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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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