The Fall of Newspapers and the Rise of Self-Publishing in the Arts

I’ve been thinking a lot about newspapers these days. Almost a day doesn’t pass without some news story about a cutback, sale, or drop in circulation at a leading newspaper. In fact, earlier this week, CBS MarketWatch had a story which started this way:

Even though the market expects poor results from newspaper companies, the actual results can come as a shock. Gannett (GCI) is off over 5% to a 52-week low of $15.93 on poor numbers.

Perhaps it’s on my mind a lot because I’m finding myself amongst perhaps the most beleaguered class of writers – classical music critics.  Recently there have been severe layoffs of culture critics at The New York Times. This kind of thing is happening all across the country, and for the first time it’s a structural change, not an incremental one.

What is going on, and what does it mean for our industry?

In this case, we can’t blame general moral decay or the lack of interest in the arts directly. Rather the explanation lies in something a lot more subtle and frankly more painful to admit publicly. The fact is that we’ve all had it too good for the last 20 years or so.

Newspapers, for editorial reasons — but not economically justifiable ones — have given arts & cultural coverage disproportionately large print space relative to the economic value those articles provide. Unlike yesteryear, people buy printed newspapers to get hard news, sports and finance, and maybe comics or the weather. Fewer and fewer are picking up the paper rushing to read a symphony or theater review, or to plan their cultural outings using the weekend listings section.

How can I prove this to you? Well, what if you were to look over the shoulder of ever reader of every newspaper and look at what articles people are actually looking at?  What would we find out?

Clearly we can’t do this so easily, but we do have a pretty good surrogate. Online versions of newspapers provide exactly this kind of reporting – page by page. And, although I’m not privy to actual results, we can quickly deduce from the publishers’ recent actions that those page view reports must be indicating that not too many people are reading those arts sections.  Certainly not enough to justify the investments they have been making in writers to create articles for them.

In an environment in which newspaper revenues continue to be decimated by free classifieds on and the shift from paper to digital consumption of their product, the owners are facing an advertising gap. Only about 8% of all ad dollars have flowed online so far, and when they do, the price that newspapers can get for ads in those digital pages is vastly less than in their print equivalents.

So newspapers are forced to make decisions now on a microeconomic level. Whatever sections generate more page views (and are therefore more attractive to advertisers), they will invest in, and vice versa. And since arts critics are professionals and command appropriately professional fees, they are not economically justifiable, and are being squeezed out in any way the papers can muster.

What I have also observed is that arts press offices are now forced to pick up the slack. Press offices now routinely provide housing, air and car transportation, meals, and other benefits for critics because they know that if they don’t, the critics won’t be able to afford to come.

So, what about the future? Let’s assume this trend continues for the next few years, and that cultural coverage will be reduced in printed newspapers. And let’s assume that online coverage in newspapers won’t be eliminated, but it will be reduced. And let’s also assume that the competition for arts patrons’ attention online will increase, as high-quality blogs and independent cultural sites like proliferate. The result will be that your audiences will stop looking to newspapers as their primary trusted source of cultural information.

What does that all mean for the industry? It means that arts & cultural organizations need to rethink they way they operate. In addition to courting bloggers, and whatever online writers still remain, they must now recognize that the only surefire way to to replace the trusted communication stream that their audience got from newspapers is to provide fantastic online content directly to their patrons.

We are moving into an age of the self-publisher. Each organization can command its own one-to-one relationship with its audience if it sets its mind to doing so. And the stronger and wider that relationship is the more effective it will be of replacing what used to be.

I see two ways of thinking going on now. The first is what I see from many I talk with: they are lamenting what’s changing or falling apart in the industry and are seeking more and more ways to prop it up and keep it going. The second is from those that are embracing the future and leading their organization to a different kind of relationship with their audience.  They are intensely studying the changes that are happening, and investing real time and significant financial resources into the development of their online activities with video, blogs, and other content.

It seems obvious to me which kind of thinking will yield the most success. And, if you really want something that will knock your socks off, read the new Salon article about what the Obama campaign is doing online. That’s what I’m talking about!  

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2 responses to “The Fall of Newspapers and the Rise of Self-Publishing in the Arts

  1. Excellent post. I have very similar thoughts/concerns. That’s partly why I built my new nonprofit – which I hope supports independent journalists rather than news organizations.
    Hope all is well.

  2. The thing this doesn’t address, though, is the need for criticism. As someone in PR, I know all too well that we will all always do our best to talk up our own performances, productions, and exhibitions. Yes, we can tell exciting stories about what happens behind the work, what it’s intent is, according to the artist. Isn’t there still a need, though, for an impartial observer?
    I heard it suggested a while ago that major museums band together to launch a new arts magazine, which they’d share with their members, and which would cover their exhibitions thoughtfully. It’s exactly what you’re talking about (it could easily be done online instead of in print) but it could never be impartial. We gain, perhaps, more depth, more access, certainly more word count, but we lose the really important role of the critic: to be critical.

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