A Call to Reinvigorate Arts Journalism in New Jersey and beyond

July 9, 2014

While the news media is changing at lightning speed and its outlets growing exponentially, the news itself seems harder and harder to find. The avalanche of what passes as news is too often lacking meaningful and credible content whether in print or electronically. It exists in the mad shuffle to empower and instantly access consumers, and do so profitably.

Ann Marie Miller, Executive Director, ArtPride NJ

Even the old reliable Walter Cronkite (yeah, I remember him fondly) style of fair and factual daily reporting is now fragmented into dozens of screaming outlets of political posturing that are mortgaged to the pharmaceutical industry.  As a result we are more knowledgeable about the side effects of exotically named drugs than we are of things of value and importance around us. And in this devil’s bargain for what will sell and what will trend, many truly valuable things are falling off the map. Certainly “news” about the arts, which is rarely judged as hard or sexy enough, and critical content about arts and culture, are sad casualties.

Lucky as we are in New Jersey to benefit from State of the Arts and more recently The Arts Project on NJTV (thanks to the conviction of public broadcasting, though I have to say the July 8 brief on “Kim Kardashian visits the Jersey Shore” does NOT qualify as arts and entertainment news), and the ever shrinking Star Ledger, art and culture are losing.

Where have all the local arts-beat reporters gone? Where are the art, music, theatre, and dance critics? They appear to be vanishing from traditional public media except for some venerable old war horses that report dwindling readership and viewership. And they exist amidst the Wild West of Internet news where journalism standards are nonexistent and viewership is dependent on popularity, forcing arts organizations to publish their own news as independent online magazines.

That art and culture are falling off the organized news media’s map certainly is an affront to those who know and cherish their value, because it translates to a judgment from publishers and content providers that the arts are less worthy of public attention than what else sadly passes for news. Worse, though, in time it has potential to become victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy if everyday people have less access to art and culture, and eventually less incentive to find it.

So what is the future of arts journalism, separating it from the context of all journalism?  Rob Bettmann, Board Chair of DC Advocates for the Arts and publisher of Bourgeon, poses that question in a recent ArtsBlog and hits the heart of the issue. And the big questions that remain are, “Whose responsibility is it to fund arts journalism and train arts journalists while the field reinvents itself?”

The CriticCar in action

A few major news sources have, in desperation, taken on outside resources like The Greensboro News & Record that accepted $15,000 from Arts Greensboro to print 70 articles on arts and culture. Crowdsourcing  by the Minnesota Post was the vehicle used to raise $10,000 in 10 days to continue its arts blog, book reviews and arts and culture feature stories. Each example challenges journalistic ethics to the max, and yet it is clear this is a local and national issue that signals a crisis fit for the most ardent arts advocate.

The National Endowment for the Arts partnered with the James L. Knight Foundation in 2011 to form the Knight/NEA  Community Arts Journalism Challenge and fund creative solutions to the arts journalism challenge. Recently CriticCar Detroit received $45,000 from the NEA to support a mobile arts journalism and cultural criticism project designed to engage the public. CriticCar is on location at identified Detroit arts and cultural events and invites individuals including first-time attendees and expert critics to record their views of the event on camera. Conceived by journalist Jennifer Conlin, CriticCar records 30- to 90-second critiques and observations from attendees. The raw critiques are edited, graphics are added, and the reviews are uploaded on CriticCar’s new website, YouTube channel and Facebook page. In more than two years, CriticCar captured over 700 video interviews at 100 events and is expanding its definition of culture to cover block parties, auto shows, the culinary arts and other recreational activities as the definition of arts participation also evolves.

The Dodge Foundation has adopted Media in its grant docket to confront issues that are unique to New Jersey and to support traditional and innovative uses of media to educate and engage the public around issues of importance to New Jersey and its citizens, including the arts. Debbie Galant takes on the challenges of journalistic reporting in the very recent Dodge blog post (make sure you read it!), and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, through its inspired partnerships with the NEA, Dodge and by itself supports journalism and media innovation, engaged communities and fostering the arts. Unfortunately, the nearest resident Knight community for philanthropic purposes is in Philadelphia.

Clearly, this is a topic that requires more discussion and if folks post interest in the comment section of this blog, further exploration will be pursued.  In the meantime, the lingering and sometime nagging questions remain:

  • Who is training arts journalists (you’d be surprised at the number of Masters Degree programs that exist) and for what jobs?
  • What has happened to now unemployed arts journalists (ArtPride NJ’s Culture Vulture fee paid bloggers are, by and large, former print journalists)?
  • What is the future of arts participation without a healthy arts journalism component in New Jersey?
  • With access to bloggers in a variety of different formats (including video), what is credible, never mind reliable?
  • Is it up to the general public to crowdsource their arts and culture news like the recent indiegogo campaigns of Createquity, Lamplighter Magazine and New Jersey Stage?
  • And what are the priority goals for arts advocates when there are fewer sources that will post events, offer quality arts criticism, and write feature stories that show how valuable the arts are to other aspects of life?

We invite you to share your thoughts in the comments below.

Ann Marie Miller is Executive Director of ArtPride NJ, a statewide advocate for the arts. Learn more at http://artpridenj.com/. Above, a recent episode of The Arts Project with Maddie Orton on NJTV.