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No surprise arts journalism is languishing

Crikey recently carried an article by Lucinda Strahan on the dire state of Australian arts journalism. Strahan reported that “a two-week sample of arts journalism in Melbourne newspapers The Age and the Herald Sun found public relations activity at 97% in The Age and 98% in the Herald Sun”.

The shoddy state of the profession is disappointing, but hardly surprising for those who have actually worked as arts journalists. Arts journalists — and let’s throw in their even more neglected brothers and sisters, the critics — are a motley crew, to say the least. But what they generally share are precarious, insecure and lowly paid working conditions.

Indeed, it’s getting harder and harder to be an arts journalist in this country, in the sense that you can be a political journalist or a business reporter. The troubles faced by newspapers are felt most keenly in sections such as the arts pages, which are routinely cut back in hard times (probably justifiably, as they are not stellar performers when it comes to advertising revenue). Australia’s arts and creative industries are growing, but are still minnows compared to the giants of banking and mining. In any case, who wants to read about the back office when you can read about Cate Blanchett? The cultural sector contains stars and celebrities, and this is about whom audiences want to read. The only true creative industries reporter in the country is the Financial Review’s Katrina Strickland, and the Australian media is scarcely rushing to provide her with competitors.

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful.

Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money. Nor should we be surprised that arts writers have jobs outside journalism, often in the same industry they cover. As Strahan noted,  “subjective and even crusading advocacy … is considered proper practice in coverage of the arts, something that flies in the face of the cool impartiality of the fourth estate”.

If arts journalism is tough, criticism is even tougher. As a series of talks demonstrated last year at the Wheeler Centre, knowledgeable and passionate criticism again has become an essentially amateur phenomenon. It  flourishes in the blogosphere, for free.

Part of the problem is that no one really likes a good critic in the first place. Artists who pour their heart and soul into a performance get understandably miffed when a critic pronounces their latest masterpiece a dud. This can make the work of a critic lonely and unrewarding. And Australia’s cultural institutions are largely run by arts administrators and former artists, most of whom get quite uncomfortable whenever a critic gets, well, critical.

Nor is there much funding to be an arts writer. While the federal and state governments, through their funded cultural institutions, directly employ thousands of dancers, actors, singers, musicians, administrators and crew — even publicists — there is vanishingly little support for critics or journalists to write about culture and the arts.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect the highest standards of investigative reporting and critical appraisal from our arts writers. Realistically, though, we’re not going to get it as often as we’d like.

All of which sounds like a bit of whinge. But it’s not. Despite the adversity, quality writing about arts and culture continues to thrive in Australia: in blogs, in the small press, and in online publications … such as this one.

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  • 1
    sharman
    Posted Friday, 21 January 2011 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    If the arts journalists want people to read their work they should find out why people are not reading it. A lot of arts journalism is pretentious and boring. No one likes vanity publishing. If you read, for example, the work of Pauline Kael the film critic, it is interesting, funny and written in plain english. Other writers who have something interesting to say will always find readers.

  • 2
    lucinda strahan
    Posted Friday, 21 January 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    A couple of points. Firstly my article wasn’t necessarily pointing to “dire state of Arts J” the issue of whether saturation by PR is dire is an argument in itself, my argument is that PR and Arts Journalism can sometimes have compatible goals due to the exceptional journalistic principles and practices of Arts J. However, I do agree that in broadsheet papers there is a definite lack of shoe-leather reporting on the arts. This is also partly due to the exceptional characteristics of arts journalism most particularly that most people who write arts for mainstream newspapers are not trained journalists.
    Secondly, I think that it is not quite right to say that arts is a low performer in terms of bringing in advertising revenue, you only have to look at the back pages of the A2 on the weekend or REview in the Aus to see there’s plenty of ads for arts and culture. I think the lowly role arts occupies in traditional news hierarchies is not due to the lack of money it brings in.
    It is too easy to say that arts is targeted for cutbacks when other news round are not, indeed the US study I refer to found the opposite. However, I do agree that it is almost impossible to make a living as an arts journalist and most people writing on arts in the paper have other jobs or are living on the bones of their arse and will eventually give up I also agree that this situation is compounded by the fact that the arts are not taken seriously in mainstream news culture and talented arts journalists are not nurtured. But finally I think in these arguments we really having to consider the shifting ground caused by the emergence of Creative Economies that means the function and role of the arts in cities has quite significantly changed. I think this accounts for a ‘horizontalisation’ of art coverage: more of it but less depth. Thanks for your article Ben.

  • 3
    Ben Eltham
    Posted Saturday, 22 January 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for responding Lucinda -

    just on the advertising revenue issue, it’s interesting that you say that, becaus ein his autobiography Fred Hilmer explicitly stated that the A2 and other Fairfax broadsheet arts sections didn’t justify the investment Fairfax made in them. Just because display advertising is present doesn’t mean there’s enough of it to pay for a big run of dead trees - but I guess we’ll never know. Certainly the weekly music street press publications remain viable, but on the other hand they pay almost nothing for their copy.

    Your point about the low ranking of arts coverage in newspaper hierarchies rings true to me.

    Perhaps the Crikey comments pages are not the place to have this discussion but do you even believe the “Creative Economies” rhetoric? Because I don’t …

  • 4
    Ben Eltham
    Posted Saturday, 22 January 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Oh and just another quick point - one of the points of my article was that “mainstream newspapers” are increasingly irrelevant to arts coverage anyway. We know how much trouble the newspaper business model is in. While it may be that academics have done much of their study on newsroom culture and large media organisations, this is rapidly vanishing sector of the media.

    I’ve been an arts journalist and critic for the best part of the last decade, and I’ve never collected a salary or seen the inside of a newsroom. I imagine most arts writers would be the same.

  • 5
    SiobhanA
    Posted Monday, 24 January 2011 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I agree - I’ve been arts reviewing for over three years with an arts industry website and it’s all been free copy, with the main pro being that I get to see all these great shows I wouldn’t otherwise see. And I think I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this will never be a paid job, it will always be a side interest that I do for love. How can it possibly end up being a viable financial option when bloggers offer their opinion for free, the traditional arts sections in newspapers are being threatened by the newspaper business model itself?

    Arts journalism is a luxury commodity that is only affordable at the best of times - with the digital upheaval and the GFC to blame for some serious downsizing, I don’t think the situation is going to get any better.

  • 6
    Holden Back
    Posted Monday, 24 January 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Much reviewing in our newspapers is done by well-meaning and enthusiastic journalists, who like a particular art-form and volunteer to do reviews for the free tickets, and not for the money. Most have no training in the area but will pretend to enough knowledge to make pronouncements: please don’t start in on ’ it’s all subjective’ because in heritage arts it isn’t. There are certain technical standards which must be satisfied as a base line for performace of art music and classical dance, before any interpretive strategies can be developed or assessed. Add to this the power of marketing and the glamour of overseas performers and there is frequently an uneven of assessment of musical performance in particular which works against local performers or those without a media profile. To be fair this situation is not limited to our shores - London papers can be as capricious and inconsistent; sadly their reviews tend to be treated as gospel locally.

    When musical performance was treated as a serious part of civic and cultural life a ‘paper of record’ needed a reviewer with technical knowledge to speak to an audience who were also amateur performers, or at the very least social singers. To use the art music scenario again, there are a number of singers presented by major companies whose vocal resources would not have passed muster in the past. Luckily they are easy on the eye, and have been well-produced. It’s hard to see that situation developing again or in many other art forms, but is one worth considering as a well-founded model.

    As for the other function of the review or criticism as a marketing tool does it really apply in the Australian context of single-night stand touring and short runs?

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