We all have our favorite parts of the Sunday newspaper. One of mine is the Arts+Culture section. I like the design, the large photos, the Books section, and there’s always the discovery of something that you never would 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’s Night & Day. Rocha came to the U-T in December 1997 as a features page designer. Previously he worked as a reporter, copy editor and city editor for such newspapers as The Orange County Register, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Ontario Daily Bulletin. He earned a bachelor’s degree in communications, emphasizing print journalism, from Cal State Fullerton in 1994.
An outstanding accomplishment for Arts+Culture was not just surviving the pandemic, when it shut down all the entertainment venues, but actually thriving with personal stories of how creators were persevering during the crisis.
In June, for the second year in a row, Arts+Culture was named best in the nation by the Society for Features Journalism for newspapers with circulations between 90,000 and 199,999. Below, Rocha answers questions to give readers insight into the features coverage:
How have things changed for Arts+Culture and Night & Day post-COVID?
When Night & Day returned in July 2021, after more than a year of absence, we weren’t really sure what it was coming back to. Would there be enough to write about? Would there be enough advertising to support it? Thankfully, the arts and entertainment sector has returned in a big way. Yes, some areas, like theater, are still experiencing some audience issues, but for the most part, many things have come back.
During the height of the pandemic, when much of the world was shut down, we found innovative ways to write about the arts. We’ve tried to not revert back to the old way of doing things, which was to let events drive our coverage. We have worked really hard to write about the arts in ways we haven’t done in the past, finding the interesting people and organizations who make our cultural world vibrant.
How many staff writers do you have?
In-house, we have one full-time arts writer: George Varga, our music critic and writer. Pam Kragen writes for the news side, but she is also our theater and dining critic. So she’s 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.
The freelancers seem to really know their stuff — experts, maybe. Is that 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’re passionate about what they’re writing about. So much so that they end up being our “experts” — they really know the people, the organizations and the issues in their respective areas.
Who are the regulars readers might be familiar with through their bylines?
Seth Combs, known around town as the former editor of CityBeat, does a lot of heavy lifting in our books and visual art coverage. His knowledge, especially in visual art, takes us into corners of the community we have never been to before. He writes a monthly feature showcasing local visual artists, and through that, he’s showcased some really 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 back-fill our theater reviews when things get too busy for Pam Kragen.
What vision guides the coverage? What are you looking to do?
The goal is pretty simple: celebrate and elevate San Diego’s arts and entertainment community, and make sure our coverage reflects the diverse world we live in. It’s a simple enough goal, but it’s not easy. San Diego is very productive. From theater to music and everything in between, we have a lot of things going on. The challenge is how do we cover everything and do it well. We really can’t. So we try to find a balance, writing about the big things as well as the not-so-big things. Some weeks we do a pretty good job, other weeks not so much. Luckily, we get to do it all over again every single 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 goal every week is to produce a section that’s lively, entertaining and informative. I think we succeed every week. What sets us apart, though, are those special issues that 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 equity in local theaters and did a special section examining what it means to be an artist in America.
Do you have anything up your sleeve for the section?
Our annual fall arts preview is coming out Sept. 11. It’s always a busy time of year for us, and on Sept. 11, you’ll see why. The upcoming season is going to be a busy one.
Do readers offer any feedback that could affect coverage?
We don’t hear much from readers, so maybe we’re doing something right. But when we do hear from them, it’s always appreciated because their suggestions often improve how we cover the community. So much of what we do is really dependent on our connections in the community. Sometimes, we miss things, mostly because we didn’t even know about it. So a lot of our interaction with readers is them letting us know about a person or an event that we ought to know about. Some of our best stories have come from reader feedback.
Rocha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org