Behind the Scenes: A Look at the Union-Tribune’s Arts and Entertainment Coverage

We all have our favorite bits of the Sunday paper. One of mine is the Art+Culture section. I love the design, the big photos, the Books section and there is always something to discover that you would never have come across in today’s narrow media world of algorithms feeding you content.

The section is led by arts and entertainment editor Michael James Rocha, who also edits Friday Night and Day. Rocha came to UT in December 1997 as a feature page designer. He previously worked as a reporter, copy editor and city editor for newspapers such as The Orange County Register, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Ontario Daily Bulletin. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications, with an emphasis in print journalism, from Cal State Fullerton in 1994.

A remarkable achievement for Arts+Culture was not simply surviving the pandemic, when it closed all entertainment venues, but actually flourishing with personal stories of how creatives were persevering during the crisis.

In June, for the second year in a row, Arts+Culture was named the best in the country by the Specialty Journalism Association for newspapers with circulations of 90,000 to 199,999. Below, Rocha answers questions to give readers insight into feature coverage:

How have things changed for Art+Culture and Night and Day after COVID-19?

When Night & Day returned in July 2021, after more than a year’s absence, we weren’t really sure what it was coming back for. Would there be enough to write? Would there be enough advertising to support it? Thankfully, the arts and entertainment sector has made a huge comeback. Yes, some fields, like theater, are still experiencing some audience issues, but for the most part, a lot has come back.

During the height of the pandemic, when most of the world was shut down, we found innovative ways to write about the arts. We’ve tried not to revert to the old way of doing things, which was to let events drive our coverage. We’ve been working hard to write about the arts in ways we haven’t in the past, finding interesting people and organizations that make our cultural world come alive.

How many staff writers do you have?

At home, we have a full-time arts writer: George Varga, our music critic and writer. Pam Kragen writes on the news side, but she’s also our theater and dining critic. So she is definitely a member of the arts and entertainment team. Karla Peterson and Lisa Deaderick, both columnists for the news side, contribute to our coverage by writing about the arts in their respective columns.

How many regular freelancers do you have?

We have a core of five freelancers who round out our coverage in books, classical music, dance and visual art. David L. Coddon, one of those contributors, also does our weekly Arts & Culture newsletter, which comes out every Thursday. We also have two other freelancers who only do our classical music reviews.

Freelancers seem to really know their stuff – experts, maybe. Is it true?

I think it’s a mix of expertise and passion. Some of them we wouldn’t really consider experts in the field, so to speak, but they are passionate about what they’re writing about. So much so that they end up being our “experts” – they really know the people, organizations and issues in their respective fields.

Who are the regular readers they can identify with through their lines?

Seth Combs, known around town as the former editor of CityBeat, does a lot of heavy lifting on our books and visual arts coverage. His knowledge, especially in the visual arts, takes us to corners of the community where we have never been before. He writes a monthly feature featuring local visual artists, and through that, he’s featured some truly amazing San Diegans. Denise Davidson also writes about books. Beth Wood writes about classical music, while Christian Hertzog and Lukas Schulze write our classical music reviews. Marcia Luttrell writes about dance. David L. Coddon, who does our newsletter, also writes about the arts and helps fill in our theater reviews when things get too busy for Pam Kragen.

What vision guides coverage? What are you looking to do?

The goal is very simple: celebrate and elevate San Diego’s arts and entertainment community and ensure our coverage reflects the diverse world in which we live. It’s a fairly simple objective, but it’s not easy. San Diego is very productive. From theater to music and everything in between, we have a lot going on. The challenge is how to cover everything and do it well. We really can’t. So we try to find a balance, writing about the big stuff as well as the not-so-big stuff. Some weeks we do a pretty good job, other weeks not so much. Fortunately, we can do it again every week, so we just try to do a better job.

The arts section was named the best in the country for its division. Why? What set it apart?

Our aim each week is to produce a section that is lively, entertaining and informative. I think we have success every week. What sets us apart, however, are those special issues we produce several times a year where we stretch our journalistic muscles and dive deep into community-based journalism. Last year, for example, we wrote about racial equality in local theaters and did a special section that looked at what it means to be an artist in America.

Do you have anything up your sleeve for the section?

Our annual Fall Arts Preview will be released on September 11th. It’s always a busy time of year for us, and on September 11th you’ll understand why. Next season will be busy.

Do readers offer any feedback that might affect the coverage?

We don’t hear much from readers, so maybe we’re doing something right. But hearing from them is always appreciated because their suggestions often improve the way we cover the community. A lot of what we do really depends on our connections in the community. Sometimes we miss things, mostly because we didn’t even know. So most of our interaction with readers is for them to let us know about a person or event that we need to know about. Some of our best stories have come from reader comments.

Rocha can be reached at [email protected]

[email protected]

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