The crisis of print media has been a long time coming, though it feels like it is now, finally, coming home to roost with the seismic umooring of some of America’s most iconic print journalism brands. And the proverbial tallest blade in those once-august pages is, of course, cultural coverage, the type of writing that simply cannot be converted into easy pageviews or, on its own, sell subscriptions to news-focused dailies. Many embattled publications are killing Books and Arts sections, firing critics, and in general demonstrating little regard for the significant role such reportage has held in the history of broadsheets.
In response to the firing this week by the Los Angeles Times of their only art reporter, Jori Finkel, over a dozen museum directors and 1,387 (and counting) petition signatories have confronted LAT editor Davan Maharaj in a two-pronged bid to reinstate the laid-off journalist. Yesterday, he replied, writing an email that does the bare minimum to acknowledge the concerns of the museums — many of them LAT advertisers — and neglecting to substantively address any of the matters raised in the eloquent missive the directors had sent him.
In their original message to Maharaj, the directors had noted that beyond facilitating an economic and information ecosystem of art collectors, enthusiasts, and institutions, Finkel’s writing provided context to the opinions expressed by the paper’s critics: “Jori’s work and that of the critics go hand-in-hand to provide a sophisticated and robust picture of Los Angeles’s ever-expanding art scene.” As has been widely noted by media watchdogs and journalism think tanks, the collapse of traditional news outlets is felt most acutely in the proliferation of opinion and commentary, so this problem represents a microcosm of a much larger issue — the apparent demise of a rigorous fact-finding journalistic class.
That Finkel — who has previously contributed to the New York Times — was laid off amid an unfortunate crimson tide in the print newspaper business is clear, but what makes it especially devastating for Los Angeles is that the area has been slow to react to the trend. Just as surely as the last “alternative” platform for art reportage — the alt-weekly — bled to death in New York, the city has given rise to a thriving art blogosphere. LA’s online art media scene is a sparse tundra by comparison, done in by lackluster media entrepreneurship, an absence of audience sophistication, or maybe something else entirely.
At any rate, though the solidarity of southern California’s museum directors inspired confidence, perhaps some of that bonhomie could have made its way across the country to the swamps of the Potomac, where this week the Hirshorn Collection played host to some epistolary fireworks of their own, with museum chairwoman Constance Caplan’s searing resignation letter leaked to the Washington Post.
“I also hope that a spirit of true partnership, rather than conspiratorial ‘dictatorship’ will prevail between the Board, the many excellent Museum staff, and the Smithsonian leadership,” Caplan wrote in the letter, which also acknowledged the validity of Hirshorn director Richard Koshalek’s May resignation over the museum’s “Bubble” fiasco.