Cultural Commentary: Crunch Time for Arts Coverage at The Boston Globe

by Bill Marx

A recent study in Editor & Publisher delivers the lowdown; with its circulation down about 20% in four years, The Boston Globe is in free fall. Two major investors in The New York Times, which owns the Globe, are “challenging the company’s investment decisions, including its commitment to the struggling newspaper industry beyond the flagship New York Times. Like many analysts, they see The Boston Globe and a group of 15 local papers as a drain on the company, which should, they argue, be focused on extracting the greatest possible advantage from the Times brand.” Bloomberg reports the taxman may be the paper’s savior: “The Times’ low tax basis on the Globe makes a sale unattractive because a large portion of proceeds would go to the government, she [NYT Chief Executive Janet Robinson] said.”

A new managing editor/news, Caleb Solomon, has been appointed after a shuffle of the old guard. His marching orders, according to a memo from Globe editor Martin Baron, are “to lead an inevitable transformation of our newsroom.” According to the Globe story, Solomon seems to get the need to rapidly adapt “to an online digital media environment”: “The Globe as a news organization needs to change so we can thrive in the future instead of limp along and struggle mightily as we are now,” said Solomon, who was assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, based in Brussels, before coming to the Globe. “So I want to engage all the creativity and smarts and passion and journalistic talent within our newsroom and the rest of this organization to figure this out – and figure this out fast.”

What could be done for online arts coverage on tomorrow? For one, learn from the serious online approach of The New York Times, which started 50 blogs last year. lists only 34 blogs and they are, to be charitable, of varying quality, particularly those that claim to be reporting and commenting on the arts. Provocative opinions, stylish writing, lively discussions, and timely insights are rare – rote blather and recycled scraps from the paper are the self-defeating rule.

The TV blog (Viewer Discretion) obsesses dizzily and drearily on American Idol (“So am I the only person on Earth who wasn’t anxiously awaiting the new “American Idol” set? Ryan even wore a three-piece suit to celebrate its unveiling”). The music blog (Sound Effects: Music News & reviews) is filled with publicity squibs about rock music with some photos and videos tossed in. Where are the promised music news and reviews? Where are the Globe’s music critics? The only writer contributing to the blog, at least for the past 12 days, is Sarah Rodman. Jazz? Classical? Folk? Theatre? Dance? Visual Arts? Hello? Will there ever be a place for fine arts blogs on Or is their absence from the Web line-up a fateful sign that, as I conjectured a few months ago, these “elite” arts don’t pull in enough traffic to make it worth maintaining blogs for them.

The film blog (Movie Nation) easily outdoes music and TV – critics Ty Burr and Wesley Morris maintain a lively, personable mix of news and reviews, though it would make sense to have more material about films on the margins and an emphasis on what is happening locally. The Book blog (Off the Shelf) is an embarrassingly spindly roll call of bestseller lists, lists of authors coming to Boston, and lists of long and short lists for book prizes. Compelling perspectives on books and the publishing industry don’t show up often. Why complain about shrinking space for book criticism when you don’t use the Web to augment what’s in print? The oh-so-imaginatively titled Sidekick blog (Go to It) contains, inevitably, nothing but yippy yappy puffery about places – pubs, concerts, restaurants, and productions – where you can spend your money.

Movie Nation
The best of a not-so-hot lineup of Boston Globe arts blogs

Finally, Geoff Edgers’ Exhibitionist blog suffers – as the writer admitted about a month ago — from a debilitating identity crisis:

So if the Globe goes out to sell an ad for the Exhibitionist, what is it selling? An ad for a site that draws hundreds of thousands of people? Or are they selling ads for a niche site that “breaks” news of an antiquities deal at the Museum of Fine Arts, or posts the on-line travel journal of a Boston Ballet dancer? Those are vastly different products, with vastly different reaches.

In my opinion, the problem isn’t putting up a link to an ad buy. It is explaining to those advertisers, steeped in the traditional lingo that’s been used by print for decades, why a successful blog might have a little bit of everything.

But what is the Exhibitionist? Not only advertisers are understandably confused. Is it a place for hard-hitting arts news? Is it a place for the local community to talk about cultural concerns? Is it about flogging local arts stuff or is it about whatever catches Edgers’ fancy? Is it about covering pop culture for the sake of pulling in eyeballs or is it about edgy commentary? Is it all of the above? Predictably, the Exhibitionist waffles haphazardly: sometimes it’s pointed, most often it’s uneven and directionless. Edgers’ has to figure out what he wants to do and then do it well.

If Solomon wants to build online loyalty he needs to create a team of bloggers and podcasters (more on that another time) that present energetic, Web-savvy views, news, and rants about the New England cultural scene. This will mean investing resources and talent in creating smart arts coverage of local culture (high and low) that does more than reshuffle publicity handouts or deliver perky sales pitches. It will also call for finding distinctive personalities that will encourage, and work with, material (photos, video, etc) from their readers. A blog is not only a place to opine – it is a place for others to become part of, even drive, the conversation. The old top-down approach – know-it-all critic tells readers what is good for them – won’t cut it any more.

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