We want more arts reporting in Tampa Bay. Here’s what we plan to do about it.

Like many newsrooms, the Tampa Bay Times has endured industry changes. Here’s how we’re going to start the conversation around the arts and move forward.
CHRIS URSO   |   Times
Students from Patricia Sullivan Partnership School practice ballet Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 at the school in Tampa.
CHRIS URSO | Times Students from Patricia Sullivan Partnership School practice ballet Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 at the school in Tampa.
Published May 3
Updated May 3

When’s the last time you sat in a theater and cried?

For me it was a few weeks ago, when Evan Hansen’s mother gripped her son and explained in a guttural song that she did the very best she could to raise him alone.

When’s the last time you scoured a museum, looking for that thing you can’t ever shake? (two months ago, Dalí Museum, a small painting of the Surrealist ghost of Vermeer.)

When’s the last time you read a book that took you out of this world? Played a song at full blast with the windows down? Watched a TV show or movie so epic the whole country was talking about it?

Here at the Tampa Bay Times, we do our best to cover it all. In the glory days of print journalism, we had a robust staff of arts and entertainment writers dedicated to dispatching context and criticism from each and every niche.

But today, as we have sustained the wild fluctuations of our industry, our arts staff is much smaller. And here’s the startling thing — when I speak to peers around the country, I’m reminded that we’re doing pretty well by comparison. When budgets get tight, arts writers are often the first thing to go. Many newsrooms have no arts staff at all.

Appetites are constantly changing. We have hard data now, and can see how many people are reading a given story online. We can meet our audiences through video, social media, newsletters, podcasts and — yes — the printed page.

All those factors make every single day an exercise in hard decisions, in innovating, in saying no to doing things just because we’ve always done them. In finding new ways to pay for this work.

I often hear from readers. The question is along the lines of, “How can you cover ______ and not _____?” It’s an impossible equivalency. When we start ranking empirical values, everyone loses. There’s always someone on the other side doing the same thing.

The arts don’t matter because something else matters less.

The arts matter because they matter.

They matter to the community in tangible ways. A study from Americans for the Arts, the nation’s nonprofit for advancing the arts, showed that in 2015, the nonprofit arts and culture sector generated $674.2 million in economic activity in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. That’s the equivalent of 22,173 full-time jobs. That could be anyone from actors to musicians to docents to the bathroom attendants getting us to Act II on time.

The arts matter because they make us feel. They delight us. They disappoint us. They challenge us and change us and stain the very fabric of our souls.

So how do we better tell the story of the arts?

Over the next year, the Tampa Bay Times will be examining how other news organizations from the Seattle Times to the Washington Post to the Sacramento Bee have secured outside funding for reporting jobs. We’ll be looking into grants, donor support and other opportunities. The arts are a part of that quest.

We need money to shore up, diversify and expand our storytelling. We need to allow journalists the support, time and exposure to truly learn these complex subjects so that when we criticize, it elevates the conversation.

And here’s a hard truth. Arts organizations and the governments and individuals who fund them get a pass, often operating without the level scrutiny we give other things. Although we’ve reported each year on arts funding in Florida’s legislature, there is much more to be done.

I’ll be at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times, teaching alongside others this week. Thanks to support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we’ll help journalists from around the country learn to cover the arts better and with more depth.

And Monday evening, we’re having a great event at Poynter. I’ll moderate a panel called Arts and the News with Florida Orchestra conductor Michael Francis, American Stage artistic director Stephanie Gularte, [email protected] co-founder Bob Devin Jones and Dalí Museum executive director Hank Hine. The room will be full of arts patrons and journalists.

We’re not going to leave with a clear answer to our worries. But we’ll leave having talked about it. And that’s a step forward.

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