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Newspapers Snub the Arts

October 03, 2004|Andras Szanto and Daniel S. Levy | Andras Szanto, director of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, and Daniel S. Levy, a reporter for People magazine and a former NAJP fellow, co-edited "Reporting the Arts II." Copies of the report may be found at www.najp.org.

NEW YORK — After a recent editorial meeting at a leading newspaper, book critics had a hard time getting back to their desks. The writers had gathered to decide what upcoming titles were worth reviewing. While they discussed their plans, the daily delivery of new books was deposited outside the conference room. So many packages were plopped in front of the door that when the meeting ended, the journalists were trapped.

All across the United States, newspapers are struggling to keep up with the deluge of arts and entertainment flowing from our nation's publishing houses, film lots and recording studios, not to mention the myriad galleries, museums, theaters and dance companies popping up almost everywhere.

For critics and reporters who cover the arts, there is little relief in sight. Although the scale and diversity of cultural activity has been expanding in recent years, most papers can't afford to put additional resources behind arts coverage.

The culture desk of a typical daily looks surprisingly similar to what it looked like five, even 10 years ago. The main staples of arts journalism -- previews, reviews and listings, assigned to categories many artists no longer fit into -- are similarly unchanged. For the lonely music or film critic facing the avalanche of fresh releases, keeping up can be a Sisyphean challenge.

But daily journalism is really about space -- the never-ending quest to maximize and utilize the precious "news hole" allocated to individual reporting beats. This is where arts coverage has suffered the worst casualties recently. Simply put, at a time when the arts have been proliferating across America, the number of column inches devoted to arts and entertainment in most papers has remained, at best, constant. And in many dailies, the coverage has decreased.

This is the key finding of "Reporting the Arts II," a study we conducted for Columbia University's National Arts Journalism Program and released Saturday at a conference of newspaper editors in New Orleans. The report looked at arts journalism in 10 cities in October 2003 and compared the findings with a similar analysis we did five years earlier.

In all the cities our researchers visited, they found evidence of growing vitality in the arts. But when it comes to journalism, the opposite is true.

Our findings reveal an alarming trend: During the last five years, none of the papers we looked at increased the amount of their arts criticism and reporting. Editors at many dailies are filling smaller news holes with more and therefore shorter stories. Pieces on "high" arts, as well as those with hard reporting about cultural institutions, continue to take a backseat to soft-focus features on the latest movie star, CD or rock concert.

As space declines, so does criticism. Local papers were once civic stewards. Informing their readers about newsworthy artistic productions was a responsibility that their owners, often residents in the community for several generations, took seriously.

Now many art sections have become viewer guides, devoting the bulk of their efforts to calendars, the daily TV grid and tiny thumbnail reviews. At some dailies, criticism is vanishing. The Shreveport Times in Louisiana is one example. The paper briefly eliminated all criticism in the belief that by doing so, it was helping arts coverage.

To be fair, the arts aren't being singled out for cutbacks in newspapers; many other sections are shrinking just as rapidly. But the implications for the arts, its creators and its audiences, are troubling.

There was a time, not long ago, when building a cultural infrastructure worthy of a world power preoccupied the nation's arts leaders. After decades of investment, culminating in the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s, this work is now largely done. Los Angeles, with its new concert hall and its splendid new art museums, is a perfect example of this urban trend. Cities such as Philadelphia, Denver and Miami have similarly discovered the arts as a means to attract educated workers and stimulate their economies. They have hired big-name architects, pumped billions of dollars into their downtowns, built performing arts centers and lured working artists with generous tax breaks.

The mounting concern now is about participation: Will Americans care enough about the arts? Will they be sufficiently informed to take advantage of the rich programming available almost everywhere?

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