Sunday, November 7, 2010

My First and Last Article for the Union Tribune

An Introduction/ Resignation (A Small Gesture)

In an effort to step up the appearance of supporting the visual arts, The Union Tribune has graciously offered a handful of artists, scholars, and arts professionals the opportunity to write for them-- requiring only one blog post per week (52 per year). And the pay? Oh... no pay.

Arts are very important to the Union Tribune but... so is money.

I accepted one of these positions. It was exciting. There were no rules, no journalistic constraints, no editors, no... tech support. We knew right away we were special.

We were a small army of of advanced-degree carrying practicing artists, college professors, and arts writers ready to take up the challenge of solving the lack of arts coverage in San Diego and fixing the mess the Union Tribune created when it laid off its only Art Critic, Robert Pincus, last June.

We were assured that we were not taking Pincus' place. He had, in fact, been replaced by James Chute, formerly the Music Critic and Special Sections Editor. Chute had never written anything on art before, but he did have a Music degree so... he was clearly qualified to handle visual arts too. But we decided to help him anyway.

And then it hit us.

We hate the Union Tribune.

We hate the way they abruptly ended the tenure of the most important arts critic in San Diego's history. We hate James Chute's pathetic coverage of artists-- which just makes us look bad (seriously, read his stuff).

We hate editor Jeff Light and the private equity corporation pulling his strings.

AND we also hate their conservative politics of the Union Tribune (endorsements of John McCain for president 2008, Whitman 2010, Fiorina 2010, etc.)

It seems, to me, visual artists should be boycotting the Union Tribune not writing for them-- for free!

When I say "we" in the text above, I may only mean me, but you may want to include yourself in the statement "We hate the Union Tribune" if you value paid and knowledgeable arts writers, like having an arts critic, think the people of San Diego are smart enough to want art criticism, or even if you hate their political values.

Yes, it's true it's hard to find a writing gig that pays well. It's hard to find a writing gig that pays at all. But I personally will be taking my all free writing elsewhere.

Katherine Sweetman


  1. Well done, Katherine Sweetman, well done!

    My hoped-for career as an arts writer was wrecked by the "new" journalism. Even though I won a string of journalism awards, I never really had a chance.

    Thank you for striking a blow against the enemies of the arts on media outlet staffs that have wrecked arts coverage in the United States!

  2. A new venue must be found for art criticism in this community. Social networks are good but not as substantial as a daily, weekly or even monthly paper or mag. There must be enough folks in this area that could support such an endeavor. The question is who will step up and give it a try?

  3. Bravo, Katherine!

    Right now the best overall local arts coverage is at (full disclosure: I've written for them for 5 years). We are all paid for our work, which has enabled the site to attract some of the best talent in San Diego, including many former U-T writers). We love comments and feedback, so let us hear from you!

  4. Some of your points are worth debating, but you come across as snobby (advanced-degree artists, hear us roar!), rude (you agreed to be a blogger under false pretenses), unrealistic (arts coverage should only appear in publications that meet your ideological requirements) and out of touch (with the way newspapers work).

    -Randy Dotinga

  5. I did not agree to be a blogger under false pretenses.

    I would like to say that it was always my master plan, but in reality I was thrilled to be invited. I just had that nagging feeling... "wait... The U.T... Machine... The Evil Empire..." 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.

    I also corresponded with other paid arts writers... who were not very excited about the free blogging idea.

    It was a very simple gesture to help myself remember my values. I thought it would be pulled instantly.

    But... I forgot no one at the UT cares what goes in the Visual Arts section.

  6. "The way newspapers work"? Anonymous, "THE way things work" or "THE way things are done" sentiment is the steep hill in which the arts and artists must climb in San Diego. A business with this vision is destined to regress. This is a major publication in a fairly large city! Even with this logic, it is TRADITIONAL for a major publication to include art coverage. Tis helpful in the growth of a city!





  7. We are NOT thrilled at all to see that some wonderful writers are being given an opportunity to write a blog for the Union Tribune on the arts for NO PAY. Not all the articles will make it into the print edition that will be financially rewarded but the Sketchbook Blogs online are introduced by David Forbes and are giving space to Joe Nalven, Richard Geaves, William Parson, Drew Synder, and Allesandra Moctezuma. Letting Robert Pincus go was bad enough, but getting these artists to write on spec is outrageous. It is like the UT is holding the art world to ransom because if these writers do not write, how will we get coverage. Here is our cry to SD art writers: If you are going to write for free….write for and serve an organization that gives back to the community.

  8. Eric: With a few rare exceptions, newspapers have to make a profit. They can't do that anymore by being everything to everybody. If you have to cut the paper in half (as the U-T did from 2006 to 2009), things have to go. Tradition is irrelevant.

    Katherine: You accepted an invitation to write on the U-T's site. You turned around and smeared them with the help of your unique access. And with your very first post too. If you wrote this as a comment, that would be different. But you took advantage of your access and betrayed a trust. If I'd done something like that as a journalist without special permission (gone "undercover," not revealing my true intent), I'd be fired.

    -Randy Dotinga

  9. Randy, it was a short sited business decision for the Tribune to cut coverage of the arts. Especially, if they weren't going under! Culture and art is an essential ingredient for the growth of a city. I can't stress how important it is for a city to have more than a football team! Robert Pincus's writing and coverage was an invaluable asset to the people and the city of San Diego in more ways than one! His writing is one of the few things putting SD on the map culturally. What the Tribune should have done was increase its coverage and hire (with pay) MORE writers! Randy, culture and art can be (this hurts!) profitable. New York and San Francisco are wonderful examples!

    The last time I was in SD I was amazed at all of the development. It seemed like an entirely different city! However, the Tribune seems to be reluctant to grow with the very city it represents.

    Your criticism, though seemingly based in "keeping it real" is neither pragmatic or objective and falls way short of vision. (see Chapelle's "When keeping it real goes wrong")

  10. Tsk, tsk, tsk. This is what happens when you cut/abdicate editorial responsibilities. But that's just one part of the "new" journalism model, isn't it? Write for free, cut your editorial staff, etc., etc. etc. It represents in the aggregate the tearing down in a few short years of journalistic standards built up over a period of 100 years. As for being "smeared," the U-T, for the callous demolishing of its arts coverage, had it coming. It got exactly what it deserved. And by the way, Sweetman didn't "smear" the U-T. She CREAMED it.

    Want to see the circulation of your paper decline even further? Just cut and cheapen your arts coverage. Let everyone be a critic. Capitulate to the unchecked crudity of Comment Board anarchy.

    On another note, some media outlets in the U.K. are reportedly looking at adopting the "American" model for arts reporting and criticism--laying off or firing their critics and replacing them with freelancers, self-bestowed critics, or those willing to work for free, etc. If they do, the result will be the putrification of their arts sections.

  11. Katherine - I'm a little surprised by such a move. It's a little like shooting your parents then lamenting that you've become an orphan. Evil Empire and loyalty to the masses aside, there's something in your acceptance to write for the UT - "thrilled" - that seems, I believe, a bit disingenuous. The point is, you had a choice to say NO from the get go. Accepting means you're entering into a "good faith" agreement that you won't slander, undermine, or otherwise sabotage each other's efforts towards a common goal. And what was that common goal, better coverage of the arts in San Diego?

    Or look at it another way, look at what you could have done (the good) if you had continued to write for the UT - paid or not. Christopher Knight gets "paid" for his art criticism at the LA TIMES because its worthy, valuable, intelligent, credible and is absent of any "game changing art scene" ambitions. It is less about his self-importance and more about the art and the artists who make it. This is where criticism should always find its strength - I know I'm preaching to the choir when I tell you this. This also makes a huge difference in how the arts are accepted by the public when the quality is there. You're a quality writer Katherine, the importance was that your voice be heard.

    It's just that what needs to happen in SD is not to take the UT to task or some Evil Empire entity that doesn't care whether you stay or go,it's to write better criticism, make better art, and create the venues - both the actual spaces and the independent journalistic rags - that will support the artwork made and the words written about it. Raise the bar yourself, all of us, before blaming the woes of our "lack of" on someone else. Take responsibility. You leaving the UT I'm sad to say, has proven nothing and only fueled what we already know about what doesn't work in SD. Leaving without offering an alternative or a solution has helped no one even less so the artists, the community and San Diego. This is a great loss for us all.

  12. This is a complex issue. I have an arts blog on Huffington Post where the pay is zero. I use the blog to write about artists and issues that matter, including the layoff of Bob Pincus. I don't call myself a critic and what the UT lost when he was laid off was a critic with credibility, experience and authority. Arts journalism has been given a shot in the arm by blogging -- that is a good thing -- but a lot is being lost too. I think Katherine was gutsy and said something that needed to be said and heard. John Seed

  13. Wayne,

    So what should the U-T have cut instead? Every part of a newspaper has a constituency, from the comics to the sports section to the horoscope. If the print edition is going to be cut in half (as happened), then there can't be any sacred cows. Or critics.

    And free content is hardly "the" new journalism model. There are plenty of models out there (read up on non-profit journalism, including here in SD) and plenty of experimenting.

    I'm no fan of paying people little to nothing to write. But in some cases it can be appropriate: if the writer is doing it for a cause, for exposure, as a hobby, for the freedom, or for fun. The problem is that you can end up with crappy unedited content (see Huffington Post) or you can end up with exploited journalists who get no benefits. You can also end up with content that's worth what is paid for it.

    So I'm not going to give the U-T a big smooch on the lips for not paying these arts bloggers unless their posts get printed. But I'm not going to slam them either: if you're a paper and lose half your pages and half your staff, something has to give.

    -Randy Dotinga

  14. The blue pill is an option Kevin! However, those who took the red can choose on their own terms AND stand for something! Christopher Knight is a terrible example! He's the senior art critic for the Los Angeles Times brotha from anotha motha! Paid and all! In addition, he's one of a roster of paid culture monsters!

    Here is a wonderful solution! BOYCOTT the UT! This complacency is maddening! What Karen did was commendable and empowering! This sermon of sorts is not only naive but a strange and conservative rationale.

  15. I love all of you.

    Even Randy.
    Especially Eric.
    Kevin, where you been keeping yourself? I miss you.

    Listen, the UT doesn't need my help. It's on the path to destruction -- with soulless writing and meaningless content. I did boycott the UT last June. I just forgot for a minute, blinded my a empty offer to be a "professional Union Tribune blogger". I feel badly that I did this to someone named Susan who invited me in, over an email one day. But not because I did anything to The Union Tribune.

    I want the Evil Empire to fall. But I don't fancy myself Luke Skywalker. Maybe an like, an Ewalk.

  16. Closing Comments --
    I would prefer not to take personal attacks at my personal blog, so I'm closing comments here. Please feel free to continue discussion at another place (below). Thanks.

    Paper Lays Off Art Critic, Reader Lays into Paper: Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

    Union-Tribune Blogger Quits on Her First Day

    Local Artist lashes out at the UT in the UT

    UT Editor: Our Arts Section is Pretty Good

    Cheapskate Arts Coverage Fires Back

    Boycott UT Says Arts Writer

    Katherine Sweetman's First and Last Stand

    A Cry for Respect