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The future of arts journalism

Page history last edited by Alison Croggon 13 years, 3 months ago

I am not wholly convinced that government policy can or should play any great part in the development of arts journalism, either in traditional print or online. My immediate instinct is that these activities ought to be independent of government assistance. On the other hand, this may not be realistic in a world dominated by corporate imperatives, which by their nature push aside the imperatives of the arts. There is no doubt that arts journalism worldwide faces increasing challenges, and the effects of inadequate arts coverage on artistic activities in Australia is so deleterious, there may be an argument in favour of restoring the balance.

 

One obvious, necessary and urgent solution that is unarguably within the scope of government is to restore the Arts Charter of the ABC and to incorporate a more specific obligation to the arts in the SBS charter.

 

Commercial media

 

In the US, print arts journalists complain about a shrinking employment market and increased competition from Web 2.0. The space and attention devoted to the arts in the broadsheet newspapers is steadily declining. This trend is reflected in major media organisations here, although this is part of an on-going decline. And unlike British newspapers, we can't look back to a golden age of arts coverage. The initiative between the Australian newspaper and the Australia Council in printing the Australian Literary Review shows that co-operation between government and mass media is possible, in addressing the need for in-depth essay-style work in a mass media format.

 

There are two interrelated problems:

 

1. The arts are not given enough space in our daily papers (in general, the only time that the arts reach the front pages is when there is a scandal or a celebrity-driven story). This is a question of what is considered news content, an ethos on which government policy can and must have no effect in a democratic society, and results from the fact that newspaper editors are not in general at all interested in the arts. 

 

2. The quality of coverage of the arts in the mainstream press is, all too often, indifferent, ill-informed, merely reactive and sometimes openly hostile. Too often it closes down critical discourse, rather than contributing to it.

 

The question of space could be addressed by the government buying advertising, with the specific intention of sponsoring pages devoted to arts coverage. A quarter page advertisement in the "Entertainment" section of Saturday's Age costs around $5,000. The government could perhaps buy two pages of advertising a week in selected newspapers (which could be useful in promoting other activities), with the proviso that the advertising finances enhanced coverage of the arts, over and above the usual coverage. (The final bit is crucial: newspapers couldn't accept this advertising opportunistically). However, more coverage means more journalists and more freelance fees, and a concomitant increase in the budgets of arts editors. The question is whether a newspaper would be open to this commitment.

 

This proposal doesn't address the issue of editorial quality, which is rather more vexed. Serious though I think the question is, this is one area where I think that government policy has no part: state bodies or artistic organisations cannot and must not direct the editorial decisions of newspapers. Where there are committed and informed editors, better coverage would follow the provision of more pages, and any such scheme would have to follow a judgment on the general quality of the newspaper's coverage. The question of what "quality" means is of course a rich source of disagreement. I leave this one up for discussion, since I think it has whiskers all over it, but is worth thinking about, all the same.

 

Blogs

 

A new public space has opened in the past few years: Web 2.0 technologies, user-driven interactive software that produces thing like YouTube, Facebook and, of course, blogs. Here in Australia, arts bloggers have risen rapidly in importance in the past two years in the critical conversation. I think this is, broadly speaking, a good thing. The concentration of media ownership in Australia - the highest in the western world - has heretofore meant that only a limited number of voices and perceptions have been given public space. The phenomenon of Web 2.0 has seriously challenged this hegemony. The implications of this shift has yet to be seen fully, and are difficult to predict: the internet is a volatile and fickle place, and things rise and fall very quickly. But there is no doubt that this shift in media power is far-reaching, and the days of the gatekeepers, when a very small number of commentators had a stranglehold over the public cultural agenda, seem to be over.

 

However, directly funding things like blogs runs the risk of imposing an institutional structure onto an essentially anarchic phenomenon. On the one hand, it would be a way of providing incentive. Blogs are a good medium for critical discussion, and critics here have very little incentive to be good critics, since the rewards are the same whether they work hard or not (and in fact there have been major disincentives to being a critical voice in Australia, in which artistic organisations have not been entirely guiltless). Running a quality blog, as I can personally attest, requires a large and on-going investment of time and labour, since if it is to be successful it requires constant new material and constant interaction with readers. And ultimately, it is not realistic to expect many people to make this kind of investment on an on-going basis without any kind of renumeration. 

 

The state is already funding websites such as Theatre Alive, sponsored by Arts Victoria, which is effectively an information portal for news about independent performing arts in Melbourne, or the online version of Real Time magazine. However, these sites show few signs of the interactive dynamism that makes Web 2.0 most interesting. There is a good argument for funding internet sites that act as resources or archives for information, but exploiting the full resources of interactive technology is more complex.

 

Carefully targeted funding might well encourage a higher quality of work on Web 2.0 but I still feel a degree of ambivalence about this. The danger again is that funding Web 2.0 initiatives might result merely in more of the same. Funding individualistic phenomena like blogs might indeed be counterproductive: it may encourage a standardisation and conformity, a competitive and career-driven mindset, even self-censorship, that is at odds with the whole ethos of blogging. Another criticism would be that, in a limited funding climate, funding commentators is taking money that could be better spent on artists. Although, as I pointed out, we already fund many such enterprises.

 

The most positive involvement in these sites for places like the Australia Council might be if it chose to aggressively advertise or otherwise promote the more interesting blogs and online zines, perhaps with advertisements in the arts pages of newspapers and other mainstream media.

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