On November 12 I attended a fascinating evening hosted by Christies looking at the future of arts journalism, the second such event over the last few years, it turned out. I confess that a few weeks have passed but I’ve finally got around to writing up some notes I took during this discussion and the audience Q&A that followed. This isn’t a comprehensive report from the session but hopefully it captures the main points and tenor of the discussion. If anyone who was there thinks I missed anything salient do get in touch. So then…

The panel comprised: Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor; FT arts editor Jan Dalley; our good friend Leonora Thomson, the Barbican Centre’s Director of Audiences & Development; and Richard Morrison, senior Arts Correspondent for The Times. The panel was hosted someone who’s strictly outside the arts world but who’s nonetheless very familiar with the challenges to journalism across the board, Roy Greenslade, media commentator for The Guardian and City University’s Professor of Journalism.

The discussion kicked off with 5 minutes or so of personal introduction and general observations from each of the panellists. Richard Morrison is something of a veteran, having worked under no less than 8 editors at The Times and having lived through the Wapping dispute. Indeed, he ended up writing about the arts because of departmental sackings. He confessed from the start that “no newspaper would close because it stopped covering the arts” (a sobering thought). He briefly mentioned arts blogs, saying that while there were definitely issues there, they had definitely opened up the debate around the arts generally. (We would return to this quite a lot.)

Dalley opened with the idea that the relationship between the arts world and journalism is an essential one – I think in both senses of the word. She agreed that blogs demonstrate a widespread “lively engagement with the arts” but thought that the standards just weren’t high enough. That said, she thought this was to some extent the case in mainstream journalism too, with some real failings in training.

Thomson said that without doubt everything had changed over the last few years, but agreed with Dalley that the arts/press relationship remained hugely important. Moreover, there’s so much arts activity in the modern world that journalists have a responsibility to curate it for the public. She also made the intriguing early remark that quite a number of established critics were struggling to find a way to discuss “digital creativity”. In parallel with this, arts PR people struggle to keep pace with social media developments.

She also pointed to two wider issues: that social media (and all media for that matter) are increasingly obsessed with celebrity culture and that the crisis in arts journalism reflected the wider position of arts in the culture (her observations that politicians seem almost embarrassed to be at arts events raised a chuckle).

Gompertz wasn’t nearly so gloomy, pointing out how difficult it was for Joan Bakewell to place arts stories in the allegedly halcyon 60s and that there is a huge appetite for arts stories on BBC online, from Ai Weiwei to Pussy Riot, via Justin Bieber. He admitted, with reference to the latter, that there was always a danger of falling into the celeb culture Thomson had referenced but felt that on the whole at the BBC they got the balance about right. (That said, he was apparently about to have half his team sacked, so one wonders how widely at the BBC this “huge appetite” was appreciated.)

Dalley picked up on the point about digital arts, saying that without doubt younger journalists took this in their stride, being very flexible about the whole range of multimedia, although she did repeat that despite their evident cleverness, too many of them have poor writing habits. Morrison described how back in the day a lot of arts journalists had made the leap from specialist arts magazines to the mainstream. As such they’d already had a lot of schooling in writing for print, albeit for smaller audiences. Will bloggers make that leap in the future? And how will they differ from their forebears?

There was an intriguing side-discussion about class. Dalley observed that the overwhelming majority of young journalists had gone to independent schools. This undoubtedly reflects a wider problem in society, but is a problem nonetheless. I wondered how it might affect the kinds of arts that are covered by the press, if at all?

There was a consensus that commercial sponsorship of the arts is pretty much essential, but that it presents some real problems for journalists covering sponsored events. It’s one thing if a sponsor had paid for (the much expensive) “ title sponsorship” – Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize etc – but otherwise, arts journalists are under no obligation to mention sponsors. That said, both Morrison and Dalley admitted that the position had changed over the years and these days journalists would often mention sponsors “as a service to the wider culture”.

Greenslade raised the issue of the key difference between general arts journalism and criticism specifically. Again there was general agreement on the fact that few critics had the kind of power they’d once had – the reputed ability to single handedly close shows. That said, a critical consensus could still have a massive impact one way or the other. Thomson pointed out that at least in classical music, critics could help build performers’ and conductors’ careers (“a healthy power”, Dalley put in).

Of course, editors love it when a critic “puts the boot in”, as with the Glyndebourne/Tara Erraught spat earlier this year – a spat with which Morrison was closely associated (whether this had backfired or should be filed under “all news is good news” was a moot point.)

There was an interesting exchange about coverage of regional (ie non-London) arts activity in the national press. The picture that emerged here was one of reduced budgets leading to travel and accommodation expenses being unsustainable (indeed, these would generally outweigh the fee by a factor of three).

On the flip side, I was struck by Dalley’s observation that the FT’s arts coverage brings in a huge amount of valuable advertising – not from arts organisations but from luxury brands who clearly see an association with the arts as some kind of validation.

Finally, perhaps the most heated bit of the discussion was around social media in general and twitter in particular. Twitter had been arguably the main weapon in two recent campaigns against arts events: the Met’s staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klighoffer and the Barbican’s allegedly racist art installation/exhibition Exhibit B (the Met, by the way, went ahead, whereas the Barbican pulled the piece. Thomson talked about the latter at some length. She felt that ultimately the press dealt with the story responsibly but that in had taken them some time to get there; initially they had been caught up in the twitter storm as much as the public. The consensus here was that twitter can generate an awful lot of “noise” – and that it’s the journalist’s job to cut through and bring clarity to complex cases.

All in all, I found the evening thoroughly engaging (not least as a music journalist-turned-blogger!) and look forward to seeing the subject returned to in another couple of years.

Simon

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