I have lost the Globe and Mail, and it hasn’t simply been buried under a stack of old magazines. Next week, I lose The Chicago Tribune. I have already begun to mourn.
My losses are not because these newspapers are going out of business. It is because they are moving behind paywalls, as many other papers have done to insure their online content isn’t being read for free, as these companies struggle to remain solvent. Having spent a certain amount of time every morning for the past few years seeking out theatre and arts stories to share on Twitter, I know that the loss of these two outlets will shrink the pool of intelligent coverage from which I can draw. Still, I am sympathetic to the papers, because as I have said before, if we want quality journalism – and I believe we need it – we have to be prepared to pay for it.
Over the past 20 years, long before my Twitter curation, I’ve found the online access to arts coverage from around the country, and the world, to be an enormous asset in my continuing professional education. Indeed, where my only sources for arts news outside of my local paper (wherever I was living) were The New York Times and USA Today (and occasionally The Wall Street Journal), the advent of online newspapers and magazines enabled me to read features and reviews as never before. Yes, Variety had reviews from around the country and a handful of weekly feature stories, the accelerating decline of that publication sapped it of its once essential nature. I suspect I am hardly alone.
Arts coverage on the web eliminated the inefficient need to ask for, or send, coverage around by fax, a highly inefficient samizdat network of like-minded individuals who already knew one another. More importantly, with the rise of social media, it enabled the broad-based sharing of coverage, helping to bring arts aficionados closer with the opportunity to discover and discuss subjects raised in the press regardless of geography and without skipping from website to website in hope of finding worthwhile material.
So how do I reconcile this cognitive dissonance, this belief in paying for good journalism and a passion for access to arts coverage from wherever it may be found?
I’d like to suggest that arts coverage remain free online, unlike the rest of a newspaper’s content. Even as such coverage has diminished and remains under threat (one of the country’s largest cities, Philadelphia, no longer has a full-time theatre critic at any daily paper in the market), newspapers are the last bastion of mainstream arts coverage, long ignored by television locally or nationally.
Precisely because the media has demonstrated or declared time and again that arts coverage does not drive their revenues, I think it should remain free for all, whether to support the groups in its local market or facilitate a national conversation. The Wall Street Journal, despite its trendsetting paywall success, maintains its arts blog, “Speakeasy,” outside of access restrictions, and while I would like more of its arts content readily accessible, they’ve at least set a precedent, with no apparent financial harm.
Even as a die-hard consumer of arts coverage, I’m not about to pay $10 or $15 per month to read about what’s happening in Chicago or Toronto in these paywalled publications, especially if I can’t share it. I’ll find at least some of that news through other sites. But as someone living hundreds of miles from these cities, if outlets are fundamentally opposed to any free access, I can’t help but wonder whether something equivalent to sports broadcast blackouts could apply; you pay if your IP address is located within 90 miles of the publication’s base, but those outside that circle have vastly less expensive access.
There’s a double-edged sword to hiding arts coverage behind paywalls. On the one hand, the publication may be securing its revenue base (although it may be forcing people to unprotected news resources elsewhere in the market). But in the case of arts coverage, it may well drive the growth of new online-only resources, creating a viable market for arts-specific sites – thereby advancing the irrelevancy of what the paper is providing for a steadily diminishing audience. That will then serve as the excuse to further cut arts coverage.
Am I anti-blog or online magazine? Hardly. But outside of a handful of online publications that do include arts and culture coverage (Slate, Salon and Grantland come first to mind), the majority of what is out there isn’t economically viable, and therefore relies on unpaid (read volunteer or self-produced) coverage, limiting its long-term prospects. Are there superb blogs? Absolutely. But when they write about anything beyond their own immediate vicinity, they’re predominantly relying on other outlets for the news upon which they then re-report or opine.
It’s ironic that I write this while living in New York City, which offers more variety of daily and weekly arts coverage than most cities. But as I hope I’ve shown in my writing, I don’t consider New York as the be-all and end-all of the arts; there’s superb work worth seeing, or at least knowing about, everywhere. Yet with each paywall announcement, I feel my world narrowing, headed backwards to the pre-internet era, and it troubles me greatly.
I urge those who have or would have paywalls to continue to treat the arts as a loss leader and maintain that coverage online for free or almost free, outside of local and national news, business coverage and sports. You’ll keep America’s arts healthy by providing the raw material of national conversation and you’ll make sure that we’re talking about you, too. Because you want to remain part of the conversation too, don’t you?