Thursday, November 08, 2007

Current affairs

Note: I've had this written for about a week and just remembered I had it in the bag. The story I link to ran in last week's Muse.

Now this is an interesting story. At least one, if not two, papers in St. John’s are selling editorial space in their paper. In the case of the Current, you can also buy the front page for about $1,200.

I’m with Kerri on this one. I used to be an arts reporter in St. John’s, both with the Muse in the early 90s and the Express from 2001-05. I consider arts reporting serious business. This offends my sensibilities a great deal.

I used to like the Current quite a bit right up until they sold it about a year or so ago. It was a fun paper, had interesting layout, nice photography and not afraid to tweak a few noses along the way. And hell, their most expensive houses in the metro area feature certainly got people talking, along with others stories they were telling.

As for the Town Crier, well, that’s always been junk.

But anyway, the Current was sold and I read the first couple of papers under new management. Geoff Meeker ripped them quite thoroughly for the sloppiness of the final product. I just lost track of it. There’s enough good media for me to read online, both Newfoundland based and otherwise, to waste time keeping track of the junk. And the Current had quickly slipped into the junk category.

But after reading Kerri’s story, I took another look at the paper. Guess what? Still junk. You have to hit page 4 before you get any editorial copy and it’s a “13 questions” on fashion and something else about style. That’s what you’re using to hook readers? That’s your first story, the story you’re going to use to hook people into continuing to read? The rest of the paper is just as bad. Ugly layout, filler photos because they don’t have copy. The stories they have are poorly edited, lousy headlines, you name it. It’s junk. I don’t know who Karla Hayward is, but I’m assuming she's editor because she has the patience to put up with James Baird for prolonged periods of time and not for any editorial skills and decision making ability.

But I can almost forgive a paper for just being bad. Running a good newspaper can be hard work. I only ran the Express occasionally and it nearly broke me. I thought about starting a paper in the late 90s, but decided it was going to be far too much work for far too little money. But selling your front cover as advertising space for the story you’d like to run inside? Ick. Seriously ick. If I recall, the St. John's Daily News, in its desperate last few months, sold the whole front page of the paper to Black Horse. I knew the ad guy who did it. That man could sell anything, it was kind of terrifying. He’d have no problem with the Current selling its front page to arts groups who want coverage.

But that’s why he was in sales and had nothing to do with editorial. And no editor worth their salt would say “yeah, let’s sell our front page. That’s a good idea." I know more than one who would simply walk (in the case of Craig Westcott, he'd probably set the building on fire as he was leaving) if a publisher suggested that to them, feeling their authority, credibility and ethics were being sold down the river.

I know no one takes arts reporting seriously because I did it on and off for the better part of five years. Editors frequently view it as a waste of space, something of a necessary evil. There is far more bad arts writing than good stuff. Those in the arts community can be in equal turns fascinating and frustrating to deal with. Trying to do good, solid stories that are not fluff pieces or handjobs is far, far harder than trying to write for the news section.

And yet, it can be fun and rewarding work. You can meet interesting people and get to tell some cool stories. It deserves to be treated with respect. And this, it isn’t respect. It’s a money grab. It's an attempt to milk an arts community desperate for any publicity they can get. More than once when I was with the Express I was asked if this story could go on the front page of the paper. Or the front page of the arts section. They knew the value of that space.

But we never charged them for it. Editorial made the decision of what went on the front page of the paper or the arts section on the merits of the story, not how much begging and pleading went on. And certainly not based on whether they spent any advertising money with us that week.

Looking at the Current, they certainly have no problem getting advertising. Of course, how much they’re actually getting for those ads (they have their rates listed, but deal are not unheard of with newspaper. For that matter, are they collecting on all of them) and how long that stands up if no one is reading remains to be seen.

I never actively wish for a paper to fold, for a voice to be lost. However, having read the Current and hearing about how they're managing their copy, there really isn't much of a voice to keep alive, is there?


WJM said...

shelley said...

The Current has been complete garbage since it changed ownership. I don't even bother picking it up for a glance when I'm waiting for my coffee anymore, it's just too irritating.
Do you read The Scope online? They have good arts and community stories and listings. They are definitely filling the void left by the old Current, and have grown the market in their own right for sure.

Sheena said...

The Scope is what Current was, absolutely. They represent the arts scene better than anybody. They show that Newfoundland art is more than row houses and mittens. And they show that St. John's is an urban centre worthy of an alt-weekly as fresh and trendy as The Coast.

Current makes me sick, with its advertorials placed alongside real conent with no markers and ugly damed little labels everywhere. As a friend of mine said, I want Current that has Andy Wells with a ball gag, not Current with Randy Snow.

At the Muse, we take the section seriously. It is second biggest to news, and we frequently put on cover. In fact, we like to make sure all our sections have content worthy of the cover. This is something we started pushing for when we changed to a magazine-style cover.

But I think by publishing Kerri's column, we've set for ourselves a new standard of arts coverage to live by. I hope to see us breaking more arts stories next semester.

towniebastard said...

There's nothing wrong with throwing down the gauntlet. If your Muse is anything like my Muse you have no shortage of people willing to do reviews for the arts freebees, but not doing much in the way of local arts.

So why not challenge your writers to do better. Show them the Coast or other weeklies that do good arts coverage. Besides, arts stories are fun.

As for the Current, it'll beat its own path to hell soon enough. It doesn't take advertisers long to figure out people hate your paper and that no on reads it, no matter what the circulation is. Trust me on that...