The Oregonian layoffs and the ArtsWatch Wager

The newspaper industry turmoil has hit Portland...and the arts

Last week at this time the rank-and-file employees of  The Oregonian’s newsroom were facing the ultimate job evaluation. Would they be invited into the brave, new digital future that their managers suggested was out there, somewhere, even though they had a hard time articulating exactly what it was? Or was this the end of their time at the newspaper and possibly their careers in daily journalism?

Although then-Editor, now “Vice President of Content,” Peter Bhatia told Willamette Week that a primary criterion for this judgment was something we might call “projectable digital savvy,” most of the names of the damned that came tumbling out of that series of meetings were more experienced and expensive reporters, some of whom had pretty large social media footprints and thus projectable digital savvy. And they had “journalistic skill and impact” (Bhatia’s other stated criteria) in abundance.

At the same that publisher N. Christian Anderson III, who apparently doesn’t have a new digital title (might we suggest: Oregonian Online Poobah Supremo), announced the culling of the newsroom (something like 50 positions, as it turns out), he and his corporate bosses in New Jersey, Advance Publications, abandoned the daily newspaper home delivery model here, as they’d already done at many of their other newspaper properties around the country. Starting in October, readers will have to trek to the corner store or news box to pick up a paper on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday…and maybe Saturday—the announcement was a little unclear.

640px-The_Weekly_Oregonian_1859 2The newspapers they will receive won’t be as good, because so many of the reporters who were disinvited were quite good at the business of finding changes in the world and telling us about them in clear prose. And the newspaper’s digital product, first dubbed “MyDigitalO” before clearer heads prevailed, will be worse, too, because by this time, we know that good reporting is good reporting wherever it appears, and less of it is bad.

Against that backdrop, this being Oregon ArtsWatch, I want to focus on the arts writing side of things, at The Oregonian and beyond to our own little endeavor.

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Among the reporters and writers who received bad news were two of the newspaper’s arts critics, the last two full-time critics at the paper as it turns out, theater writer Marty Hughley and pop music writer Ryan White. In the recent past, art critic D.K. Row was reassigned, movie critic Shawn Levy went on extended book leave (from which he is unlikely to return), classical music critic David Stabler became a general feature writer (who specializes, thankfully, in the arts), and book editor/critic Jeff Baker was handed more editing responsibilities. That left Hughley and Ryan as the last critics standing. Kristi Turnquist still turns her keen wit on television and pop culture to good effect, and if she bills herself as a critic, then SHE would be the Last of the Critics at The Oregonian. In any case, the major arts beats at the paper are now handled by freelancers for the first time since … well, I don’t know how long. The 1930s, maybe?

Fortunately, those freelancers (we could name a few: Marc Mohan, John Motley, James McQuillen, Richard Wattenberg) are good ones, but they will never have the weight or standing at the paper that the staff critics had. It just doesn’t work that way. And how long the newspaper will keep them or how long they’ll be able to afford to stay (their fees are quite low) remains to be seen. It’s hard to be a web jockey on a freelance basis, just because of various employment rules.

Almost immediately after White’s layoff, the newspaper posted a job listing for a writer/music critic, which demanded a host of social media and blogging skills but no knowledge of music or how to write a critical arts review. That listing has been removed, for now at least, but the implications were pretty clear. The kind of in-depth reviews, news, and feature writing that I spent my career at the newspaper pursuing (both as a writer and an editor) would disappear. An unkind way of describing the labor of that new music web jockey? A creator of link-bait—anything that will generate the maximum number of clicks.

This might be good business: who’s to say at this point? But I don’t think so, not really. When you get into the link-bait business you’re up against real professionals with absolutely no scruples about harvesting eyeballs with a cute and false headline, usually involving cleavage, sheer tops, bikinis, short skirts, or some sort of celeb peccadillo. “Has [your favorite celebrity hottie here] gone too far this time?” Huffington Post devotes a large chunk of its homepage to this sort of stuff, and it’s the mildest of purveyors. (When a Kardashian actually does something important, then maybe I’ll worry about her … baby or weight or fashion sense.)

Link-bait generation has nothing to do with knowing enough about Shakespeare to write a reasonable review of “King Lear.” Or divining the direction of the local culture from hitting the First Thursday/First Friday galleries. Or tracking various arts institutions through the financial wilderness. Or profiling an artist, choreographer, composer…you name it.

Web jockeying can be truly informative and inspired when it concerns subjects that are already receiving a lot of reporting. (At one point, I even proposed that the paper create a web jockey to track developments around the war in Iraq, because the information we were getting in individual stories from the wire services was so fragmentary and distorted.) But the Oregon arts world is desperately UNDER-reported, despite our efforts here at ArtsWatch. What stories are the arts web cowboy going to corral and have some fun with? Well, the ones involving Kardashians and Lohans, most likely.

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I am not hypothesizing a Golden Age at The Oregonian, the time before Link Bait, when arts writing reached its apex, and amazingly just when I happened to be there!

The newspaper I worked on never really embraced the arts as a core subject (any more than local school districts have, for that matter) on par with sports, politics, business, education, or the environment. The arts, we argue here at ArtsWatch, are a critical subject because they help us reflect on who we are as a culture and as individuals. They help us develop shared values and experiences that make everything from working in small groups to conducting ourselves honorably in a democracy possible. They model creativity and innovation and the way they build on the innovations and creations of the past. In the words of the artist Banksy, they should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. Which neatly paraphrases what used to be the motto of the press: To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

No, the prevailing sentiment (though there were individual exceptions, of course) at The Oregonian was that the arts were an adornment — when they weren’t thought of as a profit center. This affected the way arts stories were played, how much space they were given, how widely they were allowed to range, what resources they received. In this, the newspaper wasn’t so different from other American newspapers.

The most important impediment to arts writing at the newspaper was in the nature and culture of the operation, and then how the writers and editors adapted to it. We squeezed our stories into small spaces, limited their scope, assumed we were much more important than we really were and had far more readers than we did, didn’t experiment enough with the style, form, tone and intellectual depth of our stories. And when the Internet Revolution hit, we had no idea how to make ourselves relevant because we’d never worried about that in the past—and we should have.

This is not to say that we didn’t write stories I’m proud to have been around. We did. But we allowed ourselves to succumb to the routine demands of the daily newspaper far too often. Despite all of that, I felt lucky to be writing about the arts at all for a good wage at a newspaper as ambitious as The Oregonian was during my time there (1983-2009, just for the record). Which might turn out to be a Golden Age for the newspaper as a whole, awash in cash and talented people as it was. But with the Portland arts scene exploding around us (talk about Golden Ages), we needed to be a lot lighter on our feet than we were. We might have done so much more.

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I have devoted a lot of attention to The Oregonian here, mostly because that’s where I was, although I started covering arts in Portland at Willamette Week in the late 1970s. But when I left the newspaper and looked around, I decided that no one had cracked the code. How do we write stories that match the creativity, ambition and commitment of the artists making the art we write about? And then: How do we write them in such a way that you, the reader, will find them useful (in whatever way)?

So, we started Oregon ArtsWatch to work on those problems.

We had three things in mind at the start. The first was simply to take the arts as seriously as they ought to be taken. This is the most conservative aspect of the project. Throughout the history of human culture, the arts have played a central role in the human community. We wanted a place to resist art’s diminishment under the pressure of radical market capitalism, which attempts to reduce everything to a dollar measurement. Picasso isn’t important because of the prices his paintings command; he’s important because of his insights into art, human perception and feeling, and the world. Among other things. That’s one of the reasons we are a non-profit.

Second: We wanted to provide a place for the experiments of arts writers as they sought approaches and insights that would work with readers. Each writer has to find a way; each writer needs an editor and a community of like-minded writers to help; each writer needs an engaged readership to test what works. A corollary: we wanted to serve arts writers of various levels of experience. We needed to get a new generation of writers going.

The third: We knew that to keep arts journalism alive as a profession, we would have to pay writers. Our aspiration was to pay them a living wage, though we knew we would have to be wildly successful as this sort of project goes to do that. During the two years we’ve been publishing online, we haven’t been nearly that successful. We still have no paid staffers, and our freelance rates are far too low to support a healthy book-buying habit, let alone a human being in the developed world. But we know how hard it is to go through the discipline that is necessary to write creatively and responsively about the arts, and we believe there should be some financial reward for taking it on.

We had lots of other ideas, too. We’ve experimented with podcasts and public events and writers workshops, for example. We’d love to produce more photography and video of our own. We want to cover more areas of the arts than we do (books, movies, comics, contemporary music of all sorts, animation, comedy, the various hybrid forms of art springing up, design, architecture).

But we are still at the beginning of this project. And the basic questions remain: How can we help you participate in forming an adaptable, satisfying, enjoyable, profound local culture? How can we create an environment for writing (audio, video, etc.) that accomplishes that?

Andrate_-_Museo_di_cultura_contadina_(25)

A successful theater company, music ensemble, dance group or arts journalism project creates a community around it. One of the most satisfying things about working on ArtsWatch has been the social media aspect of it. Our Facebook page, despite the difficulties Facebook itself has erected in order to monetize its channel, has attracted lots of interesting, informed, smart and witty people. And a couple of months ago, I finally fired up a specific Twitter site, after relying on my personal account to get the word out on our activities. Already I can tell that’s going to be far more satisfying. Please sign up for either or both!

The cup is half empty, though. We need more of you to guide our work, to test our conclusions, to demand more and better, and then to support us, if you think we are going in the right direction. Who would fit in the ArtsWatch community? Well, anyone who has looked up from a dance performance (art exhibit, play, book, movie) and needed to talk about it, learn about it, celebrate it, even make it themselves.

The original financial idea for ArtsWatch was simple: If everyone who is a member of or subscribes to a Portland arts organization tossed two or three dollars our way, we could create something unique—a local, full-service arts criticism/journalism organization that explored our region’s cultural life and paid reasonable fees to its writers and other reporters. For various reasons, that simple idea proved TOO simple, though I still like it: A little bit of money from a lot of people.

When that fell through, we started focusing on sponsorship ads and memberships that were more like those of Oregon Public Broadcasting. We even copied their amounts, though any sum you care to give would be great and get you on our eNewsletter list. Bob Hicks has just rejuvenated that aspect of ArtsWatch, you’ll be happy to hear.

But this isn’t a prolonged pitch to give us money. It’s a pitch to become active in the community, both our community and the arts community in general. At this moment in time, the Northwest, Oregon and Portland are home to art scenes of a size, sophistication and national reputation that I couldn’t have imagined when I moved here in 1979. The art those artists are making tells us so much about ourselves and our place, and we want to explore it with you. We want to talk about the way that art intersects other aspects of life here, shapes it, critiques it. And we need you on board to keep us from talking to ourselves.

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This is a cliche by now: Powerful forces are folding, bending and mutilating the way the media works. And that means they are affecting the way WE work, the way we think and act. Mostly it’s about reduction: I am a data set, important only insofar as I can transfer money and power to companies, political parties and other interests. They are getting very sophisticated at seducing me into pushing the buttons that will make that transfer. SEND.

That’s a reactive mechanism, almost autonomic once they have my data set. Or at least that’s what they believe. But we believe that’s not enough. We believe in slower processes, cognitive and otherwise, the ripening of a thought, a play, a career. And although I’m focusing on the arts here, it extends to our other activities. What I love about Oregon is that this feels like a place where we can pursue our ideas with the gravity and deliberation they deserve. And make something remarkable, that changes the culture, and maybe not just here.

And even though some of the signs lately don’t look good, that doesn’t mean we should give up that approach.

Skrifmaskin,_Smith_Premier-maskin,_Nordisk_familjebok

At ArtsWatch, we haven’t figured out exactly what we will do in the aftermath of The Oregonian’s moves. Willamette Week and The Mercury do a lot of shorter reviews of the arts, so maybe we don’t have to focus on those. Instead, our inclination is to run in the opposite direction, toward longer, more exploratory reviews and essays, toward news stories that can dependably contextualize the changes in our cultural environment and our arts institutions, toward feature stories that probe more deeply into the narratives of the people and groups that make our arts scene what it is.

That’s our first take, anyway: To keep pushing in the direction we’ve staked out for ourselves.

But maybe that’s not what you need, exactly? Maybe there are other things we could do to heighten your engagement with the arts? Maybe there are things we do now that you absolutely do NOT need? Please write me at barry@orartswatch.org, if you don’t want to use the comments section.

The ArtsWatch Wager is that the more deeply we engage with the arts, especially local arts, and the huge community around them, the more valuable we will be to everyone concerned—writers, artists and, most importantly, our readers. We aren’t sure there’s a business model in there that works, but we will keep the experiment going.

NOTES

Columbia Journalism Review gave a chilling account of the effect on the New Orleans Times-Picayune of Advance Publications’ changes. And it has weighed-in on the changes at The Oregonian.

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