The decision by Fairfax Media to lay off a quarter of its journalists has sent alarm bells ringing across the country, not least of all as concerns the future of arts journalism and criticism in Australia. Amongst the 125 jobs to be terminated are “all dedicated arts, film and books writers at the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, along with two deputy arts editor roles,” believes The Guardian. Along with that, the number of casual writers at both mastheads will be reduced and pay rates cut to “less than half of what they currently receive” – this again according to The Guardian.
The impact these job losses are likely to have on music is plain to see. The amount of concert reviewing will be seriously decreased, and the voices of many articulate, informed and intelligent writers lost. Bernard Zuel and John Shand, writing respectively in rock and jazz, are two music critics at Fairfax who have lost their positions. In his Facebook page, Zuel deplores what will be left: “There will be no specialist arts writers, no dedicated staff covering culture in all its forms. This apparently can be done by the contributors who will struggle to make a living, or from wire copy or what we can lift from overseas.” Coverage of classical music will undoubtedly suffer too.
Music Australia has stated its position on this issue, calling for broad support for public interest journalism.
Another organisation to make a stand against the cuts is national music presenter Musica Viva. CEO Mary Jo Capps has responded in a statement: “The recent developments at Fairfax are symptomatic of a much broader issue: the gradual erosion of cultural discourse articulated by respected, paid, professional writers.” She says that it is crucial that paid journalism roles are not allowed to disappear from mainstream media, and that the question of how arts coverage needs to be sustained over the long term “must be addressed by the media sector as a whole”.
“It’s really depressing, having spent so much noise and energy on [ABC] Classic FM only to have to turn around and face the situation of arts journalism,” says Capps when asked how she personally feels about the Fairfax cuts. “There are obviously wonderful pockets where intelligent discussion is taking place, and the Fairfax Press in Sydney and Melbourne was a really critical place in that. But it’s been continually chipped away.”
A decline in coverage inevitably means that quality of writing will be compromised, believes Capps. “It is not for want of trying. The amount the journalist is asked to cover, and the space offered, is ridiculous. On every level it’s been devalued. Not that there are less intelligent writers or that readers demand less. What you see in the proliferation of festivals is that people are drawn to ideas. Whether it is TEDx, festivals of ideas or writers’ weeks, these are all blooming, but not journalistic writing.”
“But if you see great writing, more people will buy that particular magazine or newspaper. It offers a prism whereby you can come closer to the intentions, design, and the successful outcome of artistic projects.”
For newspapers to curtail the length of reviews in an effort to save costs would hardly be an answer either, says Capps. “I think some people regard reviews as a version of TV game shows, with the aim of just showing up a score card. But critical writing is not just reading about the good, the bad and the indifferent. Great writing makes you curious to discover more. I’m a great fan of The New Yorker: it carries long articles but they are so well researched and crafted that it’s a joy to read.”
Critics are part of an overall arts ecosystem that’s worth protecting, she thinks. “I think if one looks at it as a whole, musicians and critics are absolutely co-dependent: one is not merely a servant of the other. And that’s a good thing.”
But Capps urges that this does not mean everyone should be patting each other on the back. Fearlessness in expressing opinion is needed, not timidity, she says. “The worst thing we can be is people wandering in thoughtlessly and not sufficiently engaged in what we are all doing. I think having a healthy robustness is part of that. There is no shortage of strong opinion amongst the performers themselves on how well they play, so I don’t think they should be so timid about what reviewers have to say.”
“I know some performers who say they never read reviews. There are always a few critics who say churlish things, but generally the intention is to provide an interpretation, a perspective on the concert experience. Besides, the thing about glowing reviews is that you don’t learn much from them.”
Pianist Kathy Selby is another who has lent her support to a campaign calling on Fairfax to reconsider its cuts. She, along with many other leading figures in the arts including TV and film critic Margaret Pomeranz, Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch, and Jeremy Waters of Outhouse Theatre Company, has contributed to a video campaign on Facebook. See it here.