Topic: Atlanta Arts Coverage in Turmoil
NOTE THE LETTER BY ROBERT SPANO
Atlanta Arts Coverage in Turmoil
By Steve Dollar
May 24, 2007
NEW YORK -- As major daily newspapers struggle to remain financially viable and adapt to a new media universe that is largely online, critics are increasingly less relevant to management's bottom line. Even as blogs proliferate, the broader public platform that print journalism offers for original cultural commentary is becoming shakier by the day.
The latest flashpoint in this trend is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where a radical reorganization of staff resources has led to the elimination of most positions for arts critics and editors. The revamp, conceived by top editor Julia Wallace and due to be complete by July 1, will do away with posts now held by classical music critic Pierre Ruhe, book editor Teresa Weaver, and visual arts critic Catherine Fox – among others. Eleanor Ringel, the film critic who had become synonymous with the AJC after nearly 30 years, was one of about 40 senior staffers who accepted a buyout offer. Two cultural writers, theater critic Wendell Brock and food critic Meridith Ford, will keep their current gigs. Everyone else, including such workhouse types as pop music critic Nick Marino, was required to reapply for jobs which may – or may not – be similar to their present assignments.
The AJC, which is privately owned by billionaire octogenarian sisters Barbara Cox Anthony and Anne Cox Chambers and their media conglomerate Cox Enterprises, has been vague about what this all means. Bert Roughton Jr., managing editor of the paper's newly minted print division (there also are MEs for digital, enterprise, and news and information), insists that cultural coverage will not diminish. It will simply change. "The volume of local arts coverage will increase," Roughton said, promising a stronger emphasis on enterprise reporting across all the arts beats, and, in particular, what he calls the "business of culture."
"This will help round out our coverage. Not only will readers get criticism [of local arts events], they'll understand the context that the work is produced in." Roughton implied that this would constitute more behind-the-scenes reporting, in addition to the usual artist profiles and trend stories. It doesn't sound too different from what arts reporter Tom Sabulis has been doing for years, or from one of Fox's interviews with a curator explaining how they nabbed an impossible-to-get masterpiece for the High Museum of Art.
However, the AJC will no longer assert much of a critical voice on anything national. Instead of reading a familiar, homegrown analysis of the new Broadway season, or one of Fox's witty, sharp-tongued takes on, say, the Whitney Biennial, Atlantans will read whatever someone at the New York Times has to say. Except, if they care, they will likely have already seen the review in the Times itself, in print or online. Redundant or not, when wire service reviews of films, books, and other cultural fare are available, the editors will run with the canned goods.
According to Roughton, there will still be reviews of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. He just can't say under whose byline they will appear, or if they will appear as frequently as they do now. This news gives ASO Music Director Robert Spano the willies. "It's a blow to the quality of the paper," he said, "and it's a disheartening blow to the aspirations of the city. As Atlanta becomes bigger and better, you would hope the same for the paper." The lack of firm details regarding the shift in editorial direction also concerns the conductor. "It makes me suspicious that they really don't know what they're doing," he continued. "I don't probably want to be reviewed by a food critic." Ironically, John Kessler, a food critic who serves as a kind of writer-at-large, is one of the AJC's genuine stars. But does he know as much about Bach or Bang on a Can as he does about braising bok choy?
The ASO has launched an online petition drive here: http://www.zoomerang.com/recipient/survey.zgi?p=WEB226HWDYL5CV. And it is not alone. The National Book Critics Circle also has a petition, signed by more than 120 writers, decrying the decision to eliminate book editor Weaver's position, and replace nationwide freelance book reviews with wire-service articles from outlets such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (which recently folded its own stand-alone book section into the body of the Sunday paper). Author Melissa Faye Green, whose 1991 "Praying for Sheetrock" was a finalist for the NBCC nonfiction award, complained to the New York Times that, "With the removal of its cultural critics, Atlanta is surrendering again. 'We all lose, you know, not just Atlantans, with the disappearance from the scene of a literate intelligence.'''
The AJC is not alone among media undermining their intellectual infrastructure. When the New Times chain of weekly newspapers bought New York institution the Village Voice in 2006, several of the iconoclastic weekly's signature writers and editors were fired. Movie reviews from other New Times (now Village Voice Media) papers began running in the Voice's film section, and its prize-winning national and international investigative coverage was dropped. That move seemed more ideological than profit-driven, however, while elsewhere more drastic measures have been geared toward improving longer-term chances of a paper's survival as properties are sold off in once-great newspaper cities like Philadelphia.
That loss of the critical identity that can reflect the vibrant personality of a city like Atlanta threatens to make the AJC more generic. This, even as – Roughton suggests – its cultural reporting will pursue greater substance, and assume an "aggressive" online presence through writer's blogs. (If so, let's hope the paper drops some of the cash it's saving on the six-figure salaries of Ringel and her peers, and hire a decent designer for its website, which is a cluttered, ill-conceived mess.). The editor admits the new AJC is very much a work-in-progress, part of a process that is difficult to explain. "I understand why we're doing it," he said. "But I also understand why it would make some people crazy."
Major players in the city's cultural scene, like Spano, have their own bottom line: "Why should Atlanta have to read someplace else's reviews?"
Steve Dollar was a pop music and film critic at the AJC from 1988-2000. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Sun, Time Out Chicago, Paste and other publications, and is the author of "Jazz Guide NYC: 2nd Edition" (Little Bookroom).
ROBERT SPANO'S LETTER TO THE EDITOR:
By Robert Spano, John Stanfield, Frank Conner, John Armitage, Chet Meisner
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/21/07
Loss of critics a blow to arts
The AJC recently announced to its staff that designated reviewers for classical music, visual arts and literature will be eliminated.
Ours is a city of growth, and this loss would strike a disheartening blow to our ambitious aspirations. If the AJC follows through with this decision, it will distinguish Atlanta as the largest city in the country without a classical music, book or art critic on staff at its major newspaper.
Metropolitan Atlanta is in a state of tremendous development. Our mayor and civic and business leaders have stated how important the arts are to the economic health and progress of this great city. Artistic culture is Atlanta's treasure and its profile to the world, and the AJC plays a critical role in that culture.
A newspaper's practice of regularly reviewing fine arts is intrinsic to its civic mission. Perception is creativity's partner: Writers need readers, artists need viewers, and musicians need listeners. People have widely varied responses to these experiences that lead to lively and enlightening dialogue. The AJC needs its qualified and discipline-specific reviewers to inform and enrich that dialogue.
Atlanta deserves a newspaper of substance —- one that contributes to a city that values expression, ideas and creativity.
Spano is music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.