Funding Arts Journalism:
The second of three Stage Raw symposia on arts coverage focused on economics
By Jenny Lower
On Friday, ESPN announced the dismantling of its popular sports and culture site Grantland, eliciting shock and disappointment on the web. The move comes a few weeks after ESPN cut 300 jobs, reportedly to make up lost cable subscription revenue. It is, unfortunately, only the latest sobering development to challenge the financial viability of arts coverage.
That topic was the subject of Stage Raw’s most recent symposium on the evolving Los Angeles theater ecosystem, Visualizing the Invisible: The Economics of Arts Coverage. Held Oct. 26 at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center, the event was moderated by Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle president Margaret Gray, who at one point likened arts journalism to “your really promising son who can’t get a paying job and lives in the basement.” In other words: “We all agree it’s very important and we need it as a culture, but we don’t know who should pay for it.”
Gray kicked off the event by asking panelists whether arts coverage ever had economic value to begin with. Throughout the evening, they engaged in lively debate that crystallized many of the key issues surrounding arts coverage without landing on a specific solution.
“Is it economically valuable? If it ever was, it doesn’t appear to be anymore,” said Steven Leigh Morris, founding editor of Stage Raw. However, Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, noted that his theater sees a measurable bump in audience turnout when a production receives preview features in the LA Times. Journalism, he said, is helpful in stimulating a conversation that helps audiences engage with art in a more authentic way.
Anthony Byrnes, host of KCRW’s Opening the Curtain, countered that “the question is part of the problem.” He noted that if we justify the arts and its coverage as anything other than ends in themselves, we get stuck defending them on those terms forever after.
Financial pressures have led to alternate models like the controversial Bitter Lemons Imperative, in which theaters or producers pay the website directly for a review, eliminating entirely what its proponents argue is (in print media and community-funded websites) an already porous advertising/editorial wall. The Imperative was roundly dismissed by most of the panelists as unworkable. Ethics aside, among the problems with the pay-to-play initiative, Morris said, is that it abandons the long-held idea of an editor as gatekeeper, deciding which shows are important and merit coverage, to market forces. That historical journalistic model is already endangered at publications like the L.A. Weekly, which recently sent a note to critics espousing a click-based approach to editorial coverage.
“To paraphrase, it said, ‘Such and such a story did really well. It got a lot of click-throughs. So writers, pitch us stuff that will do really well,’” Morris said, arguing that the primary editorial mission of the arts coverage has become simply to woo readers, directing them towards what’s already popular rather than to guide them towards work being performed in the city’s more hidden corners, “which I think is an abnegation of a core responsibility.”
The model of counting click-throughs to monetize online journalism “doesn’t work,” said Sasha Anawalt, director of USC’s Arts Journalism Masters program. However, she noted that new technologies capable of measuring how much time readers spend with an article are succeeding in selling ads against high-performing stories. Contrary to common perception, she added, long-form journalism is thriving in this model. In trying to craft a new model, we have to be patient with ourselves, she argued. The journalism field is still recovering from the bloodletting of 2007, when 50% of arts critics lost their jobs. Some arts journalists are now finding paid work in unfamiliar contexts, like corporate-based brand journalism for companies like Red Bull.
The death of print has been especially hard on theater, Byrnes observed, since it’s meant a loss of incidental readers who previously would have stumbled across theater reviews on their way to something else. Arts journalism will never “pencil out,” he said, so its support must emerge from “some philanthropic or civic-minded sensibility toward an institution…How do we create an institutional voice with a broad enough reach that it’s actually extending to people who aren’t already part of the conversation?” Theaters must think beyond “inside baseball” to attract marginal audiences whose interests might intersect with a particular production, he argued.
One challenge, observed LA Times theater critic Charles McNulty, is how to cultivate in readers and audiences a sense of investment in the future of a particular artist or institution. How do you teach audiences to see themselves as patrons over the long run, and not just as consumers of a particular theatrical event? Theaters need to think of their audience members “10 years out,” and not just for the duration of a six-week run, Byrnes agreed.
There seemed to be a consensus that universities would be the most natural institutions to take the lead on supporting arts journalism in a sustainable way. The frustration, McNulty said, is that institutions like USC benefit from the existence of the arts, but choose not to invest in publications to sustain them. But those institutions have their own financial pressures to face, others responded.
Finding a solution must entail the local theater community pulling together, panelists agreed. Theaters must overcome the incoherence caused by geographic separation as well as their own inferiority complex. Los Angeles sometimes lacks the spirit of “celebration” cities like New York have towards theater, Epps said. The resulting problem plays out in different ways: plays that should be attracting overlapping audiences end up opening the same night, or multiple theaters do a single work by one playwright to death instead of exploring a body of work in concert.
Regardless of the challenges, what seems certain is the value of the ongoing role arts criticism and journalism in general must play going forward. “Critical thought, although it makes people anxious,” McNulty said, “is necessary to democracy.”