomy and technological form, web writing is changing the standards of ethics. Even in this posting, an anonymous “friend” is a legitimate source. Driven by personalities rather than institutions, what used to be character defamation by journalistic standards is now criticism. Beyond the mere blather of art writing, getting “down and dirty” has become the leitmotif of the daily rounds – by these standards, that honkin’ burrito you are having for lunch really counts in the new art criticism. If you have a twitter feed, are you more likely to get that Getty journalism grant? How many subscribers do YOU have? What does a “new mandate” look like in this landscape of author feeds, unverified sources, and no one authority?

    The only thing that I have run upon so far is a reference to ‘slow journalism,’ and certainly a slowing down is called for. The distinction Jonathan makes between art writing and art criticism stands in the context of a need for both to slow down.

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