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Arts writer urges boycott of San Diego Union-Tribune

November 10, 2010 |  9:00 am


A disgruntled arts blogger has caused a stir in the San Diego arts community for urging freelance writers to boycott the city's largest newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune. The kicker is that the call for a boycott was posted on the newspaper's own website.

Katherine Sweetman is an artist who was also a contributor to the U-T's visual arts blog, called "Sketchbook." On Sunday, Sweetman published a blog post criticizing the newspaper's arts coverage and its decision in June to lay off Robert L. Pincus, its longtime art critic and books editor. The newspaper's music critic, James Chute, has taken over as art critic.

In her blog post, which appeared on the U-T's website for several hours before being removed, Sweetman pulled no punches in expressing her unhappiness with the state of the newspaper. "We hate the Union Tribune," wrote the artist. "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)."

Sweetman wrote that contributors to the U-T's arts blog are unpaid and are asked to contribute one blog post per week.  "It seems, to me, visual artists should be boycotting the Union Tribune not writing for them-- for free!" she wrote.

According to a report in the Voice of San Diego, blog contributors write their own content and post it directly to the U-T's website without editing.

Sweetman's blog post quickly went viral and was reproduced on various arts websites. Pincus has responded to the online debate via Twitter. "I think Katherine did everyone a good turn by creating the dialogue you're having. She made a stand for journalism as a profession," wrote Pincus on his Twitter account.

In an e-mail interview, Sweetman said her blog post was "a gesture for Robert Pincus. There was a serious gap of thoughtful coverage since he left, and I feel we were needed to fill some of that void."

She said that she did tell her "fellow bloggers my opinion on the matter, but I was acting alone." The U-T has not communicated with her since removing the blog post, she said.

Jeff Light, the U-T's editor, told the Voice of San Diego that "we think the arts are important; we're doing everything we can to come up with new ways to enliven the conversation."

Here is Sweetman's original U-T blog post, which she has reproduced on her personal blog.

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

-- David Ng

Photo: a view of San Diego bay. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times


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Comments () | Archives (11)

Way to go Sweetman!

I was (stress on was) one of the artist/ bloggers who had at least completed two posts before Ms.Sweetman hijacked the dialogue. Read my blog entry from my blogsite


I had never supported the UT's expulsion of Bob Pincus, nor the vapid coverage that resulted after his ouster, nor their political views, none of it. This is the reason, and it seems Ms Sweetmans reasons, to agreeing to blogging, to gain access to the San Diego arts dialogue from a completely different and informed point of view.

From an early e-mail to all UT arts bloggers it seems that she had been unaware of Pincus, firing until someone actually informed her about just days before her hijacking of the dialogue.

It dawned on her that "we" hate the Union Tribune????

Ms. Sweetman does not have Bob Pincus' interest in mind only her own self promotion She saw it as a golden opportunity for instant celebrity.
She was given the keys to the kingdom, dropped a bomb and ran.

It is sad that as a professional, Bob Pincus would support this type of unprofessional, unethical media stunt.

The lack of visual art coverage and written criticism in San Diego is pathetic, this is for sure. However,the writing that I do see seems to only pat every artist and group on the back for simply being an artist or a make shift " alternative space." If there is to be a revival of art criticism in San Diego then I hope it has a grasp on art history and is able to tell the difference between lo grade impersonaters with no art education, because that is how you get street cred.,and artists who can acknowledge their influences and speak intelligently about their work, not dick and fart jokes.

I lived in San Diego from 1990 until 2009, and over that period was a devoted reader of Robert Pincus's art criticism in the Union-Tribune. He elevated discussion of the visual arts throughout the community, and helped thousands of his readers learn to discern between the banal and the meaningful. It is not coincidence that during his tenure, more people attended galleries, the Museum of Contemporary Art La Jolla had booming success and even opened a totally new site downtown, and even the stodgy San Diego Museum of Art began to blossom. The Union Tribune today is owned by a go-go investment firm that bought it dirt cheap, then slashed expenses (and long-standing writers), and probably is now waiting to resell it for a profit. They care nothing about good journalism much less good art criticism or the San Diego arts community. Jeff Light, the editor, has shown himself to be a puppet of his corporate masters, not an ethical journalist. It is so sad for San Diego. I say "Brava!" to the arts blogger who used the U-T's own platform to skewer them - they deserve it, and more.

Art critics are a joke! I for one am glad to see him and all like him go. IMHO

Disclosure: I am not from the San Diego area, and have no connection to anyone there either within or without the arts community. I am just commenting on this situation as an outsider.
Sweetman (and others) reveal a truly pathetic entitlement mentality. She is certainly allowed to disagree with the Union Tribune's priorities, their politics, and anything else she wants to, and even hate them for it, but she seems to forget that it is their paper. If she had any integrity on this matter, or about her relationship to the arts situation there in general, she would create her own outlet for visual art citicism in San Diego. She should gather together like-minded people, create a publication of some kind, hire Mr. Pincus to do their criticism, and everyone would be happy. But she does not do that. She slams an organization that offered her and others a free platform for their thoughts (yes, I noticed, free of pay also), but all she can do is complain, and slam on them as having laid off Mr. Pincus for financial reasons. That may be true, but that is perhaps the most offensive part of the entitlement mentality here. Could it be that there aren't enough interested people in the Union Tribune's readership area to support the position? Sorry, but this is the real world, and the Union Tribune exists to generate a profit, not to please Ms. Sweetman. As mentioned, she is more than welcome to create a non-profit to provide this service, but she wants someone else to subsidize it for her.
At one level I can symptathize with part of her position, in that I don't think that there is nearly enough appreciation of art in this country, including the benefits to society, but I also have to state the opinion that the arts community has usually been their own worst enemy (see Jason Gould's comment). The list could be endless, but one of the most offensive to me was the stray dog tied up in a gallery (New York, as I recall) and allowed to starve to death, all in the name of "art." Some other "artists" defended this as a combination of "artistic expression" and "protected the the First Amendment," and I heard not one negative comment out of the arts community, nor, interestingly, from any animal rights groups. The arts community cannot be expected to be taken seriously until they take their own community more seriously. Art is not simply whatever vision happens to pop into the mind of some person who considers themself an "artist."

Enough with all this silly "boycotting." The minute someone does something an individual doesn't like, they scream "boycott," like a child demanding they have their own way.

Thanks for the well written article and defense against those who use artist for personal gain, without proper rewards to the actual artists. It seems Medici's still survive today.

I know that artists keep a society excited enough about itself to continue to be productive. Without artists a society withers.

Is it the bomb makers who made ancient Greece great? No, it was the artists, poets and thinkers.

I am PROUD of any artist who stands up for the right to make a living from the beauty they create!

Count me in. I hate the San Diego UT.

i grew up in san diego. i lived there from around 1961 until 1983. my parents would not have either the evening tribune or the san diego union (the "san diego useless" is what it was called in our house) delivered due to its un-newsworthyness. we always took the los angeles times where the coverage for news was much better.

The important take away is that we need more arts coverage, not less. So, if the Union Tribune is expanding coverage with arts bloggers, then that's a positive. Hard to grasp wanting less arts coverage??

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