Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“Here & Now” on “Art Critics Out”

Plus the future – and finances – of web arts journalism

Yesterday “Here & Now” on WBUR radio in Boston broadcast a report called “Art Critics Out,” which looked at online arts coverage in the face of cuts to the ranks of arts critics at newspapers nationwide.

“In the past year, 121 music, dance, film and book critics lost their jobs, as newspapers try to shore up their bottom line,” the radio program explained. “We speak with Doug McLennan, editor of the arts journalism blog He says the future of professional art criticism might be online.”

Of all the people to talk to about this subject, McLennan is an odd choice, considering that ArtsJournal is primarily an aggregator of newspaper reports (and not a blog exactly). It does host blogs, which are practically the only original reports on the website. But asked by “Here & Now”'s Robin Young if he pays his bloggers, McLennan said, “We’re actually about to start doing that. The problem with blogs is that they don’t by themselves perhaps generate enough income to have a large pool of advertisers. But my sense is that if we network a number of like blogs together that then you expand the number of advertisers. And so the bloggers will get the revenue from that.”

In other words, most all of the website’s content is generated at no cost to him. This is not any sort of model for the future of professional arts journalism – or any journalism – if your definition of journalism includes, say, producing news content.

So it felt odd for him to be criticizing newspaper business models. He said (accurately, I believe) that newspaper readership has shifted significantly to the Internet, but newspapers haven’t yet figured out how to make as much money for online ads as they do for print ads. “It’s a failure of business, rather than of journalism,” he said.

“Even though this is a very painful transition from one model that doesn’t work,” McLennon went on, “ultimately what will come out is something much, much better than what we’ve had. The question is what will that be.”

So what will it be?

Times are tough for newspapers and will continue to be – particularly for editorial staff (who face more job cuts) and printing press workers (whose jobs will be eliminated forever). Some newspapers will close. But my thinking is that at some point within the next five years the newspaper industry will tip and most all newspapers will shift to web-mostly.

Newspaper readers have already switched to the web. Last fall the Globe claimed "2.3 million combined and print online readers in the Boston market" versus 360,695 daily paid circulation. The definition of these terms is confusing to me. (What's the difference between "4.2 million unique visitors to the website" and "combined print and online readers"?) But if I'm understanding the numbers correctly, the Globe is saying it has 1.939 million online Boston readers versus 0.361 million print readers. That means that its web readership is more than five times print readership.

What will web journalism look like? Probably a lot like the brew of web words and multimedia that we’ve got now – but perhaps a bit faster, smoother, prettier. Maybe more customized news. Perhaps more social-networking-type stuff.

Already pretty much everything in print newspapers is posted to web as well – plus added web features (podcasts, video, reader forums) that aren't in print. The newspaper shift that’s coming isn’t about what new stuff will be online, but that newspapers will spend less effort on print – and perhaps abandon it all together.

Some other interesting web-only journalism models to consider include sites like Talking Points Memo (which seems to be making money) and the blog Modern Art Notes by Tyler Green (which has hardly any ads and based on McLennon’s comments I’m assuming is a money loser). These act and look a lot like vigorous newspaper sections or magazines devoted to specific subjects: politics/op-ed or arts.

Once newspapers switch to web-mostly, I think newspaper ad revenues will steady and then grow. One of the problems for newspapers now is that advertisers have a better bargaining position than newspapers do. They can argue that ad space is less valuable because newspapers are losing print readers, and it's unclear how big and valuable their web audience is. And advertisers can take advantage of newspapers being generally weak.

But once newspapers commit to web-mostly, newspapers will be in a stronger bargaining position. They won't be competing against themselves by selling ads in print and online anymore. Most ads will be web-mostly, so advertisers will have to buy web ads or nothing. The readership will be online. And newspapers will be back to the local near monopoly or bi-opoly status that they had enjoyed in most major metro areas. So they'll be able to charge more for web ads.

There’s already a financial model for art blogs like The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research that attract a readership equivalent to that of, say, a small suburban weekly newspaper. The model is small suburban weekly newspapers, which through advertising dollars are generally able to financially support at least one full-time reporter, plus at least a part-time editor. It’s not a model that would get you rich, but it’s a start.

But how can art bloggers begin selling ads without creating conflicts of interest? Sure there are restaurants, art schools, art supply stores, and frame shops that you could get advertising from and not necessarily write about. But what happens if you get advertising from people you cover – like the museums who advertise in newspapers and magazines?

Another question is will newspaper arts coverage grow more robust if the web switch settles out and ad revenues improve? Will owners use their improved finances to add back staff being cut now? A journalism professor pal of mine who specializes in online news predicts most newspaper owners will keep staff levels as is and pocket the difference. I suspect she’s right.

The Globe’s Geoff Edgers blogs about the state of newspapers and arts blogging.
The Seattle-Post Intelligencer’s Regina Hackett blogs about how arts organizations can produce their own critic-bloggers.
ArtsJournal's Doug McLennan on "Who Put These Guys In Charge? (Why Newspapers Are Failing)."


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