Avoiding the Issue
October 2, 2009
The first ever National Arts Journalism Summit at UCLA's Annenberg School for Communication took place this morning. It was a bit of a marathon for the 200 or so people present in the room -- four hours of presentations and round table discussions with only two five minute breaks to catch our breaths and run to the loo!
I would like to say that the event was a thumping success, but to be honest, I left feeling somewhat disappointed. There was a lot of flashy technology and fluff (300 people Twittering as we speak!" It's an exciting time!! I feel very positive about the future of arts journalism!) and at the end of the day not a whole lot of substance to the discussions.
Obviously, no one expected one four-hour-long summit to provide answers to the many pressing issues facing the field of arts journalism at the moment. But the main question on everyone's lips -- the one about business models -- ended up being avoided almost entirely or trampled on.
The truth is that even the heads of the innovative and supposedly sustainable arts journalism-oriented projects presented at the summit don't see a clear way forward. Business models, which range from paid advertising to foundation support to subscriptions, are hardly secure. When project presenters proudly declared -- as several of them did -- "we pay our journalists!" during the course of the morning, I felt my spirits sag. No one cared to admit how much they pay. To my mind, 150 dollars for an 800 - 1000 article is a pittance and, frankly, unacceptable if you're looking to publish quality work by professionals rather than the hokey ramblings of amateur art enthusiasts. But I suspect that this sort of level of compensation is at the top end of writers' pay for the projects presented at the summit.
Least satisfying of all was the final roundtable discussion between Richard Gingras, the CEO of Salon.com and Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Foundation. Gingras basically said that arts journalists shouldn't expect money for their endeavors until they build huge capacity and attract advertising and investment. But his success story examples had nothing to do with the arts. It's one thing for a top political blogger to attract upwards of a million eyeballs a day, but even the most widely-read arts blogs can't hope to gain this sort of traction. As for Marrow, she managed to skirt each of moderator Andras Szanto's questions with a vague, empty comment and a half smile. I learned absolutely nothing about the potential role that philanthropy might play in the future of arts journalism from her. I felt quite frustrated on the moderator's behalf!
Still, I don't mean to sound so down on the event. It was a step in the right direction. Hopefully by having more of these conversations, we'll start to find a way out of the fog. Thanks to the organizers and sponsors for making the summit happen. It was a privilege to be present.