Pretending Generalists are the Same as Specialists, or How the LA Times Editor Is Lying About Eliminating His Only Arts and Culture Reporter Position Devoted to a Single Discipline
by Jen Graves
on Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 2:23 PM
Last week, I wrote about Jori Finkel being laid off from the cash-strapped LA Times. One commenter, Scrawny Kayaker, wrote that was just fine because art is "a niche industry catering primarily to the rich," and anyone wondering about the wisdom of eliminating the Art Writer position at the newspaper of record for the second largest art city in America is an "Entitled fuck."
Now that you've righteously stood up for the little guy, Scrawny Kayaker, please allow me to direct you to the masthead of the LA Times, where you will find its list of 9 staff writers covering Hollywood alone, in addition to 7 more staff writers devoted entirely to movies. Nothing against movies, but let's take a look at the differences here.
Jori Finkel's position was the only staff reporter position devoted to a single art form that isn't a moneymaking art form, meaning art, architecture, theater, classical music, choral music, opera, and dance (and probably a few others that I'm not thinking of). None of those art forms has a devoted reporter in LA anymore. Not one.
Pop music, TV, and movies each have multiple devoted reporters in addition to their full-time staff critics.
What used to be the cause of hilariously flawed and sometimes tragically irrelevant coverage at small-town newspapers—I once had an arts editor at a smaller-city newspaper who asked me whether the dancers sing at the ballet (apparently, he'd only ever been to a musical)—has bled up to the largest newspapers. It's happened in Seattle. Now, arts reporters are generalists. Again, even in this slashed media landscape, the same isn't true of "entertainment."
Entertainment and art are categories that almost nobody except newspaper editors seem to find meaningful any longer. It is foolish to assume that entertainment is low and art high, entertainment cheap and art expensive, entertainment crappy and art quality. In the world of the free internet, corporate broadcasting megalopolies, and the enduring truth that some things just have to be seen in person, those old categories are nothing but ruins. Yet people continue to mistake their weird nostalgia for some vague notion of populism with what are actually just hard facts involving systems of distribution. Open your eyes, man.
As far as the writing goes, great generalists are great. But as a rule, generalist writing can produce some really freaky stories with freaky angles and freaky details, because the same person who writes about art has to write about opera and about comedy, and theater, and the holiday parade, and maybe, occasionally, that thing that newspapers call "nightlife." No wonder nobody reads newspapers anymore. If you care about art and artists—and no, this subset of humanity is not limited to rich people (duh)—then why would you turn to somebody who knows less about it than you do for your news? Or if you're going to send naifs into scenes, send a baseball writer to the museum, not somebody who also does comedy and theater. Or hey, when you're covering an education story, send somebody who doesn't know how education is funded, staffed, governed, or any of the trends of what's going on in it. Because, you know, why not just make it up? Better to get your nonfiction wrong than to go out of business as a nonfiction-producing company.
In his response to the entire museum leadership of Southern California organizing rapidly to request that Finkel's position be reinstated, LA Times editor Davan Maharaj wrote, "Please know that our commitment to intelligent and illuminating reporting of the visual arts in Southern California is in no way diminished."
Wow, way to treat the people you've just screwed after their years of service and readership: By telling them their services amounted to zero, and their palpable loss is their own delusion.
It's naive of me, I know, but I still always hope that at least newspaper journalists—editors—will tell the truth about the news.