The Changing Print Environment and the New Media Revolution

The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Kansas City Star, Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and nearly the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. What do these newspapers have in common? Over the past years, full-time classical music critic positions at these organizations have been eliminated.

In 2004, the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University published “Reporting the Arts II.” This expansive work takes a critical look at news coverage of arts and culture in the United States, comparing data with the identical earlier study in 1999.

Although Chicago comes out relatively strong in the study, compared to other cities nationwide—the Chicago Tribune was the only among 17 metropolitan newspapers to register a marginal increase in the size of its overall arts news hole—we have seen some recent changes that might cause concern, not the least being the exit of the full-time classical music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. The resulting vacancy has been filled with freelance reporters.

Justin Davidson, critic for New York Magazine and former critic of Newsday, wrote for Musical America on July 3, 2008: “[…] it would be an error to attribute this dispiriting attrition to a philistine attack on the arts, or to focus too much on its meaning for cultural pursuits. The de-criticization of American journalism is a symptom of a much deeper tragedy in civic life: the lunatic suicide of the press.”

It’s not just anecdotes. Statistics from the Newspaper Association of America show a decline in circulation numbers since the mid 1980s; from a daily circulation of over 63 million in 1984 to a daily circulation of 52 million in 2006.

According to the Columbia University survey, the arts news hole went from an average of 5,489 column inches to 4,994 column inches, from 1998 to 2003. Articles have also gotten shorter: at nearly half of the researched newspapers, stories were at least 20 percent shorter.

Although arts gained ground on hard news, the arts lost ground to other sections, especially the well-read sport sections. At the Chicago Tribune, the daily Tempo section, which contains arts, culture, media and technology, represented only 5 percent of the papers pagination.

This is in stark contrast to the revenue the arts bring to newspapers. Cultural editor Steve Erlanger of The New York Times, which admittedly has the most prominent arts coverage, states in the report: “The arts section brings in 35 percent of the paper’s revenue. We know there is a large, interested audience out there.”

Yet, however much relative revenue arts sections generate, another tell-tale sign of declining business for newspapers are advertising expenditures. In general terms, advertising expenditures in newspapers decreased from $47.4 billion in 2005 to $42.2 billion in 2007. The first quarter of 2008 saw a decline in print advertising of nearly 15% compared to the same quarter in 2007; the sharpest decline since they started measuring in 1971.

However, in that same period from 2005 to 2007, online advertising expenditures increased from $2 billion to $3.2 billion. Not enough to cover the loss of advertising in print, but a good indicator of slowly shifting priorities. This shift is further highlighted by the fact that monthly unique visitor numbers for newspaper Web sites rose from 41 million in January 2004 to 69 million in May 2008 (and in active reach percentages, numbers rose from 27.5% to 41.7%).

The Columbia University study also reports that “there is an emerging awareness that the existing structures of arts journalism are overloaded and outmoded. […] incremental adjustments to the preview-review model of coverage cannot keep up with rapid changes in the cultural environment. As more news is forced down the same pipeline, the limitations of the arts-journalism infrastructure become increasingly evident.”

Davidson concludes his article for Musical America with some insightful pondering:

“So what’s a poor critic to do? For one thing, don’t cling to a leaky tub. The future of arts criticism may be as an extension of the arts world, rather than as a neglected corner of journalism. Museums, orchestras and performing organizations in each community could come together to set up an independent, hyper-local, online-only arts bulletin staffed by a formerly ink-stained wretch. The consortium could provide seed money, mailing lists, advertising and – most important – a guarantee of editorial independence […] the payoff would be an invigorated conversation about the arts, a built-in audience of readers who have been betrayed by the local paper and the beginnings of a strategy for surviving the implosion of traditional news.”

In the last decade, the Internet has evolved from providing information—static content—toward a more social and dynamic medium. Mary Madden of the Pew Internet project observed in an April 22, 2008 keynote address to the Chicago arts community: “the Internet moved from slow and stationary to fast and mobile.” In 1999, four authors wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, which proclaimed the end of business as usual:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

In 95 theses, ranging from “Paranoia kills conversation. That’s its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies” to “We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal,” the authors urge companies to join “the conversation.”

Currently, terms such as “new media,” “social media” and “Web 2.0” are used to describe the move to more participation, openness, conversation, community, and connectedness on the Internet (from iCrossing’s “What is Social Media?”). Noted orchestra consultant and blogger Drew McManus writes: “For example, video games are a form of new media but there is little opportunity to create a two-way relationship with that particular platform.”

Back to The Cluetrain Manifesto: thesis number 57 pleads the case that “smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.” Seeing the decline in traditional arts coverage, the inevitable, it seems, is an increase in participation and conversations with your community.