Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cultural Journalism - Alive and Well in Philadelphia? (Or At Least Not Dead...)

Much has been written about the decline of cultural journalism in America, an outgrowth of the larger challenges being faced in the journalism sector. The now defunct Columbia University National Arts  Journalism Program published a study in 2003 "Reporting the Arts II" that followed the original "Reporting the Arts" that was published in 1999. RTAII found that during this period when the number of arts organizations was growing, editorial coverage of the arts was flat or shrinking in most markets. Philadelphia was one of the cities studied and here is the link to the Philadelphia section of the report. The big news at that time was a dramatic decline in the average length of arts and culture stories, though the number of stories remained steady. And perhaps it is not a coincidence that the National Arts Journalism Program itself at Columbia now longer exists

Now the Knight Journalism program has partnered with the National Endowment for the Arts  to launch the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, designed to find a solution to how cultural journalism  can survive and even flourish in an environment where many communities have lost their daily newspapers - the primary source of arts media coverage - or seen a sharp decline in the space devoted to the arts, as well as number of arts journalists employed. Five proposals were funded with $20,000 grants to further develop their ideas, and three organization will get an additional $80,000 for implementation. One of the selected ideas was in Philadelphia: a partnership between the Philadelphia Daily News and Drexel University to expand arts coverage by using Drexel student journalists to generate some of their content, called "Art Attack." This effort is already underway.

But I have to say, for all the talk of gloom and doom in local cultural journalism, I believe Philadelphia is faring pretty well, and we should not lose sight of that. Yes, our daily newspapers have struggled, and, yes, I am sure it is a challenge for the remaining arts beat writers. I suspect the writing staff has been reduced, perhaps compensation cut, column inches reduced. Yet, robust and engaging reporting and criticism is still happening and a very high level. The recent three part series of articles by Peter Dobrin on the Curtis Institute is a great example of that. Here are links to the first article, the second article, and the third article. That is a lot of "ink" for in-depth coverage of a classical music education story. But even more notable, is that all this coverage is clustered under a multi-media area of the Inquirer's Website called The Curtis Factor, which includes even more content, including video as well as a new piece of music commissioned by the paper from a Curtis composer as part of the story. I can't remember ever hearing of a newspaper commissioning a piece of music as part of a story.

We also have at the Inquirer and Daily News excellent reporters like Stephan Salisbury, who covers general stories about the arts that have elements of policy, civic and community issues, etc. Not to mention writers/critics like Howard Shapiro, David Patrick Stearns, Inga Saffron, Wendy Rosenfield, Toby Zinman, Carrie Rickey, Molly Eichel, Ed Sozanski, Gary Thompson (and all those Drexel students participating in the Art Attack program). I know I am missing some - apologies and please don't hold it against me, whoever you are! We even had the Inquirer recently publish an editorial citing our recent Number One ranking for Culture from Travel + Leisure and calling on policy makers to "face up to the need to create a sustainable funding source for the cultural assets that, even with strained government and corporate help, manage to earn so much praise." This was the second such arts-centric editorial in the past few months, the first being inspired by the recent Portfolio report issued by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

And then there is the cultural coverage offered by such other print publications as Philadelphia Weekly, Metro Philadelphia, the Tribune, City Paper, Al Dia and Philadelphia Magazine. Most of them offer both reviews as well as thoughtful and important longer pieces such as the recent profile in Philly Mag by Stephen Fried (and most also have listings). A new arrival is JUMP Philly magazine which covers the local music scene, with occasional forays into other art forms. And I am not even mentioning the many regional newspapers and magazines that also cover Philadelphia's cultural scene.)

On the Web, radio and TV we have Peter Crimmins at WHYY radio, as well as the arts-related coverage offered by Newsworks, a program of WHYY.  On WHYY-TV we have FridayArts, a wonderful arts-focused news magazine program. Also on the radio at WRTI we have Jim Cotter and Susan Lewis and the "Creatively Speaking" program. While not journalism per se we have excellent representation on the radio in terms of paying attention to local musical artists in their airplay from WHYY, WRTI and WXPN. in addition, WXPN has their "The Key" program specifically covering the local music scene.

We have Websites and blogs like Broad Street Review, ArtBlog, and LocalArtsLive. Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon at The Art Blog, in addition to their blog, also produce a regular audio podcast and video content.(Their ArtBlog radio takes place via Newsworks). And in addition to my blog, and the sites cited above, there are countless other blogs covering and commenting on the Philadelphia cultural scene. I am not going to get into the larger argument over whether such blogs constitute journalism, but they certainly help add to the dialogue, spark conversation and promote interest in cultural activities.

Is it perfect? Of course not. Is the community always happy with the quality and/or nature of the coverage they get? I doubt it. I don't mean to minimize the mighty challenges being faced by cultural journalism and journalists.

But my sense is that compared to other communities we are doing pretty well in terms of media coverage of arts and culture, both in terms of quality and quantity. It is a diverse media universe that encompasses both traditional print and broadcast media, as well as growing web-based and other media. Is it just that the gloom and doom sweeping the country has just not hit us yet? Perhaps, but I think something else is going on. I think the scrappiness and ingenuity that is part of Philadelphia's culture, and informs our arts and creative business community, is also reflected in our cultural journalism. Stuff is percolating here. "Legacy" publications are working to find new models. New efforts on the web - and even in print, like JUMP - are popping up. Entrepreneurs are somehow finding a way to make it work. And I think we - the cultural policy and arts workers - need to take a moment to acknowledge the efforts of our cultural journalists, even if we don't always agree with them. Our relationship with them is symbiotic - we need each other. And their efforts every day help make the Philadelphia cultural scene as robust and dynamic as it is.

Note: in the links above, for general interest publications I have tried where possible to link to the cultural coverage area of their website.


  1. What a great way to look at this, Gary. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Gary, thanks for the mention of artblog!  We have been the happy recipients of a grant from J-Lab (money from William Penn Foundation) whose direct intent was to foster a partnership between artblog (new media) and a mainstream media organization (  This is how our podcast series, artblog radio, came to be on NewsWorks (and on artblog and iTunes).  We love the partnership, and because of it we have been able to continue the podcasts beyond the expiration of the grant--it's a fantastic gift -- we couldn't have continued the series without it.

    We began artblog in 2003.  We had no reports to cite, just our own passion to write and our frustration, based on our observation, that the visual arts community was burgeoning and the old media was not keeping up. Nor were they interested in following the most important and significant new sector, the young artists pouring into town creating collective spaces to show each other's art.  We still see a need to cover the young artists.  Apart from Edith Newhall's occasional and welcome forays into that sector and the Weekly's and City Paper's very limited coverage, these artists do not get the coverage they need.

    Philadelphia is a DIY town.  As an artist said to us recently, its a place where so much is not done, so much does not work, that you can take initiative and get it done yourself--make a mark.  That's what we did. And that's what many of the collectives have done - they have seen a big hole and filled it with their own wonderfulness.

    We do what we can but it's never enough.  Recently a couple new online publications popped up (DIY, free)…run by artists, written by artists, and they are excellent new critical voices on the scene.  One Review a Month is more than two years old now. The Nicola Midnight St. Claire and Title launched a couple months ago.  Machete has been on the scene for at least a year.  These are great resources, and if there was any wish on our part it is that Knight would dip down the food chain more and fund some of these outlier publications, which are essential to creating buzz, starting conversations and …keeping people excited about being in Philadelphia.  

    It took them a little while to get their heads around online publications but this year the Warhol/Creative Capitol team -- which funds a prestigious annual award for critical writing in the arts  -- awarded each of a half dozen bloggers a large purse of money!! The list includes a blog with a local connection--Printeresting!! I hope Knight can learn from Warhol/CC and introduce an award for excellence that is open to all publications regardless of whether they are allied with a major media outlet.  Money is needed here, pure and simple.  There's a huge need. Your friends, Roberta and Libby of artblog

  3. In addition to the cultural coverage you've mentioned, I'd like to add to that a new initiative called thINKingDANCE ( You'll find reviews, letters to the editor, features, interviews, news and a public square - all cultivating robust conversation in the dance community.

  4. There are also a number of niche blogs in the arts sector. For example, our own Dance Journal whose focus is on the dance sector in Philadelphia. We now have almost 38,000 regular viewers each month. Check it out at

  5. Thanks everyone for these great comments. Knew I couldn't capture it all, and you are helping to add to the knowledge base of what is going on, as well as what is needed!