News and Features

Should Arts Groups Create Their Own Arts Coverage?

shutterstock_96120926It’s happening in Chicago. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra just launched its own “online multimedia magazine,” called CSO Sounds & Stories. According to Philip Koester, the CSO’s vice president of marketing, “the CSO becomes the first major American orchestra to have a dedicated music journalism site.”

Why would it launch such a venture when journalism in general is in a state of upheaval and classical music itself is not exactly singing hallelujah?

Not surprisingly, self-interest: “Since publications now have fewer resources to devote to the arts,” writes Koester, “it is more difficult for the CSO to obtain media coverage, especially previews of coming programs.” Yet the CSO isn’t just pasting together puff pieces and some canned bios of performers and composers. They’ve actually hired several experienced journalists, notably the former classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Even so, this new venture has prompted a serious appraisal from Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones — who concludes, also not too surprisingly, that CSO Sounds & Stories is not music journalism, period. But his is not a simple, blunt dismissal.

That’s because he has to address what he calls the “myriad conflicts of interest” that are plaguing/enlivening/re-inventing today’s news media. These include the many inroads marketing has made into what was once the semi-sacred and supposedly independent zone of reporting with such things as “sponsored” stories and “branded content” — not to mention the way corporations, online businesses especially, have begun hiring their own freelancers, even their own editorial staffs, to help covertly or semi-covertly market their products.

But the issue is still one of editorial independence, argues Jones. Either the Chicago Symphony will use its new outlet to promote itself — “in which case the CSO really should stop co-opting the term music journalism, which implies something rather different” — or it will permit such exposes or stories as (hypothetically) why CSO music director Riccardo Muti is sick of all the Verdi he’s obliged to conduct.

Understandably, this last track is extremely difficult to maintain, and Jones cites a telling example as proof. Two years ago, Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage began published its own “independent” online journal, called HowlRound: A Center for the Theater Commons. The publication became known for some thought-provoking writing.

Within a year, though, the editor re-located HowlRound to Emerson College in Boston. The journal simply couldn’t escape the perception that it was rigging its coverage in favor of Arena

Jones concludes:

The CSO may say that it wants to allow [CSO Sounds & Stories] to speak the truth, but, when the muck hits the maestro — an inevitable consequence of unfettered truth telling over time — it’s likely that some executive, or board members, will say: “Wait. Where in our mission does it say it is our job to undermine ourselves?”

And they would be right. Newspapers and independent websites with firewalls are, Lord knows, imperfect vessels for writing the truth about the arts. Perhaps increasingly so, especially in midsize cities. But a better model has not yet been found.