For years, local news organizations under financial strain have cut back on arts coverage or eliminated their arts staff altogether. Business desks, features editors and general assignment reporters are asked to pick up the coverage in newsrooms — without any training about why it’s important or how to do it well.
Poynter’s upcoming workshop, “How to Cover the Arts on Any Beat,” will provide guidance, connections and inspiration for local newsrooms struggling to find balance when it comes to arts journalism. This doesn’t mean it’s only for arts or features writers. Business reporters will be particularly empowered to consider arts as a key economic engine in their community.
Tom Huang, assistant managing editor at the Dallas Morning News and Poynter editing fellow, will lead the training. In addition to overseeing Poynter’s Summit for Reporters and Editors and Minority Writer’s Workshop, Huang is a recognized innovator in local news. He experiments with new business models, partnerships and events in Dallas, while managing tough layoffs and a shrinking staff.
I talked with him about the creative ways he’s tried to cover the arts in Dallas, the challenges of connecting with arts audiences online, and why he sees himself as an arts evangelist in the newsroom.
Mel Grau: What happens when local newsrooms don’t cover the arts?
Tom Huang: There’s no escaping that there are hard realities in local newsrooms. We’re challenged in terms of our resources. Many metro newsrooms have had to scale back on their arts and entertainment coverage, especially their coverage of fine arts.
My goal is to fight for arts coverage, to evangelize newsrooms across the country to believe that the arts don’t simply have an aesthetic value; they build vibrant cultures and cities, they drive local economies and they also have the potential to bridge diverse communities.
When you remove arts journalism from the equation, you lose the spotlight on the arts. You lose awareness of all of the great arts in your city. And you also lose the criticism that leads to honest conversations about what we think of as good art (or less-than-good art).
MG: What would you say to someone who believes arts coverage isn’t as important as other beats, like education or government?
TH: I would ask them to look at the hard data, and they would probably see that their arts institutions drive more visitors and revenue than most of their local sports teams. I’m a big sports fan. I’m not dismissing it. But there needs to be a recognition that the arts are as important to the local economy as the local sports teams are.
The other argument I would make is that the arts are a way to bring diverse people together. It’s a way to have interesting conversations where you can have debates and go back and forth, but it’s not as controversial as politics.
MG: You and your colleagues at the Dallas Morning News recently experienced painful layoffs. As an editor, how have you coped with the workload?
TH: We still have an art staff, but it’s smaller than it was. So the arts editor and I are working on building a serious, core group of contributors, including freelance writers and academics who can write in-depth stories about the arts for the Dallas Morning News.
We have a grant from the Rubin Institute in San Francisco to support our classical music coverage, including the Dallas Symphony and Dallas Opera and other great music groups.
Our architecture critic in Dallas also has a faculty position at a local university, so we share the costs of supporting his work. He teaches at the local university, and then he also writes for us.
MG: Beyond the intense impact on your staff, what are the challenges you’re facing in the community when it comes to covering the arts?
TH: Leaders from the symphony, opera and the Dallas Museum of Art — and smaller community arts groups, too — they’ve come to us to say they’re worried about arts coverage, given the layoffs that we’ve gone through. They see arts journalism not just as a way to promote their work, but to improve their work through criticism.
Readers and art supporters are also worried that arts coverage is going to go away. And they may be upset and angry because they don’t understand the hard decisions we’ve had to make for business reasons.
MG: So layoffs are not only changing the dynamics between the newsroom and the arts institutions, but with your audience too?
TH: Yes. We have an engaged, older, loyal audience that values arts coverage, especially in the print edition. I should mention that we still have a very robust Sunday arts section. But we have conversations with this audience about the work that we’re doing to identify new writers and the work that we’re doing to ultimately raise funding to support arts coverage.
We’re also experimenting with other ways to connect with our audience and reach new people. We created an arts email newsletter, which goes out every week. For the last year we’ve been doing an event series around arts, culture and science called “Duets.” We pair one of our writers with a really interesting leader in the community, and they just have a wide-ranging, unscripted two-way conversation in front of an audience. Earlier this month, architecture critic Mark Lamster talked with art professor and critic Rick Brettell. In a couple weeks, arts journalist Lauren Smart will be in conversation with gallery director and curator Sofia Bastidas.
MG: The Poynter workshop you’re leading is called “How to Cover the Arts on Any Beat.” Can you give me some examples of how different types of journalists, like business reporters, can do this?
TH: We will showcase ways to help beat reporters across all disciplines cover some of the arts. A business reporter may keep tabs on the business operations and dealings of the local symphony, opera or art museum. The news reporter might keep an eye on how local arts are growing and what the trends are in his or her city. The features reporter might come up with some interesting profiles around local artists. The people who still cover the arts full-time can learn how best to build an audience online.
MG: What will participants learn from the other instructors?
TH: Poynter’s Ren LaForme will teach a session around building a digital audience for the arts through social channels. Deborah Vankin, an arts reporter from the LA Times, will have some good examples of this, too. She has found immersive ways to cover the arts, whether it’s live tweeting the journey of a huge sculpture to one of LA’s art museums or following Shepard Fairey during one of his journeys to paint a mural.
Stephanie Hayes and Christopher Spata of the Tampa Bay Times will teach participants how to recognize and discover excellent profiles, whether it’s a local artist or an artist who’s coming through town.
Some of Eric Deggans’ most interesting pieces deal with the intersection of arts, race and culture. He’ll talk about the ways that arts spark conversations about differences, whether it’s in race and culture or point of view.
Participants will also take an exclusive tour of the Salvador Dali Museum and attend an evening event with four of the most prominent arts leaders in Tampa Bay.
MG: What else do you want people to know about this workshop or this topic?
TH: This training is not a silver bullet or cure-all. I believe there needs to be a whole bunch of stuff that happens to bolster arts journalism, and this is one step to start the conversation. I look forward to sharing and brainstorming creative ways to strengthen arts journalism and local journalism overall.
Submit your application for “How to Cover the Arts on Any Beat” by Friday, April 5. The workshop is free, thanks to support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.