Newspapers tend to cover those arts that most of their readers actively use, according to a report by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. Of course, the report didn't put it that way. "Reporting the Arts," released in November, concluded that arts coverage was lagging behind a boom in cultural activities and was dominated by movies at the expense of such forms as dance and architecture. The report lamented that half the space that papers devote to the arts consists of events listings.
"If 50 percent of what [arts editors] are doing is listings," project co-director Michael Janeway told The New York Times, "what does that say about how much they have thought through what they are doing?" According to Janeway, "it's not journalism."
It's not gatekeeper journalism, to be more precise. But listings are apparently pretty useful to those readers who want to know what's going on culturally in their cities and who are satisfied to make their choices based on their own tastes and preferences, as opposed to relying on the tastes and recommendations of critics.
Many daily urban newspapers expanded their cultural listings as a competitive move after "alternative" weeklies pioneered comprehensive listings in the 1970s and '80s and used them successfully to attract advertising from clubs and similar venues. In other words, the expansion of listings is a reader-led phenomenon. (Listings tailored to particular cities are now also available on the Internet.)
But the report's authors, perhaps distracted by the paucity of architecture criticism, buried their lead: that there has been an explosion of artistic activity across the nation, fueled by the healthy economy. The report studied arts coverage on network TV and in 15 newspapers in cities large and small (intentionally omitting both New York and Los Angeles). It concluded that the papers were failing to keep pace with the expanding arts sectors in their communities. Rather than grappling with the shrinking influence of the press in a wildly successful, consumer-driven arts economy, the report concluded that there is a gatekeeper shortage.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, "despite phenomenal growth in almost every area of the arts, as well as surveys that show readers spend as much money on arts and entertainment offerings as sports, the arts staff has not increased," the report complains. For some people, it seems, the stage is always half-empty.