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Unconvering Trib Arts Coverage

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When the Tribune's enjoyable ArtsPlus was pushed from its colorful and prominent place on the back page of the paper's front news section last September, it became the journalistic equivalent of the garbage scow that couldn't find a place to come into port. Weekdays it appeared--with black-and-white photos, and in attenuated form--well hidden on the back page of the paper's local-news section. Saturdays a single review appeared in the second half of the front section, right next to the wedding announcements, and on Sundays--well, I never did get straight what happened to it on Sundays.

What did ArtsPlus do to earn such treatment? The story's roots go back more than a decade to the building of the paper's grandiosely named Freedom Center printing plant in River West. Tempo, which carried the arts reviews, ended up as the one section not printed "live"--i.e., overnight. So arts reviews went to the local-news section. In the late 80s, under editor Jack Fuller, they were moved to the back page of the front section, dubbed Overnight, and tarted up with extensive coverage of society benefits to lure the city's swells. The page sucked at first, but over time turned into a remarkably diverse and occasionally surprising collection of reviews of mostly theater, rock, and jazz, all done with some immediacy. "It was a great showcase," says theater and dance critic Sid Smith. "But I liked to make the point that no other daily in the country gave over its back page to the arts. It was one of those things the news side was bound to take back."

Indeed, a misguided but determined group of news editors decided that front-page news stories just had to be jumped to the back page of the front section. The idea was to make things easier on readers, but to me the logic behind this move seemed flawed for a number of reasons. The stories in question, after all, are already on the front page: it's not like they're difficult to access. Second, that way madness lies: something has to be inside the paper. Third, if the stories are interesting--and front-page stuff should be compelling--people will go to the jumps. Fourth, in practice, only two or three stories of the six or seven on page one jump back there anyway. And finally, last I heard newspapers were concerned about attracting young readers; killing the most pop-culture-friendly page in the paper seemed entirely wrongheaded on this count alone.

Ultimately, the arts-section editors got outmaneuvered and the rechristened ArtsWatch moved to section two, which in the cramped Trib lingo is called MetroChicago. The paper vowed that the daily half page of arts coverage would be supplemented with frequent reviews in the preprinted Tempo section and that it wouldn't lose the diversity of the acts reviewed. Last week I read the revised ArtsWatch closely, and even taking into account the post-holiday slowness it was looking pretty sad: two reviews a day, and little in Tempo to supplement them.

But Sunday the paper announced, and Monday demonstrated, a new plan. ArtsWatch is now on page two of Tempo, with reviews occasionally beginning on the front page, potentially with color photos. It's not as prominent as the back page of the front section, but it does put the arts reviews in the paper's de facto arts section. The only problems: Tempo is still not "live," so all reviews will now be 48 hours old. Second, the arts page is still left floating on weekends. Not everyone at the paper is happy, but it's a compromise most are willing to live with.

Patrick Kampert, the ArtsWatch editor, says, "It's not the ideal situation, but we really want to have the presence seven days a week. That's the best we can do. The ideal is a live Tempo section, but until that happens this is a step in the right direction." On Saturdays, he says, the arts page will be redone to include at least two reviews. (Sunday the reviews will be back in the MetroChicago section.)

"The liveness [issue] affects me most of all," notes rock critic Greg Kot. "You really want to be in the paper the next day. But after thinking about it and taking into account where the reviews are now, it made sense to me to make it all one package." A key consideration: "A lot of people I spoke to didn't know the reviews were in the paper anymore. Even people who were in the business and liked the reviews were having trouble finding them."

While Tempo should probably be live--and the paper says it might someday be--this isn't a terrible solution, particularly since the vaunted "overnight" status of a lot of reviews was something of a mirage even on the old ArtsPlus page; key reviews appeared overnight only in the street edition, a day later in the home edition. It strikes me as a bit strange that while people devote a lot of time and effort to keeping news, sports, and business copy immediate, arts coverage--the one thing papers can deliver better than the electronic media--gets shortchanged. It's also strange that an operation the size of the Tribune can't put a concert or stage review in the next morning's paper. Smith notes that first Steppenwolf and now the Goodman have instituted early press nights to accommodate the evolving deadlines. While most Trib reviews of major theater openings will come out the morning after the public opening nights, they'll actually be reviews of preview performances. The New York journalism world has been operating like that for years, Smith says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration / Dorothy Perry.

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