‘As Arts Finds A Way So Will Arts Journalism:’ Independent News Outlets Adapt Arts Coverage To Pandemic

As artists and art organizations adapt to survive the pandemic, so are the arts and culture reporters who cover them.

Arts editors and reporters from the local, independent news outlets the San Francisco Bay View National Black Newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter, 48 Hills and Broke-Ass Stuart spoke at the virtual panel “How to Report on SF’s Art and Culture During a Pandemic,” hosted by Alex Mullaney, Ingleside Light editor and publisher and organizer of the Save SF News fundraiser.

The universal loss of ad revenue has reporter layoffs as outlets adapt to meet reader needs while covering virtual performances and an industry devastated by the pandemic. 

Plummeting ad revenue last March, for example, prompted the Bay Area Reporter to lay off two full-time reporters. It also forced Stuart Schuffman, the founder of Broke-Ass Stuart, to let go of his events reporter.

But coverage hasn’t stopped. For Schuffman, donations through Patreon helped make that possible.

“There’s always going to be arts, and there’s always going to be people who want to share that with other people,” Schuffman said. “As arts finds a way so will arts journalism.”

For the panelists, it’s largely meant making do with less as readers’ needs for information and assistance peaks.

“We were immediately flooded with one-half of our readership who work in the service industry, who work in the arts and performances, and they lost all their income,” said Marke Bieschke, publisher and arts and culture editor at 48 Hills. “The other half of our readership desperately wanted to help.”

48 Hills last March opened a page where readers could post their personal stories and Venmo accounts to ask for donations. It also highlighted small businesses and organizations asking for assistance, as well as efforts to create alliances, collaboratives and new business models to make ends meet, Bieschke said.

And with vaccine distribution underway, Bieschke said he wants 48 Hills to cover stories about the institutions that did and didn’t survive, and who’s going to open first and when.

Broke-Ass Stuart also focused on how its coverage could help, which often meant rounding up resources and increasing reporting on arts grants and personal grants, Schuffman said.

At the Bay Area Reporter, falling ad revenue has reduced the pagecount of the print edition as well as the budget for freelancers. Culture Editor Jim Provenzano inherited dozens of additional emails a day; he also writes more to compensate for the layoffs.

And at the San Francisco Bay View, Senior Arts Editor Wanda Sabir said it’s taken additional energy to keep track of performance adaptations and cancellations, while also accounting for people’s confidentiality online.

Among the benefits is the ability to cover events at a distance. At the Bay Area Reporter, where LGBTQ+ coverage remains the priority, Provenzano has seen event coverage extend to other countries, including Canada and South America.

Virtual performances have also increased accessibility for those previously prevented from attending events in-person before due to a physical ability, Sabir said.

Meanwhile, the pauses in performance coverage have prompted more introspection into equity issues in arts and arts coverage, panelists said. There’s been more public discussion online about how marginalized artists are disadvantaged in the arts industries, and how voices of Black, Indigenous and People of Color have been overlooked, they said.

“It’s a good thing, perhaps, that we have a pause and can be introspective because now we can do things better,” Sabir said.