Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland of Bad at Sports
Duncan MacKenzie and Richard Holland of Bad at Sports Credit: Sarah Guernsey

Lee Rosenbaum, the veteran east-coast journalist behind the CultureGrrl blog, seemed to have a bead on the future. Her smart, breezy, deeply informed, and brazenly opinionated posts focused on visual art, especially art museums, and she had a faithful following among museum professionals. (Her other gigs have included frequent freelance contributions to the Wall Street Journal, where she reported, for instance, on the recent opening of the Art Institute’s Modern Wing.) For the last three years her posts have been a regular feature on Douglas McLennan’s indispensable ArtsJournal site, which aggregates English-language cultural coverage from all over the globe, and last year, Rosenbaum says, CultureGrrl got 549,000 pageviews. So when Rosenbaum announced this spring that she was stepping back from daily blogging because she hadn’t found a way to make it pay (and needed to devote her time to something that might, like a book), it was sobering. Isn’t the online arena where all journalism is headed?

There’s no question that arts coverage as we’ve known it is on the way out. The statistics for traditional arts journalism are even worse than those for print journalism in general. Take this one, courtesy of McLennan, who also heads up the National Arts Journalism Program, an organization founded to promote arts coverage by offering midcareer fellowships to working journalists. “In the last two years,” McLennan says, “50 percent of arts journalism jobs have been lost.” And that’s not all: even the NAJP has suspended its fellowships.

When the NAJP started in 1994, nearly 90 percent of the journalists who applied for its fellowships were staffers from big news institutions; only a small percentage were freelancers, McLennan says. By 2006 the percentages had flipped: applicants were 90 percent freelancers and only 10 percent staff.

“It’s a major kill-off,” McLennan says, with “major implications for how culture gets covered. Right now, there’s no financial model that supports doing cultural journalism.”

“But here’s the good news,” he adds. “There are 300,000 arts blogs.”

A lot of them aren’t great, McLennan admits, but “there’s some pretty damn good writing about the arts which in the past you never would have had access to.” And somewhere out there, he says, there’s a model that’ll “redefine what arts journalism is, and also find a way to support it.

“You have to remember that, historically, anytime you’ve been able to gather a crowd for something, you’ve been able to find an economic model to support it. I believe that’s going to happen here. And if you look at radio, television, any technological change, it’s always taken 10 or 15 years before we hit on a model that can support it.”

He’s hoping to help the process along with the National Summit on Arts Journalism, to be held at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication (which is cosponsoring) October 2 and streamed live online. The summit will spotlight ten model projects. Five are the yet-to-be-announced winners in a competition that attracted 109 entries before it closed August 17 (including two hopefuls from Chicago: Bad at Sports, Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie’s weekly visual-arts podcast and blog; and the Goodman Theatre’s Cindy Bandle Young Critics mentoring program for 11th-grade girls). The winners, who will travel to Los Angeles to compete for cash prizes up to $7,500, are expected to be announced this week—later than planned due to the high number of entries. McLennan says judges won’t be looking for the flashiest or most polished idea but for a range of interesting models, all of which should include a solid means of support.

That should narrow the field. Directions on the summit Web site said, “Above all, we’re looking for viability, both as a business and as a journalistic enterprise.” But a sampling of the entries—which were posted as they came in—suggests that most are sketchy on the business plan and a majority are depending, at least partially, on the generosity of unspecified foundations and donors.

The other five projects were selected by NAJP as “demonstration” models. All interactive Web sites, they include a software program, a broadcast company that’s “reinventing” itself, a citizen journalism project, an expansion of institutional PR, and a for-profit music retailer. They are:

aSophie—free software that makes it easy for authors to integrate sound, video, and images, originally devised by the Institute for the Future of the Book and now part of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at USC’s film school.

aThe NPR Music site—not only covering music, but also presenting and producing it.

aCedar Rapids Gazette‘s Complete Community Connection—redefining news (and arts coverage) to include citizen journalism.

aArt Babble and Dashboard—projects by and about the Indianapolis Art Museum.

aInstantEncore.com—a for-profit classical music site incorporating blogs, news, recordings, partnerships with orchestras, iPhone apps, and listings (at present for about 62,000 upcoming concerts).

“A lot of people are talking about the crisis in journalism,” McLennan says. “But I think it’s a tremendously interesting time. In the last 20 years, as the number of publications has shrunk, the ways that we’ve covered culture became solidified: the preview, the review, the profile. But who says that the 500-word review or the thousand-word review is the perfect expression of a critical response to a piece of art?” What we have now is the opportunity for new approaches, he says. “I see the reinvention of the business as the prod to reinvent the art of arts journalism. What I hoped this project would do is to start illuminating some of those.”

That might be easier than figuring out how to make it pay.

McLennan’s own for-profit site carries an impressive roster of blogs, including Terry Teachout’s About Last Night, Tyler Green’s Modern Art Notes, and Rosenbaum’s CultureGrrl. He says ArtsJournal has turned a profit nearly every year for the ten years of its existence, in part by collecting revenues from more than one stream—advertising, subscriptions, premium newsletters, and feeds to other Web sites have all helped. It now has 35,000 free subscribers and 1,000 subscribers paying $28 per year to help support the site.

But fine as ArtsJournal is, and though it passes along three-quarters of its blog ad revenue to its bloggers, that doesn’t yet amount to much. Rosenbaum has been up-front about her quest for ads on the blog, and, although she’s not a charity, she’s let readers know that she welcomes donations (via PayPal).

Still, by this past spring, it wasn’t generating enough money to justify the hours she was putting into it. Her frustration was evident, and understandable. I had resigned myself to doing without her when I noticed that she wasn’t really gone. The posts slowed briefly and then, it seemed, came roaring back, nearly as often as ever.

“Blogging is an addiction,” Rosenbaum says. “I’d still like to cut back on the amount of time I’m devoting to it, but it’s a great genre, and I feel a particular affinity for it. It’s hard to break away from that.” Racking her brain for new ways to make it pay, she’s come up with a value-added offering: for $1.50 a day or $15 a month, she’s sending readers a daily blast with links to interesting stuff she’s finding on the Web. And things are looking up: this year she expects to break “the low five figures” in blog-related revenue (including speaking fees).

Her CultureGrrl is one of the 109 projects entered in the Arts Journalism Summit contest.