Beyond calendar listings: Local arts & culture scene deserves real news coverage

By TOM CHMIELEWSKI

I was sitting in a Nashville country/western bar with one of the judges of the Gilmore Keyboard Festival in November 1993 as she explained why Ralf Gothoni was her choice to be the second Gilmore artist.

It’s like being Diogenes with his light looking for an honest man, she said, referencing the lamp-carrying Greek philosopher. You’ve got your light and you’re looking for someone who will play the piano and touch your soul.

Gothoni touched the judges’ souls earlier that night in a recital at Vanderbilt University, a recital surreptitiously arranged by the Gilmore for the benefit of the selection committee members. They scattered throughout the audience so as not to draw notice to the group. The committee confirmed its choice in a meeting after midnight and surprised Gothoni with the news around breakfast time.

It was news, but not just for the Finnish pianist who had always spurned piano competitions. It was news for the Kalamazoo region through the stories I and other arts reporters wrote for the Kalamazoo Gazette. It was news for a broader musical world, and reported in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and in classical music magazines.

The Gilmore still rises to the level of news in the current version of the Gazette/MLive, but not to the same level of reporting the festival once commanded. Staff cutbacks and shifting priorities to state-level news have seen to that. Many arts, entertainment and cultural groups in communities across the country are facing similar reductions in coverage. It’s easy for news outlets to view arts and entertainment coverage as mere promotion, relegated to a few lines in calendar listings, because calendars attract the most clicks. Since most media allow arts and entertainment organizations to fill in online calendar forms themselves, it’s cheap, reader-generated journalism.

Except that it’s not journalism, and a click is not news.

Arts and culture offerings have long been known to be integral parts of a community. They give a community vitality and add to a region’s quality of life. Their shows and exhibits pump dollars into the local economy. Events such as the Gilmore or the monthly Art Hops add vibrancy to our town. But it’s not just the big events. It can be a classical concert at Chenery, a rock band at the State Theatre, a play at the Civic or an easy-going brass band at the Old Dog. All of it makes Kalamazoo special. The arts and culture scene provides many of the stories that lie at the heart and soul of what makes us a community.

And when we write and report on the artists and performers who touch our community’s soul, that’s news.

InterCom is offering a two-part series, Breaking the News, on reinventing local news coverage. Part 1 on May 19 brings in a panel representing Michigan news outlets to talk about what they’re doing to maintain and improve local news coverage. Part 2 in August will take a close-in look at the varied local and niche media that already exist here, and perhaps some newcomers to our media scene.

Tom Chmielewski is an InterCom board member and a writer/editor for his own company, TEC Publishing.