Behind the scenes: a look at the Union-Tribune’s arts and entertainment coverage

We all have our favorite parts of the Sunday paper. One of mine is the Arts+Culture section. I love the design, the large photos, the Books section, and there’s always the discovery of something you’d never encounter in today’s narrow media world where algorithms feed you content.

The section is led by arts and entertainment editor Michael James Rocha, who also edits Friday’s Night & Day. Rocha came to UT in December 1997 as a feature page designer. Previously, he worked as a reporter, editor and civic editor for newspapers such 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 achievement for Arts+Culture not only survived the pandemic, when it shut down all entertainment venues, but actually thrived with personal stories of how creators persevered during the crisis.

In June, for the second year in a row, Arts+Culture was named best in the country by the Society for Features Journalism for newspapers with circulations between 90,000 and 199,999. Below, Rocha answers questions to give readers an overview of feature 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 away, we didn’t really know what it was all about. Would there be enough material to write? Would there be enough publicity to support it? Fortunately, the arts and entertainment sector has come back strong. Yes, some areas, like theater, are still having some rating issues, but for the most part a lot has come back.

At the height of the pandemic, when much of the world was shut down, we found innovative ways to write about the arts. We tried not to go back to the old way of doing things, which was to let events guide our coverage. We’ve worked very hard to write about the arts in a way we never have in the past, finding the interesting people and organizations that rock our cultural world.

How many editors do you have?

In-house, we have a full-time art writer: George Varga, our music critic and writer. Pam Kragen writes for the news, but she’s also our theater and food critic. So she is definitely part of the arts and entertainment team. Karla Peterson and Lisa Deaderick, both news-side columnists, 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 complement our coverage in the areas of books, classical music, dance and visual arts. David L. Coddon, one of these contributors, also edits our weekly newsletter Arts & Culture, which appears every Thursday. We also have two other freelancers who just do our classical music reviews.

The 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 wouldn’t really be considered experts in the field, so to speak, but they are passionate about what they write about. So much so that they end up being our “experts”; they really know the people, the organizations and the issues in their respective fields.

Who are the regular readers you may know 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 arts coverage. Her knowledge, particularly in visual art, takes us to corners of the community where we have never been before. He writes a monthly feature showcasing local visual artists, and through that he has showcased some truly amazing San Diegans. Denise Davidson also writes about the 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 our theater reviews when things get too busy for Pam Kragen.

What vision guides the cover? What are you looking to do?

The goal is quite simple: to celebrate and elevate San Diego’s arts and entertainment community, and to ensure our coverage reflects the diverse world we live in. It’s a pretty simple goal, but it’s not easy. San Diego is very productive. From theater to music and everything in between, there’s a lot going on. The challenge is how to cover it all and do it well. We really can’t. So we try to find a balance, writing about the big things as well as the less big ones. Some weeks we do a good job, others not so much. Fortunately, we can start all over 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 sets it apart?

Each week, our goal is to produce a lively, entertaining and informative column. I think we are successful 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 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 entertainer in America.

Do you have something up your sleeve for the section?

Our annual Fall Arts Preview releases September 11th. It’s always a busy time of year for us, and on September 11, you’ll understand why. The coming season promises to be busy.

Are readers offering comments that might affect coverage?

We don’t hear from many readers, so maybe we’re doing something right. But when we hear from them, it’s always appreciated as their suggestions often improve the way we cover the community. A lot of what we do really depends on our relationships in the community. Sometimes we miss things, mostly because we didn’t even know it. So a big part of our interaction with readers is to let us know about a person or event we should know about. Some of our best stories come from reader feedback.

Rocha can be contacted at [email protected]

[email protected]

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