It was an odd moment at a March 3 community forum called "The Arts in Tough Economic Times." Bob Hoover, the Post-Gazette book-page editor who was covering the event for the paper, stood and addressed the 160 attendees, who represented several dozen local organizations.
Hoover acknowledged what many in the audience have privately complained about for weeks: "We are cutting back on coverage of the arts." He cited a lack of space in the P-G, which like most other print publications has shrunk recently, largely due to the economy. Unacknowledged were staffing cutbacks: With key P-G veterans like theater critic Chris Rawson and dance critic Jane Vranish taking buyouts, the paper has noticeably scaled back coverage of live arts (with Hoover himself among those filling the gap by pitching in on the drama desk).
Hoover asked attendees at this Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council event for their ideas "to help the newspaper cover your organizations better." He suggested, for instance, more use of online resources, and the establishment of a "partnership to share information" between the paper and the groups. (No one immediately responded with any additional ideas.)
It felt a little weird for Hoover to take an active role in a meeting he was covering. (He co-wrote, with art critic Mary Thomas, the article about the meeting in the next day's P-G.) But even weirder was the almost palpable shift of power in this Benedum Center meeting room: The P-G, whom arts groups are used to petitioning for coverage, was asking them for help -- at a public forum where they had come, presumably, because they were having trouble making ends meet to begin with.
City Paper, of course, is scarcely immune from the demographic, technological and economic trends that have knocked daily and weekly papers back on their heels, and in some cases out of existence. (RIP, Rocky Mountain News.) But unlike the P-G, CP has never been the region's putative paper of record -- the one that reviewed nearly every performance and exhibit, and previewed all the big ones. Smaller to begin with, we weeklies have always had to pick our spots; lowered page counts mean we just have to pick them a little more carefully, and try to do more with less. Part of the equation has always been us knowing the P-G was there to give everything at least a nod. With that gone, the math looks a lot more unfamiliar.
It's great that the P-G recognizes the role the arts play, and the role the paper plays in keeping the arts vibrant. Among the many things that no one knows yet is how the shrinkage of in-depth and critical coverage of the arts will affect the scene.
At the March 3 meeting, GPAC's Mitch Swain followed Hoover to add that arts groups had already met with P-G editor David Shribman to discuss the situation. Swain said GPAC would hold another public forum, this one about "media and marketing," in a month.