In the arts world, some aspects of shrinking South African newsroom budgets are painfully obvious. The page-space devoted to arts coverage is shrinking as those budgets shrink. Lifestyle stories – often sponsored – about holidays and hemlines dominate. Online arts coverage in the mainstream media is regularly just a poorly curated cull from the celebrity gossip other sites carry.
Less obvious, but more insidious, is what editors are resorting to to fill the gaps. New types of sponsored content are now joining the old ones. Not only do travel companies fly journalists to far locales to write puff-pieces; art galleries and similar now do it too. The journalists concerned usually strive to maintain balance and do an honest job, but over time a creeping sense of relationship, obligation and expectation can all too easily develop. (Not to mention the general public cynicism such practices would arouse if they were widely known.)
Press release material is more and more used instead of editorial copy – the consonance between jacket blurbs and book reviews these days is often remarkable. Major international touring acts offer lavish press kits and very little live access (always tightly supervised) to the artist, and the media obediently recycle the press kits. Bloggers get promoted to columnists if they can add piquant novelty for a low enough fee (which is sometimes no fee at all), without the title feeling any obligation to quality-check or invest in the new writer’s training. Occasionally, a publicist’s name appears as an author’s, above a piece about a person or product they – paid or unpaid – represent.
Several of these symptoms showed in some entries for last November’s National Arts Journalism Awards. None of the entries that bore them came anywhere near a shortlist, but it is depressing that writers or nominating editors would think them even worth entering.
But worse, for me, is the way this commodification of arts writing is poisoning the relationship between writers and artists.
In South Africa, the distribution system for independent releases is random and shambolic, and most interesting jazz is released independently. So I welcome, as I always have, news from artists about their new music. Without it, I would not be able to keep my readers informed. A few sample sound-files are useful, particularly if planned distribution is small, or only in another city, or not due for another few months. A free album is not demanded, so long as you can tell me where I can buy it – and if I can’t buy it easily, I’m not going to waste my readers’ time sending them on an impossible search either.
What I welcome less is the kind of covering letter that stridently demands coverage and casts my potential contribution in terms of ‘publicity’. Such letters are becoming far more common than they used to be, and I think that’s because of those blurred lines above. So, let’s make the distinction clear and re-draw the lines.
ONE: Arts publicists can be paid as such, or simply be helpful friends, comrades or lovers with a desire to showcase an artist. They work for and in the interests of the artist. Their job is to create a positive buzz around artists and their work.
Arts journalists can be paid as such, or simply be enthusiasts for a field or genre. They work for and in the interests of their audience. Their job is to explore the interesting, complex, nuanced (and sometimes negative) truths around something or someone.
There is a clear conflict of interest when a publicist pretends to be a journalist.
TWO: Arts publicists are obliged to draw attention to what the artist produces.
Arts journalists are under no obligation to write about every creative work they encounter or are sent.
THREE: Arts publicists deflect complex and potentially awkward questions.
Arts journalists are supposed to ask them, and pursue the answers to the bitter end.
FOUR: Arts publicists seek out audiences for what they have to sell
Arts journalists often work for specific audiences on specific platforms, and even if something has undeniable quality, it may not be appropriate for that audience or platform.
FIVE: Artists can specify to their publicists what they want written and how (although they might be well advised to leave it to the specialists)
Neither artists nor publicists have any right to dictate to journalists what should be written or how – at least not in South Africa, where we have Bill of Rights guarantees of media freedom.
All arts journalists can ever promise is to give new work a fair viewing or hearing and, if they think it might intrigue or entertain an audience, write honestly about it and try to find that writing a platform. That is their job and if they demand gifts, favours or payment for doing it, they are corrupt. But if you proffer gifts or payments, or try to exert pressure on them, then you are the corrupt one.