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So how do we pay for it?

San Diego media outlets' coverage of the arts comes under fire


How do we pay for it?

So this happened yesterday, and I’m chiming in from an editor's perspective.
What I see missing from this conversation is that fact that all budget for arts cover and Robert Pincus’ paycheck for his acclaimed arts criticism came from advertising revenue. From car dealerships. And classified ads for carpet cleaners. And big Hollywood movie studios. And mortgage brokers and real estate agents with shiny new headshots paid for with big commission checks. That’s why we had good arts coverage in our newspaper up until this past summer. Not because Jeff Light still lived in Orange County. We had arts coverage because certain businesses were willing to pay to market their products and services alongside it. This is not a new concept or a new business model, but it is changing rapidly. And not nearly enough of the conversation is focused on it. Those revenue sources are no longer there in the same volume. If the veil is down, then the veil is down. Let’s get real. Let’s aim for more frank, transparent conversation about the business side of journalism. Let’s innovate. This is a business that has fundamentally changed. Let’s focus on defining the ‘what’s next’ aspect of arts coverage from a business angle.
How should we pay for it?
To other editors out there (editors, as in curious thinkers and journalists who also have to be managers, team leaders, budgeters and tough decision makers): What are your intelligent solutions? Ideas? How can we change the business, the budgets and the processes to keep the good journalism alive? I think Jeff Light is virtuous in at least attempting to do this and being open about his process. But I don’t think he has been creative enough. I think his constituents are telling him they want more, and it’s his job to figure out what else he can do. What happened to all the possibilities raised at Warwick’s about alternative funding? Joint funding? Sponsorships from universities, nonprofits? How can we evolve to stay afloat and serve up a new form of “journalism” that writers and arts enthusiasts and critics are so passionately demanding? Is non profit the only way? I don’t think so.
What about new revenue sources? Page Views. Partnerships. Pixel retargeting. Fairy dust-mining. Pioneering. Redefining what content versus journalism. Blogging. Free blogging. Free photography. Joining The Cloud. Abandoning office space. iPads. Killing the iPad. Wining and dining. Trade. Barter. Or something else—anything else--radical and new and possible. These are the topics that will move this debate forward. These are the things that will get us our arts coverage. It’s not as fun as throwing shit and watching it hit the fan. And it’s not nearly as satisfying as complaining. But, in my opinion, business solutions are what we should be discussing and testing if we want something better in our city’s newspaper.
Arts journalism is only going to happen if other people want to pay to market their products and services next to it. Or if nonprofits are well-funded enough in the long run to cover it. Or if we as a community can come up with another creative way to pay for it.
I am an editor at San Diego Magazine, and I have paid for arts coverage of everything from the opening of SD Space 4 Art in July ($250 to a freelance event photographer) to a Q&A with the playwright for Little Miss Sunshine opening at the La Jolla Playhouse this February ($250 to the freelance writer/interviewer, $50 for the ¼ page photo) to a new “Applause” column written by our copy editor who goes to more theatrical shows than there are days in the month (she has been on staff for 25+ years and is paid an hourly wage with benefits, and often attends free “press screenings” or special media performances before shows are open to the public). We have 16 pages of performing arts coverage coming out in our December issue (I’ll work on tallying up the total $ spent on those pages). I have also done my best to woo Mr. Pincus to contribute to our magazine over the past few months as a paid critic and hope to see his byline in our pages soon, because I value his perspective and our readers have shown a passionate interest in the arts. And our advertisers want to be in pages that are passionately read.
But this level of coverage is possible only because we have been very creative with our budgets. Those figures I quoted are far less than we paid Don Braunagel for longer features in the past. We have cut back in other areas, too. We have helped the marketing staff with new ideas on how to best market this coverage in order to generate revenue. We have pondered partnerships with everyone from Audi to Annie-the-intern who knows how to edit video. We have worked at it and made tough choices, as has Mr. Light, it seems.
If we want to critique his decisions, we need to follow with solutions. Because to simply demand arts coverage because we are owed it as a city with great museums is like walking into a bank and saying that we are entitled to a mortgage simply because we’re Americans, and we want the dream everyone else seems to have. We are owed it, and it should require no painful sacrifices upfront or in the long run. It should be just like it was for the generations before us who all bought property and made lots of money when their homes increased in value. San Francisco has arts coverage. Why can’t we? My parents made $100K on their house in 5 years. I’m entitled to the same thing.
It just doesn’t work like that. Anymore.  
And I think all Jeff Light is saying is no, I won’t approve those mortgages. We simply can’t afford it.
It’s not a perfect analogy, and I don’t know Katherine Sweetman personally. But from my perspective as an editor, her outcry sounds like more like whining and less like an attempt to save journalism. More take-my-toys-and-go-home than renegotiating for a better deal. More theoretical and less practical. And it's time to get practical, people. Enough complaining. NEVER write for free? How about, NEVER rest on your laurels. NEVER spend as much time dwelling on what was at the expense of what’s next.


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San Diego Magazine's editorial staff (Erin Chambers Smith + Erin Meanley + Kimberly Cunningham + a handful of smart, thoughtful contributors) blog everything from restaurants and bars to behind the scenes gossip to the best events happening this weekend. Looking for foodie and restaurant guru Troy Johnson? He's got his own blog here.

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