When the Mind Bows to Money

December 10, 2004 • Specialist Journalism • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, December 10, 2004

Arts sections feel the market pressure
The dramatic changes taking place in the media sector are increasingly affecting the latter’s most prestigious field: the arts sections. The economic questions of return on capital and maximising readership are becoming increasingly important while the elitist themes of highbrow culture are struggling to justify their raison d’être.

The row over the relaunch of the Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung clearly shows that the arts and culture section, which more than any other section should help us make sense of today’s world, needs to redefine its purpose. And this despite the fact that over the past two or three decades, the field of arts and culture reporting in the German-speaking world has undergone probably the most dramatic changes in the entire media sector. In what follows, we will refer to this phenomenon as “increasing market orientation”.

Opening up to everyday life and lifestyle

On the whole, the changes in the arts sections have occurred intermittently, in spurts of activity. In the radio and television sector, the most drastic changes were brought about in the mid-1980s by allowing private companies to enter the market. Most editors of the arts sections of daily newspapers, however, did not take much notice, and only became aware of the changes as newly established special interest magazines slowly started occupying market niches: the success of television and movie magazines finally made the daily newspapers expand their TV and media coverage. City magazines like Zitty and tip in Berlin, together with successful lifestyle magazines such as Tempo and Max, eventually forced the editors of established arts and culture sections to abandon their intellectual Olympus of highbrow culture and to venture into the lowlands of popular entertainment in search of a younger readership.

In the United States, the biggest daily, USA Today, has replaced its arts section with a lifestyle section and many regional papers have followed suit. In the German-speaking world, however, lifestyle topics have entered arts sections through the backdoor. Initially, they were covered in special supplements, rather than in the culture pages of the main paper. A number of these “zeitgeist” supplements such as the Zeit Magazin and the FAZ-Magazin ceased publication due to a lack of advertising revenue. It was only after this that lifestyle topics found their way into the “real” papers.

Trend towards more regional, tabloid-style arts sections

Along with the growing tabloidisation of the arts section, there has been a growing movement towards regionalisation. Most arts section editors now focus their coverage of arts and culture in their own geographic region. Thus, they are turning the features section implicitly — or, as is the case at the Swiss Basler Zeitung explicitly — into something like an event guide. Provided these pages include some well-written editorial content, this strategy may well prove more successful than traditional coverage of topics of highbrow culture in getting a wider readership to participate in cultural life. Up to now, however, the effort put into such genuine reader service has been rather half-hearted.

The Basler Zeitung has gone one step further. They have made a virtue out of financial necessity by charging event organisers for listing their events in the paper. This is one more piece of evidence that points to an increasingly market-oriented thinking of the arts section, although it is certainly not the new business model that will help the daily papers out of the doldrums. First, because we are witnessing the gradual commercialisation of a genuine public service traditionally provided by local newspapers for their readers and, secondly, because this trend blurs the borders between editorial content and advertisement in a way which is not conducive to improving the credibility of the media.

Farewell to the review sections

Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher and editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) was more thorough and probably much more passionate than anyone else as he turned things upside down in the arts section of his newspaper, and bade farewell to traditional review journalism. Topics such as the pros and cons of nano- and biotechnology, the power of media moguls like Murdoch and Berlusconi, the shortcomings of education policies, torture and human dignity are now discussed as a matter of course and more often in the arts and culture section of the FAZ than in other newspapers. That approach, too, has now been copied.

New types of arts sections have begun to appear as offshoots of weeklies and newsmagazines, and special-interest publications have been launched. For many years now, the art magazine, a publication covering the international art scene, has successfully maintained its position in the market. Subscribers to Germany’s Der Spiegel now receive the Spiegel-Kultur-Extra, a magazine dedicated exclusively to the arts and culture. Germany’s leading women’s magazine Brigitte publishes its Brigitte-Kultur-Spezialheft twice a year. New ways of reporting on the arts and culture are being tried out by the likes of Zoo, Achtung or Deutsch. Coverage of art, culture and lifestyle topics can not only be found in women’s magazines, but also in men’s magazines — there, however, following the example of Playboy, as part of the magazine itself. Even business magazines such as the Financial Times Deutschland or the manager-magazin now have their “life and style” sections, respectively: “Weekend, Living, Spending, Unwinding”.

For this, we have had to say good-bye to some of the traditional features sections such as Bilder und Zeiten, which used to be published by the FAZ in its Saturday edition, Die Welt‘s weekend supplement, Geistige Welt, and Basler Zeitung‘s internationally renowned Magazin. In much the same way, the FAZ has had to shelve the project “Berliner Seiten”, an attempt at creating feature-like local reporting. One might take consolation in the fact that at least the Zeit Magazin and the weekend supplement Geistige Welt were both replaced by comprehensive new literature sections. The Swiss daily Blick is going against the trend. Despite being a tabloid, it features an arts and culture section which, among other things, covers classical arts-section topics.

The arts reporter as homo oeconomicus

Much of what is known about the coverage of arts and culture in the influential press and in major TV news shows is thanks to the work of the research institute Media Tenor. The arts coverage on the front pages of the most important print media as well as in the daily news shows is usually dominated by everyday culture; i.e. movies and pop music. Coverage of highbrow culture like opera, theatre, and sophisticated literature, however, is mainly limited to the arts sections themselves. Artists, authors and other people involved in arts and culture are much less subject to criticism than politicians and business leaders. Damning reviews have become increasingly rare in the arts sections. Topics of popular culture in German TV news clearly reflect the cultural dominance of the US in the film, music and pop industries.

Most of the changes described above have happened as a consequence of a growing market-oriented attitude in the media sector, which has not stopped at the holy gates of the culture and features sections. To come up with a conclusive explanation for these changes, however, we need to think of the cultural affairs reporter not only as a victim, but also as an agent of change. It is crucial to reveal the homo oeconomicus behind the features section editor. Numerous decisions and changes in how the media cover art and culture will become much more transparent, if we stop thinking of the journalists working in the field as starry-eyed idealists who selflessly serve both the culture industry and the public. Ultimately, they are individuals pursuing their own interests and not slaves to the system. They were, and still are, the ones who shape the new arts sections.

Making the most of PR material

The following examples will illustrate just how much the business has become dominated by personal interest — be it that of the journalists, or of PR managers.

  • The overriding principle which guides a journalist working for the arts and culture section is “time is money”. Film and book reviews are often strikingly similar. Instead of carrying out the time-consuming task of writing original texts, many writers use well-produced PR material as the basis for their articles. Because cultural institutions are competing for the scarce resource of attention, many have dramatically increased their PR budget, forcing others to follow suit. This in turn leads to editors being inundated by promotional material they then use as sources of information. Media managers, for their part, relish the opportunity to save research capacity in their editorial departments. In short, an arms race in the PR sector is causing a progressive disarmament in the editorial departments.
  • Editors of the arts section assess and weigh topics in art and culture in terms of potential readership. There is a clear trend towards publishing and showing only what promises high circulation or ratings. News values are subject to audience preference. With a dose of good will, we may call this process “democratisation”, but, above all, it is market orientation.

The features section as a commercial platform

The arts section with its increased focus on pop music, movies, eating and drinking, and everyday culture is gradually becoming an effective marketing platform. Stations like Classic FM are now an established part of the media industry’s sales and marketing machine. In Germany, literature shows like Das literarische Quartett or Lesen! play a crucial part in book promotion. It is not without good reason that the German newspapers Handelsblatt, Tagesspiegel, Zeit and Welt have expanded their review sections. All of these papers are in the hands of companies which are owned by some of the largest publishing houses in Germany — even though Springer recently sold the publisher Ullstein (Econ Ullstein List). In fact, this trend is even more evident in the case of SZ Bibliothek, part of the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which has brought out a 50-volume set of 20th-century novels in hardback. The novels will be reviewed by one of the paper’s own editors or by celebrity authors such as Roger Willemsen. A smart, but also problematic way of mixing advertising with editorial content.

Fiefdoms and counterbalances

Weekly magazines like Der Spiegel maintain strict internal policies aimed at keeping journalists in line with the magazine’s editorial policy. In contrast, editors of the arts sections of many of the big daily and weekly newspapers enjoy a life of relative freedom. In many cases, the arts section provides a liberal counterbalance to the neoliberal or neoconservative tendencies in the news, business and financial sections. Those who dislike some of the reporting on Silvio Berlusconi in the news section of the FAZ will find less benign views of the Italian prime minister in the arts section of the same newspaper.

A “division of labour” of this kind within a newspaper fosters the independence of each section, promotes diversity of opinion and makes sense from a business point of view. It preserves the medium as a forum — offering a variety of different views on world affairs — and thus does not alienate parts of the potential readership. Furthermore, it increases the likelihood that a particular group of readers will find their views reflected in at least one section of the paper. Intellectuals, teachers and artists will probably favour the arts section, while entrepreneurs, executives and owners of small-businesses see their views represented in the business section. All this can make perfect sense from a business point of view: a “catch-all” strategy.

So what is driving the art sections are these seemingly opposing forces, which, at the end of the day, come down to traditional market forces. On the one hand, there are the equalizing effects of invisible market forces: i.e. the constant supply of promotional material from press offices and PR agencies. On the other hand, criticism and controversy can come in quite handy in terms of media attention. It may actually promote the personal brand value of those who relish the spotlight, as did Marcel Reich-Ranicki in his bitter feud with German author Martin Walser over the novel Tod eines Kritikers (death of a critic).

The arts section as member of a culture cartel

In Switzerland, as in Germany, the arts and culture are supported primarily by the cultural elite who, above all in many of the “affluent” university towns, are well organised and networked and have a significant voice within society. Most arts and culture editors are part of this network. This makes it easy for the cultural elite to drum up public support when politicians threaten to cut funding. Scientists, in contrast, have a much harder time trying to fend off cuts in university budgets. The row over the features section at the Swiss Basler Zeitung — or the conflict at the Badische Zeitung in Germany in 1997, for that matter — show how effectively and successfully the cultural elite fights against cost-cutting measures, and the growing trend to make the arts sections more accessible.

In the case of the Badische Zeitung, it finally cost the editor-in-chief, Peter Christ, his job. As of yet it is not clear how the row over the revamp of the Basler Zeitung will be resolved. In any case, tough times lie ahead for the new editor-in-chief, Ivo Bachmann, former editor of the Swiss consumer magazine Beobachter. And this despite the fact that the new “strategy” he seeks to implement was drawn up with the interests of a less highbrow, more regional readership in mind. The arts and culture section will be cut down to a tabloid-style event guide. The “elites” will turn up their noses in indignation.

At this point, however, any strategy to make the arts section more accessible to the general public will face limits. If we look at Mancur Olson’s theory of interest group dynamics and collective action, this makes perfect economic sense. It states that small, but well-organised groups will succeed in defending their privileges against the interests of the much more numerous, but less organised public at large. Examples abound, whether it is a matter of subsidising three opera houses in Berlin, or coming to the rescue of a “beacon” of arts journalism at a regional newspaper.

Special Protection Areas — courtesy of the culture cartel

Without the support provided by this cartel of the cultural elite, most highbrow culture typical of the traditional arts sections would probably vanish from the mainstream press, radio and TV, and be replaced by lifestyle sections and programmes. Eventually, most of the national quality newspapers would have to give in and substitute their arts sections for “media and culture” sections. In Switzerland and Germany, however, the trend now seems to be more towards sacrificing the media section on financial grounds. If we think in terms of the limited amount of time people have, everything points to highbrow culture eventually losing out in the arts section. On average, we spend two to three hours a day watching TV, three hours listening to the radio and approximately thirty minutes reading newspapers. That begs the question: where do we find the time to go to the theatre, the opera, or a concert?

However, it is more likely that elitist highbrow culture and new, popular lifestyle topics will ultimately coexist side by side, at least in national papers and on special interest channels like 3sat or Arte. There are good economic reasons to explain both the gradual shift away from highbrow culture so far, and this possible future coexistence. On the one hand, opening up the arts section to include more mundane topics has indeed attracted a larger readership, but on the other hand, where there is a culture cartel, even editors-in-chief and publishing executives will not be able to ignore it. On the contrary. They themselves are often part of the cartel, and have a personal interest in maintaining the status quo.

[Translation: Florian Faes]

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