To the Board:
The word is getting out, nationally, that you plan to do away with staff positions for reviewers dealing with art, literature, and music. Perhaps you intend simply to buy canned reviews from the wire services. You may also, in an attempt at effective management, have decided that other people on staff, people who are not trained in the arts but who “like music” and who “read a lot” and so on will nonetheless be able to meet the cultural needs of the community.
Please reconsider. You are making a terrible mistake. Here’s why.
Civic leaders of every major city feel that a variety of major-league sports franchises are required for a national profile. Not only do the locals follow the team and build civic pride, so the wisdom runs, but civic business grows: benefits for the local businesses who buy luxury boxes and treat their guests, the excitement created when teams do well and make it to playoffs and so on contributes to the general buzz about a city, perhaps leading to a role in the Olympics, a political convention, and other kinds of cash-on-the-table interest. The more culturally aware cities feel the same way about a major symphony orchestra, an opera company, a ballet, and so on; these institutions generate a thriving cultural life, a different kind of business (restaurants, galleries, major bookstores, other kinds of arts-related events). For a long time, Atlanta was considered to be the standard-bearer of the New South, a city that was up and coming on every front. Congratulations on having baseball covered; that’s one down. Now, about your paper:
Many—particularly people in the newspaper business—decry the decline of the American newspaper. Young people don’t read, they say, and people prefer to get their news from the internet, which augurs ill for newspapers. That—and the quality of international news and independent, hard-hitting reporting that newspapers have of have not actually provided in the last ten to twenty years—is a discussion for another day. For now, ask yourselves how providing less for your community, in this environment of growing dissatisfaction with major newspapers, is a wise business strategy. The lesson for the culturally aware of Atlanta is clearly that their primary newspaper has decided they don’t matter. I am sure that those interested in concerts and art galleries are far less numerous than those interested in sports, but the comparison bears thinking about: would you consider trashing your sportswriting and sports-reporting staff as a fiscal responsibility measure? Perhaps the sports section really pays the bills. OK; how about just making the Journal-Constitution a sports paper, then? Maintaining news desks and bureaus (do you still have bureaus? many papers no longer do) is expensive, and it’s not like the quality of newspaper reporting draws people in the way it used to in the days of the Watergate scandal. So news reporting is a major drain on the bottom line, too; why not just go with what pays? This is the message we in higher education often get from consultants who, for the most part, fail in business before moving on to do damage in our area. Why not just cover sports and “entertainment,” and use the news feeds that are easily available from national outlets?
I’m sure you don’t appreciate this sort of facetiousness from a professor, because a newspaper has a civic responsibility to provide information to The People but is also a business, not a charity, etc., and an ivory-tower type would never understand that. Here’s the deal: we’ve all heard that kind of windbaggery before, and it is no longer persuasive. Either provide a product that people—all the people—want and need, and make your paper the vibrant image of a thriving city, or get out of the business. Serve the people—the entire community, including the artistically affiliated who anchor a very important economic and cultural sector of your city—or admit, proudly and publicly, that you aren’t a real newspaper, that you abdicate responsibility for the interests of that part of your community, indeed you can’t be bothered to act as if they really belong to the community at all. If you consider them to be an economic minority, an effete group that don’t even really embody the image of Atlanta you and the city fathers would like to project—fine. Stand up and say it: in order to serve the needs of the city of Atlanta as we see it, and to have the newspaper better reflect the character of the community, we here at the Journal-Constitution will launch a new, daily NASCAR section, and the sacrifice of the entire arts staff is one of the ways we will enable this to happen. World news will be derived from the websites of the major networks. Local news items will be submitted by volunteers.
Please, though, don’t act as if your paper, whatever its circulation and advertising revenue, stands where other major newspapers stand, and deserves the same respect. You are proclaiming that you consider not only your paper but also Atlanta itself to be narrow, parochial, and ultimately low-rent in cultural outlook. If that is in accordance with the views of the civic leaders of Atlanta, fine—best of luck to you. Such a decision, though, would be deeply embarrassing elsewhere, and would be taken as a proud announcement of third-class status.