Could the Knight Foundation's Attempt to Save Art Journalism Actually Hasten Its Decline?

Could the Knight Foundation's Attempt to Save Art Journalism Actually Hasten Its Decline?
CriticCar Detroit, a mobile recording booth that traverses the city, is designed as a community-generated source for discussions about the arts.

No one who cares about arts journalism disputes that it is in trouble. Jobs are being lost, content has been thinned, and investigative reporting and long-form writing are losing emphasis. Earlier this month, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the winners of the highly-anticipated Knight Foundation 2012 Community Arts Journalism Challenge, each of whom will be receiving $80,000 to launch "innovative ideas for informing and engaging people in the arts." The program was meant to seed ideas that could become sustainable new models for art writing. It's a laudable goal, and it comes as no surprise that the reaction to the grants has been, as far as I can tell, altogether positive.

On the surface of things, the proposals for "new models" of art coverage that won the Challenge will indeed broaden arts journalism's audience and perhaps even help smaller communities feel more connected to the local ecosystem of arts and culture. There's ample reason to doubt, however, that the winners of the Challenge will save the profession as a whole from crisis. In fact, they may even make the problem worse.

First, let's talk about what the winners are proposing. The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance will use their grant to share content and column space among local publications covering the arts, and train their staff to write about the arts more intelligently. A similar content-sharing arrangement called Art Attack will be supported in Philadelphia between the Philadelphia Daily News and Drexel University. Finally, in Detroit, a NEA-funded mobile video booth called CriticCar will travel around the city and give folks the opportunity to record their own reviews of arts events. "The forces of media tend to appeal only to the readers they already have," CriticCar co-creator Dan Shaw told NPR. "We wanted to allow everybody to offer a critique of a cultural event, to make people think of all the different cultural institutions as part of one big community."

If they want to survive, members of the art journalism profession must look for ways to adapt themselves to the new order, one in which information is shared and criticism is democratized. As even my cursory summary suggests, the models awarded by the Knight grants have potential for addressing this — but they do little to validate the work of the talented, energetic people who make arts journalism their livelihood, or to make it more sustainable as a profession.

While the idea of training writers to be more intelligent about the subject has promise, and some journalists or would-be journalists in Charlotte and Philadelphia might be grateful for the increased exposure that the content-sharing agreements between institutions might potentially bring, they won't benefit nearly as much as their publishers, who will find themselves better able to create economies of scale. Sharing content is a way to allow publishers to do more with less ("The Daily News is not paying for content, but they're providing the real estate in the paper, which has some cost and, obviously, their editors are involved," Drexel University's Jason Wilson told NPR.) It is unlikely to produce a particular boom in arts writing jobs, then. 

But the project that really stands out is the CriticCar, where the undermining of professional arts journalism is pretty much-head on. By suggesting that the opinion of a crowd-sourced critic is no more valid (or trivial) than that of an expert, it's hard to imagine how the latter party could justify being paid. The whole reason why some people are paid rather than others, presumably, is that some people have invested the time and effort into learning more about a subject than the average reader. To win a place for professionals, the public must somehow be convinced that not all opinions are equally illuminating.

Institutions receiving support from the Knight Foundation are dedicated to two of arts journalism's primary objectives: distributing high-quality content (in Charlotte and Philadelphia) and engaging the non-art community (in Detroit). If the profession hopes to survive in the digital age, then it's crucial that these not be conflated with another important goal: Intelligent and capable arts journalists must be given the financial support they need to survive.