By now, arts insiders have already read both Katherine Sweetman's scathing blog post ripping apart the U-T's visual-arts coverage (the post has since been removed and relocated to Sweetman's personal blog) and the many reactions to it (read reactions here, here and here).
In short, Sweetman, a local artist, arts educator and an occasional CityBeat freelancer, was asked to contribute to the U-T's new visual-arts blog called the Sketchbook, which is authored by artists, professors and arts enthusiasts who write for free unless the piece is published in the print edition of the paper. Sweetman said she was excited by the prospect at first, but after talking to Robert Pincus, the longtime U-T arts critic who was laid off in June, she decided not only to quit in her first post, but ask others to quit with her. She said she just couldn't shake the sentiment she felt toward the daily.
"I just had that nagging feeling," she writes in the comment section of her blog. "'Wait.... The U-T... Machine... The Evil Empire...' [I] couldn't shake it. I regained my composure. I remembered my loyalty should be for people over private equity firms. I remembered how sweet Robert Pincus was to me on the few occasions I had met him, and I remembered specifically reading his work when I first moved to San Diego 10 years ago and wanting to be an arts writer."
Warning: This is where my personal opinion and I enter the story.
Sweetman emailed me last Friday and asked if CityBeat would be interested in offering the U-T bloggers a new platform for covering the arts.
"Does CityBeat need some free arts bloggers?" she asked me. "Maybe CityBeat could let us do some blog posts and we could ditch the U-T."
I wrote her back and told her the same thing I told the U-T contractor who was put in charge of rounding up the mostly free content.
"Nobody should EVER [write] for free," I wrote in reply to Sweetman. "That's called slave labor, even if you do it because you like it. I make money by writing, so every time somebody gives away their writing for free, that threatens my and other writer's livelihood....I'm open to people pitching stories (as you know). We don't pay much, but we pay. I would never let anyone write for free."
When Sweetman's post went up late Sunday night, it caught people's attention. At least one reader felt she came across as snotty and rude. Others gave her a big thumbs up. Many commented on how great it was to get a dialog on arts coverage and criticism going. Fellow journalists called it "unprofessional" (isn't that what the U-T wanted when it signed on non-journalists to blog for free?).
Not enough people actually made a comparison of Pincus' longtime coverage of the arts, and the coverage that's going on now (if you ask me, the Sketchbook is entertaining, but not in-depth and analytical like Pincus' coverage, and Jim Chute, Pincus' official replacement, has his heart in music, not visual art).
And as an artistic intervention, I'd say Sweetman's stunt was actually pretty effective. Nothing gets journalists' attention like a story on journalism, right? The method is right in line with some of the artist's past projects (I covered some of her interesting tactics in this article about creative uses of YouTube).
Voice of San Diego's Kelly Bennett got U-T editor Jeff Light's take on the matter, and he says he thinks the paper's arts coverage is "pretty good." He also told Voice that the paper is not profiting from the free content.
"We are not making money on the backs of our arts bloggers," Light told Voice. "Far from it. That is a terrible misreading of the facts."
The thing is, ads appear on the pages where the free posts are hosted, so someone's making money. Like I told Sweetman in the email, if any of the other bloggers asked for my advice, I'd tell them to continue to write about the arts on their own blogs. Look into Google Adsense or other methods of making money online. Use the clips to send to editors and try to get a paying gig. Free content is not a sustainable way to keep quality arts coverage going.