According to The Economist, newspaper readership has been falling for decades in western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. In this country, daily newspapers have cut back hard on the employment of journalists and editorial staff, and have increasingly turned over their pages to columnists (who as independent contractors are cheaper than a stable of in-house writers), buying in syndicated features, and adding life-style sections, which require fewer resources than "old-fashioned" investigative journalism. Meanwhile the advertising money has followed the readers to the internet: Trade Me has sucked up garage salers while New Zealand's corporates are defecting to online campaigns and are direct marketing to prospective targets.
Several journalists were laid off last week at the Listener, whose once-incisive current events pages increasingly read like excerpts from a self-help manual while the magazine itself looks as if the janitor laid it out in his or her downtime. The latest casualties of the editorial axe at a New Zealand newspaper, however, are the Dominion Post's visual art reviews -- ironic in Wellington, a city which styles itself as New Zealand's cultural capital. But then, newspapers these days are primarily run as a business, not a social good: the role of the Fourth Estate in keeping society's elected representatives honest looks increasingly shaky, while its role as a champion of excellence in cultural matters seems likewise a relic of the past.
It strikes me that Mark Amery, recently let go as the DomPost's art reviewer (and interviewed by Radio New Zealand's Kim Hill yesterday morning), will find another outlet for his criticism, much as John Hurrell has. (Or at least I hope so: he's too good just to unplug the keyboard and walk away.) In the deep distant past, John Hurrell reviewed art for the Christchurch Press: he is one of a long line of fiercely independent art critics employed by the paper including now prominent curators William McAloon (Te Papa) and Justin Paton (Christchurch Art Gallery). Despite using a blogging platform to regularly record his impressions of the art shows he visits, swap banter with his readers, and promote his public appearances, Hurrell protests that, all appearances to the contrary, he's not a blogger: "For me the term is too linked to the diaristic and petty gossip to be applied to this site." (Sounds like he thinks blogging's a job for girls...)
I disagree with Amery and Hurrell at least as much as I agree with them, but consistently I'm interested in what they have to say. More than that, I like the ways in which they say it. I've come to appreciate the online personalities of both writers (although Amery wrote for the newspaper, I read his pieces online, through the Lumiere Reader or occasionally The Big Idea); manifest in such factors as the sense of goodwill both critics exude towards the project of criticism, the enthusiasm for the ideas they're writing about, the sense of disappointment when what they're reviewing doesn't cut the mustard, and the ability to dispense rough justice when the circumstances warrant it.
In New Zealand, art criticism's always been a love job. Sure, you get paid a bit for it; but what you're paid is entirely incommensurate with the amount of time, effort and expertise you need to put in, as well as the argy-bargy you get from disgruntled artists who've been the recipients of a negative review. Art critics certainly couldn't live on what they're paid by the newspapers; writing art criticism in New Zealand needs to be a second, or even a third, job. As a cost-cutting exercise for a newspaper, getting rid of art critics is negligible. It's more a case of signalling a new direction; the move away from newspapers as a source of intellectual debate and towards the publication of general interest items with a consumer focus.
Yet long-term, this may not be the most sensible direction for a newspaper to take: media economist Richard Picard suggests that by trying to appeal to everyone, newspapers are spreading themselves dangerously thin. Currently, newspapers:
"keep offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of content, and keep diminishing the quality of that content because their budgets are continually thinner. This is an absurd choice because the audience least interested in news has already abandoned the newspaper."Instead, suggests Philip Meyer, newspapers should concentrate on content that makes them relevant to their local communities -- primarily evidence-based reporting -- and aim their pitch at well-educated "news junkies" who appreciate being able to argue from a basis of fact, and reading well-argued analysis of topical issues -- the very readership, I would suggest, who turn to the paper for the art reviews, but will now need to go elsewhere. In Wellington, at least.
When John Hurrell received a grant from Creative New Zealand to start up eyeCONTACT, he was the butt of a lot of ribbing on New Zealand art's free-for-all all-in-wrestling forum, Artbash. Hurrell's CNZ grant (or targeted investment, or whatever they're now calling the money they hand out) was the first occasion, I think, on which the practice of art criticism was nationally supported. With the retrenchment of art reviewing by local newspapers signalled by the DomPost, the decision to fund Hurrell's independent enterprise seems extremely prescient. More power to his arm should he go back for another dip in the public pot: and maybe next time with a bigger grant he could also look at securing the services of, or syndicating the writings of, other well-informed critics such as Amery, Andrew Paul Wood and Jamie Hanton (because art criticism shouldn't be an unpaid love-job when it's being done at that standard), as well as publicising his site more widely to pull in more readers.
I suspect online art criticism's the way of the future. Whether or not one likes to think of oneself as a blogger.