Sunday, September 19, 2021

Opinion: The Decline of Arts Media: Or, One Reason Why Beyond James Exists

Hamilton seemed to react with shock when it was recently announced that Hamilton Magazine would be shutting its doors after over forty years in publication. However, the writing was on the wall- the magazine had been bought and sold numerous times; most recently to Postmedia four years ago when the corporation took over Sun Media assets (which included Hamilton Magazine’s parent company).

In a statement to the media, Phyllise Gelfand of Postmedia was succinct. “In the end it was a profitability issue. They just weren’t profitable.” Rest assured, though- the trade shows executed by the company are profitable, so they will be continuing.

The determination of profitability in the media as a basis for existence is nothing new. As the internet has changed how audiences are consuming their news, media entities have shifted, consolidated, folded or cut the less profitable sections. As a result, regular theatre, music and/or art critics are being laid off, reassigned or positions merged; or the paper is reducing or eliminating the amount of coverage that they devote to the arts.

The consequences can be disastrous. For traditional-model organizations who maintain a steady working relationship with a journalist that has them preview, then review the show, the relationship is forced to change when those roles are altered, or the space they relied on no longer exists. As a result of a lack of a review in the paper (a reliable source for a bump in ticket sales), there may be an instant change in audience numbers and community awareness. For these organizations, the shift in media may force them to re-examine their entire marketing model as the way that audiences learn about works, seasons and artists will change. In a worst case scenario, occasional audience members who may only buy a single-ticket each season, may forget about the organization if an arts section or traditional media is not keeping them top of mind.

More importantly, many of those writers have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that contributes to the articles that are being written. When this is lost at a media outlet, the entire community is losing an advocate for the way the population utilizes arts and cultural activities and the oversight this brings. When these writers disappear, the criticism and knowledge that accompanied the articles being written often disappears as well. Instead, community writers emerge, eager to fill the void- but frequently without compensation or the same level of context that previously existed- so criticism becomes much harder to find.

As the Creative Director of Beyond James, I’m fortunate to have over fifteen years’ experience in arts organizations across Ontario; including some of the largest or fastest-growing in the country at key times in their histories. Beyond James is also fortunate to be able to rely on the experience and criticism of other arts professionals from a variety of disciplines, who can provide expertise and collaboration on most topics for nothing more than the love of what we do. Our outlet is growing quickly, but we’re determined to stay independent, as we believe an independent voice is needed to maintain a healthy arts ecosystem.

But that statement raises a new problem. Should there be an expectation that arts criticism and coverage comes at no cost? Research shows that participation in the arts is an influential factor in perceived quality of life. If our community’s health is impacted by our connection to the arts, should there not be a greater value placed on informing potential audiences about the work they have access to? If so, who pays for this? The reader, who values the product? The organization who sees benefits from coverage? The city, where the health of its citizens are positively impacted?

All of these models are currently being tested out in the Ontario arts ecosystem. None of them are perfect, and as of yet, there is no perfect solution. But arts media and coverage- like all news- plays a critical role in the discussion and dialogue of our community. For Hamilton, like many communities with limited news sources, the consequences can have a ripple effect that can be felt for years to come.

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