At the tail end of what has been a hard year all around for the vaunted Twin Cities alt-weekly, it’s been a particularly rough couple of weeks for arts & culture writers over at City Pages. First, the Assistant A-List Editor* and one of the two staff food writers were laid off; now, it looks like the publication’s well-respected theater critic, one of the few of the old-guard staffers to persevere through the upheavals of the last year, Quinton Skinner’s job is being reduced by half.
Cutting 50% of Skinner’s sprawling, erudite-but-entertaining theater pieces isn’t just a hit for local arts criticism. It’s a substantial loss for the theater community as well. The alt-weekly covers a lot of area performances, and thoughtfully, on a weekly basis. Between CP’s frequency of publication and sheer word count devoted to the arts in every issue, I’m not sure what other local outlets truly have the wherewithal to step into the breach. To be fair, CP Editor Kevin Hoffman is quoted as emphasizing that they’ll be moving more of their arts coverage online, beefing up their blogs to fill the gap left by recent staff reductions.
Here’s what worries me about this trend and about this cut, in particular: to my mind, Skinner’s pieces are among the best examples of what looks to be a dwindling breed of arts criticism – the beautifully written, tightly crafted long-form critical essay.
I know, I know – these evolutions in taste, medium, and publication style are happening through all kinds of media, and these sorts of changes often prove to be a welcome shake-up of the complacencies of the status quo. It’s just that this kind of considered essay, the lavishly edited sort of piece tailor-made for the pages of magazines and dailies, is especially vulnerable to extinction as “content” migrates online. It’s expensive – in terms of both staff/writer time and money – and this kind of article doesn’t lend itself to the write it-and-post it-now demands of the new media environment.
All this isn’t to say there isn’t good arts journalism on the web. That would be a ridiculously myopic claim. The truth is, lots of fine writing is migrating to the short-form stuff new media craves: blog posts, aggregators, tweets, and other fast-paced, often cleverly structured, many-layered sorts of pieces. In spite of all the bad news of late, with the profusion of online and existing print journalism available, we’ve still got lots of good arts journalism being written in these parts. Hell, mnartists.org is home to alot of it.
But as I hear about round upon round of media cuts (across the board in radio, print, online, TV), it sure feels like the foundation for much of this carefully considered sort of arts criticism – along with those outlets who’ve been home to writers whose work we’ve come to love – is irrevocably crumbling. How can we do anything but mourn for the undeniable diminishing of the outlets who’ve been home to so much fine journalism?
I sure hope that the loss of this kind of rigorous discourse, thoughtfully eloquent critical expression on the arts – as it’s lived in print publication, anyway – is merely a brief (if uncomfortable) intermission in what will turn out to be a newly invigorated landscape for arts coverage. I’m holding tightly to the conviction that there will still be stable homes for worthwhile writing, perhaps with formats and structure that will better suit the new ways we’re all communicating with one another these days, but which find a way to do so without sacrificing too much substance. In the meantime, cross your fingers that these worthy print-veterans will find higher ground until web publishing settles on a viable business model which will allow them to pay their “content providers” enough to live on. I don’t think any of us who work in the field expect a career in arts journalism to be a particularly lucrative path (and we’d all be poorer if writers and editors didn’t offer their skills, often free of charge and against their economic self-interest, to shoestring publications). But it would be awfully nice if journalism could still offer a way for its practitioners to pay the mortgage after all the dust-ups settle.
For now, don’t start crying over the demise of the lavish, long-form theater feature quite yet. I’ve been consistently impressed by the caliber of the writing – the memorable essays, the cheeky writing on the business of theater, the craft of performance – and by the staggering array of voices represented on the new online performance hub, MinnesotaPlaylist.com. In fact, this week you’ll find a wonderfully nuanced, provocative essay on the “state of play” by Quinton Skinner among their offerings.
*Correction (1/7): my original post left the mistaken impression that the A-list editor was let go. To clarify: the person laid off was the Assistant A-List Editor, Ben Palosaari; the A-List editor, Jessica Armbruster, is still very much employed by the alt-weekly. Sorry for the confusion – the perils of blogging in haste, I suppose:)