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Sydney Dance Company (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

If you’ve flipped through any of Australia’s major newspapers recently, chances are you’ve only seen a handful of arts reviews or in-depth journalism about the arts.

In recent years the number of arts journalists, the number of news pages, the number of dedicated publications, and the rates freelancers get paid for arts journalism and reviews have steadily been decreasing. In 2018, experimental arts magazine RealTime stopped regular publishing, classical music and arts magazine Limelight went into liquidation last year, and specialist arts and entertainment journalists have been among those made redundant from both News Corp and Fairfax in recent years. Just last week, The Sunday Age’s columnist Craig Mathieson announced his column on Melbourne screen culture was ending. 

Adelaide freelance journalist Jane Howard has been writing about the arts for 10 years, and recently went back to freelancing only part time.

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“A lot of the quality of writing right now is really amazing, but in terms of quantity and places for it to be published, it’s all evaporating really fast,” she told Crikey. “When I started there were a lot more publications with budgets for art journalism, the internet was growing and booming but newspapers were still seen as curators, and arts reporting said something about that paper and what it valued, so they liked to have it.”

And not having as many places to publish also means that publications have been able to get away with reducing rates. “Most places I write for haven’t increased their writer rates in 10 years, and it’s easier to sell an opinion than a feature now,” she said. One publication, which Howard had been paid about $400 for about 1000 words in 2012, was recently advertising freelance rates of between $30 and $200 per piece, she said.

Hobart arts journalist and founding editor of CutCommon Stephanie Eslake told Crikey she also had observed a decline in arts criticism in the mainstream media in recent years. “Arts criticism certainly seems to be at risk of widespread decline,” she said. “This can be seen through the unfortunate challenges many media outlets have faced in Australia in the past couple of years.”

In the course of researching this story, Crikey contacted arts organisations in different parts of the country, but none were willing to talk about how arts journalism has changed in recent years, and what that means for the industry. For many organisations, they rely on the scant coverage they do get in their local papers to advertise their productions and exhibitions to a broader public than they can in more niche publications.

Why it matters

Julian Meyrick is a theatre historian at Flinders University, and a theatre director, who’s researched Australian arts criticism in detail. “In the 1990s we started to notice reduced column inches,” he said. “A lot of people hoped that would be replaced by something in the digital space. In practice it hasn’t worked like that.”

Meyrick told Crikey that arts criticism, in particular, was the main way theatre could be part of public discourse, because theatre itself wasn’t accessible to everyone. “It’s an identifier and definer of national identity,” he said.

He said arts journalism helped inform policy as well as a national narrative. “Policy making is decontextualised, it’s like the bones and arts journalism is the flesh and blood … it feeds into the conversation that leads to policy making.” He said that while editors might cut back on its arts journalism while balancing their books, they should be thinking longer-term about the impact it would have on their communities.

“Australia already has a problem with cultural memory,” he said. “It doesn’t look back and it doesn’t want to look back, but if there really is no mechanism for arts criticism, if all the media is whistleblowing alone, we’re going to end up with very scary results.”

Howard also believes that arts journalism and criticism is a vehicle for difficult conversations in a way that other journalism isn’t, including opinion writing that encourages taking a hard line and not budging. “In general Australians are very bad at having conversations,” she said. “People don’t know how to talk about things, and that’s partly why we don’t have a strong culture of criticism. But what good criticism does is it allows room for doubt and it allows room for questioning and it allows room for unresolved answers … I think that’s very rare in any other form of writing.”

As well as the broader cultural loss, Howard said there were tangible news stories that were missed without arts journalists working in established newsrooms. She said the collapse of the Royal Croquet Club in Adelaide had arts and business angles, some of which were covered by the local media, but some that weren’t.

“As a freelancer I can’t afford the time investment to try and follow up on those stories myself,” she said. “Or, when I’ve thought that a story really was worth reporting no matter the financial hit I would take, I haven’t been able to find someone to buy it because it’s dismissed as ‘industry news’ which won’t have a readership.”

Eslake said criticism also functioned as documentation of cultural experiences, as well as a benchmark for the quality of Australia’s creative output. “This empowers arts practitioners to learn from the way different voices in the community respond to their works, providing them with crucial insights to which they mightn’t otherwise have access,” she said.

What’s the future for arts journalism?

Howard is pessimistic about the future for the arts beat in mainstream journalism. “When I started it felt like I was doing it at a time there were increasing possibilities to write about art,” she said. “Now I try and write one day a week because I need to earn a wage and I just can’t do that with writing. All of these avenues I had for publishing have fallen away. I’m only doing it now because I started it at the right time.”

She said she’s been Adelaide’s youngest professional critic for 10 years, and there was no one coming up behind her. “I just don’t know where people below me are going to find what I had, I’m just really thankful that I can do this and can work part time as well.”

Meyrick sees it as part of the issue with the whole news industry. “There’s a problem with arts journalism and that’s not going to fix itself,” he said. “To what extent do these main digital companies take content from news websites and republish that content in their own digital content mechanisms and don’t pay and make money on it?”

Eslake, though, is a little more positive. “While there appears (to be) a very real risk of losing a lot of our mainstream arts criticism, there’s also a flow-on effect where arts workers themselves are stepping in to help keep local coverage alive … I believe this shows Australia that an audience for arts criticism still exists.”

Among the work she’s referring to is Audrey Journal, which is funded by theatre companies, but has editorial independence.

Howard thinks there is a place for the niche publications, but there still needed to be good quality arts journalism in the mainstream, general press. 

“There are places that are doing good work, and Witness in Melbourne for example are really dedicated to longform, difficult, intelligent writing and investing in diversity of people talking about the work,” she said. “But you’re only ever going to find these publications if you’re looking for them, and historically newspapers would include more people in the arts by having this stuff. With generalist publications, you read stories you wouldn’t necessarily otherwise because they’re there. That’s what we’re losing.”