Artificer: Recent Decisions in The News & Observer’s Arts Journalism Expose the Downside of “Reader-Focused Coverage” | Artificer | Indy Week

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Artificer: Recent Decisions in The News & Observer’s Arts Journalism Expose the Downside of “Reader-Focused Coverage”

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The News & Observer is right about one thing: theater reviews don't get clicks. That doesn't mean a public-service institution shouldn't do them.

But let's back up. On August 8, the N&O's executive editor, John Drescher, published a column titled "On the new N&O menu: Less spinach, more reader-focused coverage." Drescher writes that, through the magic of the Internet, the paper now knows exactly what its readers want. He promises to serve no more spinach, "the boring stories that few people read," and to fill your plate with only—what's the opposite of spinach? Cronuts?

It remains to be seen how eschewing "obligatory stories about government process" will play out in the paper's reporting, but its all-cronut strategy had some immediate consequences. The N&O dropped some features that weren't performing online, some of them fluff (the archival Past Times column), some substantial (the metro column), and some with quarter-century local legacies (poor Barry Saunders, feted on his departure in July, dumped on the compost heap with the rest of the spinach by August).

"Reader-focused"—it's such a pleasant euphemism. What could be wrong with giving readers what they want? But there's a revealing problem with Drescher's analogy. He uses "spinach" as shorthand for something you don't want to consume but ignores what else it's shorthand for: something good for you.

"Reader-focused" reduces readers to the subset of people who click most ardently and simplifies what they want into what they click. Two of the paper's recent decisions about arts journalism illustrate the double-sided danger of this approach: it can lead you not to do things you should, as in a major change to the N&O's theater coverage. Or it can lead you to do things you probably shouldn't, as in a recent column asking if Confederate monuments are art.

The week after Drescher's editorial was published, Roy C. Dicks, the N&O's longtime theater critic, sent an alarming email to theater insiders. As of September 1, he said, the paper would no longer publish performing arts reviews, focusing on previews, profiles, and trend pieces instead.

Jessica Banov, the N&O's culture editor, told the INDY there was no plan to eliminate reviews entirely. "We know how important the performing arts scene is to the Triangle, and we will continue to write stories about local theater and the arts," she said. But you'll notice that she said "stories." Dicks clarified that, in his understanding, theater reviews would drop from around seventy per year to one or two.

In Byron Woods, the INDY has as reputable and followed a theater critic as anyone. Yet it's true for us, as for the N&O, that theater reviews don't generate much traffic online—though we trust they reach a wide audience in the print edition. Previews of theater productions, Q and As with directors and playwrights, and especially reporting on contretemps, closings, and controversies, do much better.

I like this kind of coverage, too. A good story speaks to readers regardless of whether they're invested in theater. As a free paper that blankets the streets, we have a responsibility to serve as broad an audience as we can. Accessible, narrative-driven stories can show people a way into the local theater world, thereby growing the audience that supports it. Those stories are also important because our readers want them, and we listen to that.

But there's a fine balance between tailoring content to demand and nourishing the ecosystem of presenters, performers, followers, and casual theatergoers behind all the content. That's why the INDY has no intention of giving up on theater reviews in the digital-first age.

Even if a given review gets a small number of page views, they're coming from the core group of practitioners and audiences whose activity ensures there's anything to tell stories about. Theater is an enduring form of play that everyone should have access to, and independent performers provide it to those who can't afford, or feel they don't fit in at, say, DPAC. I've heard from these local performers time and again that they rely on documentation—that is, reviews—to grow as artists, to sell tickets in local theaters, and to book their work in other markets. We have to serve them in order to serve you.

That's why arts criticism's public-service value can't be measured in clicks. It isn't a vegetable you harvest. It's a seed you plant.

The N&O is one of twenty-nine dailies owned by The McClatchy Company, and the paper's recent shifts are just the effectuation of a company-wide digital-first directive. By all appearances, the mandate to keep cranking out content on whatever is hot until it goes cold seems to form the backdrop for an August 17 post by David Menconi, the paper's respected longtime music critic, with a headline asking, "Are Confederate statues considered art, or history worth preserving?" The answer that follows is an unequivocal no, voiced not by Menconi but by art professionals whose chagrin at having to answer such a question faintly radiates from the page.

It's difficult to imagine that Menconi, who declined to comment on this story, would have written such a post if he had been pursuing his interest and the public's more than "Charlottesville" and "monument" searches, because he is clearly not very interested in the question. Without genuine curiosity, he comes up with a superficial answer to an inquiry relevant to a vital protest movement surging through the Triangle and the country.

Menconi's main approach is to ask if Confederate monuments look pretty or not. But any serious attempt to consider their art status would have to ask entirely different questions, such as who made them, how, and why. Catherine Bishir, an architecture historian at N.C. State libraries, almost says as much, but the brief column ends there.

After a Confederate monument came crashing down in downtown Durham and another at Duke was defaced and then removed, Silent Sam, raised in 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, still stands at UNC-Chapel Hill. Menconi might have contrasted its means of production with that of other kinds of public art. Or he might have weighed it against the works of Richard Serra, who demonstrates a compelling answer to how monuments can be art: by being abstract and open to interpretation.

Personally, I think that even if Confederate monuments were art, it wouldn't matter, because it would be art of bad faith with actual power. And some things, like people's right to feel included in public space, are more important than creative expression. If enshrining the mythic structure of a racist past is art, it probably isn't art we want. It's important to remember that art is a made-up thing, and we get to choose.

The N&O's all-cronut menu doesn't mean it will turn into BuzzFeed, as Drescher takes pains to point out. Editors will still vet what the algorithms spit out against the public interest, and the revamp includes some worthy initiatives, like more reporting on the state legislature. It's probably a sound business decision, at least in the short term, until a click-happy readership goes lolloping off somewhere else—or until the arts that fuel the stories dry up for want of reviews.

But a newspaper, more than other businesses, has a special mandate to serve the public interest, which is something bigger than the public's interests. When people select what they want from an ever slimmer, more tailored menu of options, how will they ever voice or discover what else they need? So we'll keep tossing up a cornucopia of veggies and desserts, and, hopefully, everyone will eat well.

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