I've received countless e-mails from readers clamoring for just one more post about classical-music criticism at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So here goes. If you haven't followed this saga since its inception, my prior posts appeared on May 25, May 30, and June 8. Hank Klibanoff, the AJC's managing editor for enterprise, responded to the affair in an interview with the Boston Globe's Geoff Edgers and in a letter that Steve Smith published on his blog. Hoping to get to the bottom of the affair, I sent a series of questions to Klibanoff, who replied profusely and with obvious eagerness to clear the air of what he considered to be misunderstandings about the AJC's internal reorganization and the impact it would have on arts writing. By the end of the dialogue, I didn't have much doubt that the AJC is indeed seriously committed to arts coverage, whether or not you agree with its stance toward criticism. There will be only minimal commentary from me; I will leave the analysis to others.
I asked Klibanoff about the letter to the editor from Robert Spano that the AJC published on May 21 — the one that began with the line: "The AJC recently announced to its staff that designated reviewers for classical music, visual arts and literature will be eliminated." If this was false, why the AJC see fit to publish the letter without immediate correction, lending it the appearance of fact? Klibanoff answered: "We should not have run it. It was a mistake to run it. It slipped through when the editor of the paper, the editor of the editorial page and I were in New York for the Pulitzer Prize lunch." He said that the scene described by Spano did not happen. The initial staff announcement of Feb. 15, which has been published at the Poynter Institute web site, did not mention reviewers. "Neither then, nor at any time, was there a staff meeting of any kind when we announced, proposed or in anyway addressed the issue of arts reviewers or criticism."
I then asked about Steve Dollar's May 24 story in Musical America, in which it was stated: "The revamp, conceived by top editor Julia Wallace and due to be complete by July 1, will do away with posts now held by classical music critic Pierre Ruhe, book editor Teresa Weaver, and visual arts critic Catherine Fox — among others." Was this claim false? Klibanoff answered: "Yes, the claim is false because [Dollar] didn’t also report that new and similar critic/reporter jobs were being created to replace the ones that were going away. It is false if one were to conclude from it, as many have, that the jobs and arts criticism were simply eliminated, period, and were not being replaced by similar jobs and criticism. When we announced our new organizational structure, and the accompanying job descriptions, two arts positions were created in the Enterprise Department that called for criticism and news coverage. The Musical America piece said only that we were eliminating jobs, not that others, similar in nature, were being created at the same time."
In a follow-up question, I noted that the Musical America piece did contain these sentences: "Two cultural writers, theater critic Wendell Brock and food critic Meridith Ford, will keep their current gigs. Everyone else, including such workhouse types as pop music critic Nick Marino, was required to reapply for jobs which may — or may not — be similar to their present assignments." Klibanoff said that this characterization was too vague and unduly dismissive. He made the following comparison: "We carried a story on our business front today that said a couple of Parisian department stores were being converted to Belk stores in the Atlanta area. They have the same owner; they’re just making a brand change.... The equivalent [of Dollar's story] would have been to write, well after stating that Parisian was closing its stores, that the owners may or may not be converting them to Belk stores even though the owners say they are."
I then asked about Dollar's interview with AJC editor Bert Roughton Jr., who was quoted as saying: "The volume of local arts coverage will increase …. Not only will readers get criticism [of local arts events], they'll understand the context that the work is produced in." Roughton was also paraphrased as saying that "there will still be reviews of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra" but that "he just can't say under whose byline they will appear, or if they will appear as frequently as they do now."
Klibanoff didn't contest Dollar's reporting here. He said: "We’ve said before that the number of reviews ebbs and flows from year to year, and we don’t want to get into promising in any given year that the number the next year will be precisely the same. We have been clear that these arts critic/reporter jobs require a range of reporting moves beyond criticism, which is what the jobs have been for several years."
I checked with Dollar, who told me that his reporting was based directly on what the paper's designated spokesman said to him, and, just as important, refused to say.
I asked Klibanoff why it was necessary to have so many writers reapply for jobs that turned out to be so similar to the ones they already held. He wrote: "What can't be described easily, and I wouldn't attempt it here in other than small ways, is the depth and complexity of the reorganization. We no longer have traditional departments such as features, business, sports, etc. In the new world, two departments are news generators (pitchers) — news and information, which has beats, breaking news and feeds online first, print second: and enterprise, which does narrative, features, investigative, business and sports enterprise, explanatory, arts criticism and enterprise, etc. Both departments have some arts, sports, business, etc., but with different missions."
He explained further: "We were determined that staffers have an opportunity to play to their interests and strengths, some of which we did not know about. Indeed, the process surfaced fascinating information we did not know about the background, education and training of some of our staffers; as a result, some will be getting new positions for which they are qualified in ways we would not have known.... The Enterprise department, where the arts critic/reporter positions reside, had some of the most highly coveted positions during this process. To block off all those positions from staffers with great aspirations would have been demoralizing by an even greater order of magnitude. In the end, we chose to open up all reporting positions in Enterprise.... There were some close calls as to whether some jobs should be posted or not; within that number are a handful that could have gone either way and, we have acknowledged to the staff, probably should not have been reopened.
"We asked for the staff’s understanding that, given our goal of being fair, getting it wrong on two or three jobs out of 240 wasn’t and shouldn’t be reason for major concern or upheaval. I have to say that I think the staffers, as painful as the idea of reapplying might have been, understood that better than some advocates in the community, and they understood that what was best for them as individuals might not be best for their colleagues, or for the newsroom as a whole.... Consider this: One of our arts critics was a botany major in college. What if he had reached the point where he really wanted to pursue environmental reporting, and could bring his education in science, the power of his writing and his astute mind to that position? But what if he then learned that the position was not going to be opened and that the so-called reorganization plan was all show? In the case of the arts critic/reporter jobs, we could not say for sure that there wouldn't be a sleeper candidate who was as trained, educated and skilled at criticism and arts coverage as the current ones, but would have bet there were not. Only after the process began were we able to be certain."
In the case of classical music, Klibanoff said, "We had to deal with the remote but theoretical possibility that someone else on the staff might have expertise in classical music, might have the reporting credentials and might see themselves as a viable candidate for the job.... We took all applications seriously, but it became apparent pretty quickly that Pierre [Ruhe]’s expertise would not be surpassed by anyone else, and that his job was not in jeopardy."
In another follow-up question, I asked how exactly these new critic/reporter jobs would be different from the old ones. The retirement of the title "classical music critic" does suggest to the outside observer some shift in responsibilities — namely, less in the way of criticism [see Pierre Ruhe's archive for samples of his reviews] and more in the way of reporting. In her response to the controversy, Julia Wallace said that "those who see criticism as the most significant role for a newspaper in covering arts" might find the reorganization "difficult," even though the paper was planning to increase arts coverage overall. From that one might conclude that for the arts writers criticism was no longer going to be the most significant part of their jobs.
Klibanoff replied that because criticism was already no longer the dominant center of the critics' activities the change in title was merely a technical matter and did not indicate a dramatic change. He explained: "Overall, the reorganization offered us an opportunity to record, in some cases for the first time, a written job description that set forth duties, responsibilities, expectations, etc., for jobs newsroom-wide. I thought the broader title was more appropriate. Rather than a 'classical music critic' and a 'visual arts critic,' we now will have two arts critic/reporter positions. Including the word 'reporter' simply captures the essence of what the jobs have become, a combination of criticism and broader reportage. The job description is pretty clearly a statement that we want authoritative coverage of artists, arts institutions, arts issues in addition to criticism.
"Is that a change? No, but it does put that current practice, and our desire to see it continue, in the job description. [Visual arts critic] Cathy [Fox] has covered a range of arts and architecture topics, from Dunwoody to Dubai. Pierre’s hard news coverage of the internal problems at the Atlanta Opera led to radical changes at the executive level. He’s been our top staffer covering the difficulties the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has faced in raising enough money to build a new symphony hall, and covering the expanding performance venues in Cobb County and in North Fulton County. The proportion of stories they do that are not reviews or criticism is pretty substantial. Does the new title mean they may be tapped to do arts stories that are about something other than visual arts or classical music? Maybe. They are extraordinarily capable journalists with a wide range of interests, and they have expressed interest in doing so in the past. If the new title periodically leads Cathy and Pierre to set their sights on topics that don’t qualify as visual arts and classical music, our readers will no doubt benefit from their work."
In closing, Klibanoff complained about the arts community's tendency to assume the worst when news of the reorganization first came out. "On the outside, only the arts and books communities rose up in protest and saw this as an assault. Many other community sectors took the time to ask more questions, learn more and walk away satisfied that the AJC was attempting something bold and might well prove to be a pioneer. I really thought the arts community would be pleased to hear that we'd be writing more about artists, their lives, arts institutions, behind the scenes, etc. I thought that providing criticism but also making arts appealing to a broader audience, immersing them in the arts but not always as deep as aficionados demand would be embraced by the arts communities. This was an honest effort to say how deeply we care about arts — as a source of critical writing and news. We promised even more coverage. But some were single-minded in deciding this was a conspiracy, that we were lying, that we were out to destroy coverage of the arts.
"We were satisfied we were not doing what the community thought we were doing, and that they'd see the truth of what we were saying soon enough. Out of 240 jobs, with so much to do to make the new organization work, to get all tripped up and twisted over two jobs whose fates were being misconstrued didn't seem like the best use of our time. We didn't have time to answer the viral infection of misguided notions, and when we did respond with the truth, it was met with disbelief and disregard. They weren't willing to listen. They just wanted to make their points, right or wrong, and run. We actually had one of the top arts leaders in Atlanta tell us, after hearing our plan, that he understood what we were doing and was mollified. Then he turned around and told a reporter for another publication the opposite and threw in comments that were really provocative. He later said [that] he had constituents he had to reach with the more provocative message. When I heard that, I realized we were trying to communicate against a rising tide of cynicism that would be impossible to defeat until we actually announced the outcome of the job placement process."
I'd like to thank Klibanoff for responding to my questions with such thoroughness.