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Newspapers coverage of arts vs. entertainment

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Apparently the NY Times is changing it's coverage, slightly.

Any writers have any comments?

Personally, I think they barely cover the ballet scene enough. The less than 100 word reviews are inadequate and read more as promotional (at times).


"According to a phrase picked up last week by the entertainment journal Variety, Mr Raines has expressed a desire to see "less Peking Opera, and more Britney Spears". Apparently, he finds the Sunday Arts & Leisure section, with its lengthy ruminations on porcelain, ballet technique and Upper West Side beaux-arts collectors, as well as its essays on the movies and its rendering of the cultural gossip of the moment, to be "boring". It's something he intends to remedy when he replaces John Rockwell, the solid, well-respected Arts & Leisure editor who announced his departure in December."

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That is a sad commentary on what is considered "entertainment". Entertainment for whom? The NY Times is the only NYC paper that covers what I consider the fine arts of opera and ballet and art as in Old Master paintings and shows at Moma and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other NY newspapers (NY Post, Newsday and the Daily News) could care less and I have never seen them talk about ballet. It's as if the only entertainment that exists is entertainment aka Hollywood and MTV. So much for adult reviews of adult entertainment. What adult sees Britney anyway?

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Not to defend them completely, but the other NY papers do cover the ballet scene, the Post with Clive Barnes covers a bit more than Newsday and the Daily News (which generally do only choreographic debuts and opening nights for ABT and NYCB)

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Barnes' reviews are quite short and, although Gold does do some reviews for Newsday, I don't believe the NY Daily News has had many ballet reviews since Terry Teachout left.

Maybe if the NYTimes subscribers here wrote in, they might (though probably not) re-think this decision. It's sad.

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PLEASE if this change in attitude upsets you write in. Get your families to write in, and the neighbors across the hall. You can do it by email on the NYTimes site -- no need to hunt for a stamp.

This change in direction is also troubling because, as the article points out, the Times does set a standard. There are other papers who have been edging in this direction for years but haven't dared dump the high arts because they don't want to look like yahoos. If the Times goes Britney, it's giving the rest of the industry permission to be yahoos.

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I think this article overstates what the changes will be, before backtracking and saying things won't be so bad after all. I don't know who Andrew Gumbel is, but one of the sins of his piece is misrepresenting the columns of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich. Both are certainly hip to pop culture, but they are also utterly serious commentators. You can be amusing and serious at the same time. I'm tired of seeing the Times referred to as "the good gray Times." It hasn't been that in many years. I thought only the NY Post failed to realize that.

And if I can put in a good word for the Daily News, albeit the News of an earlier day: in November of 1989, the News was the only New York daily to mark Suzanne's farewell performance with an EDITORIAL! It was a beautiful piece, very touching, and obviously written by someone who knew ballet. I wonder where that editorial writer is now.

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Farrell Fan, the comments on Dowd and Rich might make more sense if one sees them from a journalist's perspective. There's a line between serious news and pop culture that has been crossed, and once it is crossed, it becomes easier and easier to cross it. Newscasts also report on serious news, but devote hours to The Missing Intern, or other "people features" instead of reporting on what the **** is going on in the Middle East.

I think one of the roles of critics (in any field) is to see these warning signs and sound an alert. Because they have a broad overview of the field, they often see them before the rest of us. The problem with writing one pop piece is that, in today's era of The Marketeer, they'll do the numbers very rapidly. Putting Madonna on the cover of Time sells more copies than putting Arafat or Sharon on the cover. Writing a commentary for fun on a pop culture subject and soon you'll be directed to write more of them. And so it goes.

When Entertainment Tonight first went on the air, I read many editorials about what this would mean to television news. I thought they had overreacted. I was wrong :(

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I remember when Joffrey did "Billboards" to a score/music by Prince (or the artist formerly known as...) and I thought it was such a sellout, not literally, but in terms of trying to bring ballet up to a pop culture status.

I'm always saddened that in this country more people know that Britney Spears broke up with her boyfriend, than know what's going on in the Middle East.

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I find myself in the position of seeming to defend less coverage of ballet and the Peking Opera and more uncoverage of Britney Spears. I'm not doing that. I would like to point out, though, that in the original posting, the "less Peking Opera, more Britney Spears" remark was attributed to Howell Raines, the Executive Editor of the Times. In The New Criterion piece, it's credited to "an unnamed Times reporter." Is it possible somebody made it up? To me it has a somewhat apocryphal ring. As for the dumbing down of the Times, I know when that began -- when art critic Hilton Kramer left, or was let go, I'm not sure which. Fortunately, he went on to found The New Criterion.

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believe or not Madonna said "there is nothing cultural about pop" whether she meant pop music or pop cultural, still seems the same.

though I admit to being of a generation that loves pop culture! and ballet, I just know the difference.

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Thanks for this link, Calliope. It's interesting that Gumbel praises the "Watching Movies with..." series, which Raines is discontinuing on the grounds that they're too close to puff pieces for the movie people, not serious enough. And that "The Talented Mr. Ripley" piece is Gumbel's idea of high cultural coverage? I'm with Farrell Fan on the wording of the Britney Spears quote -- it sounds just a little too pat. Raines just arrived as executive editor, he's shaking things up, people are going to get unhappy and leak to other papers about it.

The Times is confronting a declining and aging readership, as are all newspapers, and it may be trying to reach beyond the older upscale types who are reading those articles about the Peking Opera and porcelain. That's not a dishonorable objective, if that is in fact the case. Obviously I've no desire to read more about Britney Spears, but I don't want to say that pop culture is beyond the pale or not worthy of equal time. Gumbel complains about Dowd and Rich; does anyone but me recall the days when the Times' editorial page was the place where senile executive editors went to babble away their dotage? (The far from senile Joseph Lelyveld is currently gracing the pages of The New York Review of Books, I'm pleased to note.) Does he want to bring back the golden days of Flora Lewis, the aging Reston, and the ineffable A.M. Rosenthal? Pleeze.

Rockwell notes that he was once a rock critic. If I recall correctly from the Fong-Torres/Bangs/Marsh/Marcus era, the other rock critics regarded him as pretty much of a joke.

Calliope, if the Times adds one more new section, I've had it. I just received a letter with my Sunday Times, explaining that they are adding even more feature-type sections on this day and that day. I think this just means more full color photographs of focaccia, arugula salad, and interior decor -- that is, advertiser friendly features. Well, even the Times has to live, I guess. :D

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Interestingly enough, the daily newspaper I rely on for good arts reporting and reviwing is ... The Wall Street Journal! Whoever edits the "Leisure & Arts" page clearly has a commitment to "the arts" as well as to entertainment and liesure generally. I'm always amazed at the number of column inches devoted to genres with relatively limited audiences -- e.g., an extensive piece that covered Christa Ludwig's series master classes for young lieder singers at Carnegie last year. (Today's edition contains Heidi Walseson's review of several operas performed recently in NYC and an piece by Sheila Melvin about a ballet based on "Raise the Red Lantern" performed by the National Ballet of China in China -- i.e., it's not even a "local" story.) The peices are almost always thoughtful, insightful, and engaging and the dance writing is, in my opinion, much better than anything cranked out by The NYT.

What's interesting to me is that the percentage of the WSJ readership that buys the paper BECAUSE of its arts coverage is undoubtedly miniscule -- I can't imagine that the commitment to regular, high quality arts reporting arises from the belief that it will materially increase circulation. Nor can I imagine that cutting such coverage would make even a tiny dent in circulation. (I'd still buy it, for instance, since I read it for professional reasons.) In short, I don't know why the WSJ has arts reporting at all, much less good arts reporting, but I'm glad it does!

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The Journal is also reacting to readership issues similar to that faced by the Times; increased arts coverage may not seem like a commercial move, but the WSJ is trying to pull in a wider audience than its traditional white-older-guy reader profile. So the heftier arts and feature coverage is part of an attempt to attract readers who are younger and female, and not necessarily business subscribers. Not that they aren't to be applauded for the excellent coverage, but the motive isn't entirely altruistic. :)

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Re the WSJ's attempt to broaden its readership: I really know nothing about their strategy in this regard. I do know that they will soon unveil a redesigned front page and a daily "Personal Journal" section which, per the WSJ, "aims to help consumers make decisions important to their pocketbooks and personal lives" -- and this latter certainly seems like an attempt to appeal to a broader base (as I assume the Friday "Weekend Journal" section is), though the focus is still primarily economic / business related. (The "Weekend Journal" section strikes me as very much about how to spend one's money.) The daily arts coverage has been there for a while now, so I don't think it's necessarily a new tactic to broaden the base. However, it's certainly encouraging if it's been done because the folks running the paper believe it will increase readership!

I guess I find the arts coverage puzzling since the WSJ's focus is primarily on economic affairs and the business community; its coverage of non-business events and issues is generally from the perspective of the impact they may have on the business community (or consumers' pocketbooks) and one's professional life (e.g., the personal techonology articles or work/life balance columns) -- and the arts / leisure coverage doesn't quite fit into that paradigm. I'd be interested to know what percentage of its readership wan't primarily interested in its business coverage as professionals, but rather, read it for personal investment guidance or some other reason. But now I'm getting off topic! Bottom line: it has to be a positive that a newspaper primarily focussed on business and the business community covers the arts.

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I wonder if the WSJ's increased arts coverage has anything to do with its ongoing competition with the Financial Times, which has had a highly regarded arts section for many years. By "competition" I don't mean a scramble for readers, because I agree with Kathleen that the number of those who value this kind of coverage is probably a miniscule part of their overall circulation. I'm thinking more in terms of "anything you can do I can do better."

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I stand with dirac and Farrell Fan (full disclosure: a personal friend, though we often disagree) in resisting the trend to panic.

A bit of context might be useful here. Only three daily newspapers seek national readership: USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. The Times stands third in circulation, and views (for obvious reasons) the Journal as its main rival. The Journal has unveiled this week a sweeping re-design, including more emphasis on service features -- "news you can use" in consultant-speak -- and stories about entertainment and recreation. ERGO, the Times seeks to respond with its own added emphasis on service features. The "Dining In/Dining Out" section, for instance, now covers restaurant news from across the country and offers less dish for New York foodies. Friday will bring a regular section on week-end travel. And on and on....

In such a context, it's not surprising to see editors pressing for more prominent coverage of popular culture in the Sunday paper which, after all, provides nearly all of the paper's profits. (Almost every American paper breaks even during the week and makes its profits on Sunday. The Wall Street Journal is the obvious exception, and the Times would love to press this advantage.)

At the same time, I am sure that Howell Raines, like every other senior editor at the paper, cherishes its role as "the newspaper of record." In this context, I am sure that the paper's policy will continue to be to review every dance performance in any major venue, or even a minor venue with a good press agent and good timing. It does keep three full-time critics on its payroll, it does pay to send them to major events around the world, and it pays stringers to write up events that staff critics can't get to.

Are there delays in publishing? Are reviews short? Are there a gazillion demands for space in the paper? Do editors have to make cuts to balance all those competing demands? Is a 300-word review better than no review at all? Given the quotes I have seen in programs and publicity, that 300-word review may serve an emerging dancer or choreographer quite well, thank you.

Finally, let me note that, as our local public radio station slashes its classical music programming (half the surviving music airs after midnight), the Times' WQXR-FM continues to air classical music 24/7. Yes, the programming is conservative and the ads are annoying, but it's the only place you'll hear Bach in the morning. More to the point, if the Times wanted to "maximize shareholder returns," they would have gone to a news-talk format years ago. Their persistence with a commercially outdated format convinces me, at least, that the Times would rather be classy than crass, even if it means reduced profits. And even if it means sending Anna Kisslegoff on yet another trip to Paris and St. Petersburg.

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A note to Kathleen O'Connell, from a long-time advertising professional:

In covering the arts and lifestyle issues, the WSJ is seeking to make itself the "primary read" of its customers. In other words, by providing this sort of coverage, they are hoping to increase reliance on their paper and reduce the time their readers spend with other sources -- like, say, The New York Times, or the dominant daily in any other city. The Journal would dearly love to make those other papers "secondary reads" -- i.e. newspapers that get much less attention and therefore command less lucrative ad rates. For most of its history, the Journal itself was the "secondary read," of interest only to investors and executives.

It's also true that, as the business world admits more and more women to its top ranks, "feminine" concerns like arts and recreation are becoming more important in corporate decisions. Stereotypical as this may sound, it was a woman who created "Weekend Journal," which has been a huge commercial success, and she has been the leader of the re-design team.

Finally, you flunked the "frequently misspelled words" test. It's "minuscule."

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Originally posted by Morris Neighbor

In covering the arts and lifestyle issues, the WSJ is seeking to make itself the "primary read" of its customers.  In other words, by providing this sort of coverage, they are hoping to increase reliance on their paper and reduce the time their readers spend with other sources -- like, say, The New York Times, or the dominant daily in any other city.  The Journal would dearly love to make those other papers "secondary reads" -- i.e. newspapers that get much less attention and therefore command less lucrative ad rates. For most of its history, the Journal itself was the "secondary read," of interest only to investors and executives.

Finally, you flunked the "frequently misspelled words" test.  It's "minuscule."

I agree that the WSJ is clearly trying to position itself as more than your dad's source for stock quotes. (Which it must do since no one really relies on newspapers for market quotes or even up-to-the-minute business news anymore. That's what Bloomberg and the internet are for.) I'm a news junkie, so it's difficult for me to imagine the WSJ becoming my "primary read" since it doesn't really cover non-business news. I'm probably somewhat unusual in that I'd continue to buy both the NYT and the WSJ even if they reverted to their old black and white formats of a decade ago -- and dropped arts coverage altogether. Although ... I've noticed that I've begun to do most of my newpaper reading online. My "primary read' is probably the top dozen or so bookmarks in my "favorites" section that I cycle through while I eat breakfast in my office. I *used* to eat breakfast at home to read the paper version of the NYT. (It's amazing what access to a T-1 cable will induce one to do ...).

But I'm drifting off topic again! In any event, I'm definitely on the "let's not panic" end of the spectrum. In many ways, the arts continue to flourish and I think the internet is fostering a new kind of vibrant arts community -- just look at this board. I probably would never have met any of you personally "offline," but I have an opportunity now to paricipate in an ongoing conversation about a cherished art! I don't even bother with the NYT's dance reviews anymore, since I know I have access to much better coverage here! I attend 2+ performances of various types per week, and all are usually playing to capacity or near capacity crowds. It doesn't look like the arts are dying to me.

And yes indeed, I did misspell "minuscule." (And I'd be shocked if that were the only word I'd misspelled. This is what happens when one gets used to automatic spell-checking!)

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Kathleen O'Connell really brings this whole discussion to its logical conclusion: in this age of proliferating media, "The Newspaper of Record" is less important than ever.

Still and all, it's nice to know that some mention of every dance performance in New York City will make it into the stacks (real or electronic) of every major library in the world.

In my disquistion on the media, I also forgot to mention that Newsday is also making a new run at Times readers. Clearly, success is its own punishment.

As for "minuscule," I must apologize if I sounded petty or vindictive. Seeing even a minor mistake in a message so elegantly composed and persuasively argued brought out my inner William Safire. I promise to chain him in the dungeon from now on, and sincerely regret any embarrassment I might have caused.

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Thank you, MN, for your very gracious post. I hope no one found it petty or vindictive, but we've found we get along better if we don't correct each other. I've heard frightening tales of the opera and skating boards, and I know that there are many sites where much of the fun is in the well-placed barb and the resultant riposte, but we try to do things differently.

Sorry for the administrative intrusion, everyone -- back to this interesting topic :D

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