Jan 21, 2011

No surprise arts journalism is languishing

The shoddy state of the profession is disappointing, but hardly surprising for those who have actually worked as arts journalists. Arts journalists are a motley crew, to say the least.

Ben Eltham — <em>Crikey</em> arts commentator

Ben Eltham

Crikey arts commentator

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.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

6 thoughts on “No surprise arts journalism is languishing

  1. sharman

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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?

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details