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Newspapers Are Banishing All Their Arts Writers. Or, Wait, Is That The Good News?


by Jerome Weeks and Hady Mawajdeh

The daily newspaper critic covering theaters or museums may have been just a fleeting profession. They didn’t always exist. Are they even needed anymore?

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Recently, the ‘Fort Worth Star-Telegram’ laid off its last full-time arts critic. Of any kind. Gone.

The same thing has happened with daily papers in Sacramento, Louisville and Cincinnati. Even Australia. The wave seemed to start last winter with major cutbacks at the ‘Wall Street Journal,’ which had expanded its culture coverage to compete with ‘The New York Times.’ Art & Seek chatted with several area arts leaders alarmed about what this means. In this week’s State of the Arts, reporter Hady Mawajdeh and critic Jerome Weeks exchange thoughts on how the arts media landscape has been disrupted.

Photo of "Arts & Culture" section of Fort Worth Star-Telegram's website.

Photo of “Arts & Culture” section of Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s website.

Hady: Jerome, this is the latest wave of cutbacks in cultural coverage. But isn’t this the story we’ve been hearing for more than a decade now? Legacy media, like newspapers, have been downsizing staff because of their major losses in ad revenue. And arts reviewers have been a part of that.

True, but this latest round at major city dailies means not a reduced staff but no critics at all, no feature writers on the arts, any arts. That’s a watershed. The arts here in Dallas, for instance, have exploded the past decade – with developments like the Dallas Theater Center winning the regional Tony Award, the openings of the AT&T Performing Arts Center and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Meanwhile, arts coverage in both the dailies and the alternative weeklies has limped away. Fort Worth is the home of the internationally-known Cliburn piano competition and the Kimbell Art Museum – that’s unusual for a city its size. Yet the local paper now will be blind to all that. Some 80 percent of all arts writers in print have lost their jobs since 2000. That has to be leaking away some significant aspects of our cultural ecology.

To be fair, ‘Star-Telegram’ executive editor Lauren Gustus emailed me to say they’re not actually discontinuing reviews. They’re looking for great stories to tell to a cellphone-connected audience – just not necessarily in the “parameters of a classic ‘review.'”

I have to say, though, that sounds like ‘We’re not discontinuing reviews. We’re simply discontinuing what has always been thought of as reviews.’ This means a theater performance, a concert, an art exhibition – these are not worthy of serious consideration by themselves, as works of art, nor can a critic’s judgment stand on its own. It must be dressed up and made appealing as a human interest profile or a trend story in a Sunday column – meaning reviewers will have to find (or invent) such issues to address the true motivating subject, the performance or artwork at hand.

In any event, over the nearly two months since that email, both features or reviews of any kind on Fort Worth arts have been extremely rare in the ‘Star-Telegram.’ And word has come that ‘The Dallas Morning News’ is considering a similar ‘features-based’ form of reviewing.

Hady: So we do what everyone’s doing. We learn about what’s going on through our friends on Facebook, through our Twitter feeds.

Yes, that’s becoming the norm. But we’re losing some profound connections and cultural infrastructure with the lack of professional critics, people whose job it is to keeps tabs on day-to-day developments, who can put individual arts offerings in an informed context – and do this at some length. Sometimes, these writers can even stir up an arts scene, provide insights deeper and more convincing than ‘Whammy, four stars!’ Such exchanges have probably happened on Twitter feeds, but the essential format of Twitter inhibits it. At best, Twitter and Facebook tend toward the witticism, the punchline. At worst, they’re cheap snark. Mostly, they’re quick updates, basic info or gossip. Informative but not exactly nourishing.

In many cases, the old-school critic has been our last ‘knowledge worker’ – to borrow a term Scott Timberg uses in ‘Culture Crash.’ He or she is the last one to have any institutional memory of what has shaped the local arts landscape. Arts organizations often brush out their misguided artistic choices or economic missteps, keeping them out of press releases and official histories. Meanwhile, smaller groups and individual artists drift in and out of town like so many blown leaves. When it comes to the long view, sometimes it’s only the established critic who remembers why this city’s culture scene produces what it does, what has limited it, what it once hoped to become. This historical function is especially crucial with the ‘ephemeral’ arts that leave few traces: theater, dance, music concerts, performance art. Oftentimes, the only thing left of such moments and their creators – after living memory has passed – is a critic’s review.

Of course, it’s often said, nothing completely disappears from the internet. But if you believe digital formats will preserve our creative history forever, you haven’t crashed a hard drive lately. Nor has your employer simply upgraded your office’s entire operating system. My reviews for ‘The Dallas Morning News’ – even those from as recently as 2006 – no longer exist on the paper’s website. The nonprofit digital archive, The Wayback Machine – often a last resort for online researchers – retains very few newspaper pages from before the late ’90s – for good reason: Many dailies weren’t even online yet.

So what will remain of all our artistic efforts, of this entire, growing cultural ecology? Reviewers, it turns out, have been fashioning their little time capsules for the future – and they’ve been filling them with sand.

Hady: If the internet doesn’t provide for the future, it certainly provides immediacy. As you said, its strength lies in updates, in speed and reach. But it also encourages something other media formats do only clumsily. It provides feedback, interaction, reader response.

True. Artistic director Dana Schultes of Stage West calls it a “real loss to the community” when the city’s paper of record isn’t “part of the conversation.” And that’s what a multiplicity of critics can provide: a city-wide discussion, different voices having it out in public in what one would hope was a stimulating fashion.

And that can happen on Facebook or Twitter. But when it comes to such critical chatter, Jeffrey Schmidt, artistic director of Theatre Three, says the social media platforms have serious limitations:

“The buzz always helps. And that’s what you’re hoping for via social media. In terms of critical analysis of the work, ten years from now, what will we have to prove that this was important to what was happening in the world? That’s why we need good critics.”

Several theater directors and museum officials pointed out such a conversation in print actually has a tangible value: When arts groups apply for grants from certain foundations, they’re required to prove that they’re worth funding, that what they do has value to the community. They have to show reviews of their work. Even public libraries often decide which new books to keep on their shelves – out of the thousands they receive each year – based on reviews in reputable sources.

And tweets don’t count; they need reviews.

The homepage for Artsy. Artsy's an aggregation arts blog.

The homepage for Artsy. Artsy’s an aggregation arts blog.

Hady: So go online – there are plenty of bloggers and websites devoted to music acts and new art forms and backstage peeks at theaters and museums. They’re covering a lot that traditional media hasn’t really been covering, and they’re doing it for audiences newspapers didn’t really address.

You’re absolutely right. This isn’t the same old wail about how steamboats have ruined everything. I spoke with Doug McLennan, the founder of Artsjournal.com, one of the leading aggregators of high-quality, online arts journalism. He says we’re in this transitional phase. Yes, we’ve been losing reviewing jobs. But we tend to romanticize those lost jobs, the old days of daily reviewers, back when many newspaper critics were little more than boosters happy to get free passes to shows.

At the same time, he said, ours could well be a new golden age for writing on the arts, on theater, literature and music – all of this online, thanks to places like ‘The Atlantic‘ or individual blogs.

“A lot of the writing in some of these smaller sites are more informed and interesting and sharper than you used to get in the local papers.”

The websites have the space and time – and often the passion and the online smarts – to fire up some thinking and talking. The difficulty here, though, is twofold. ‘The Atlantic’ doesn’t provide local coverage. And the websites that do – well, readers have to find them.

It’s not the case – as it is with general-interest media – of people simply hearing about a new dance performance on the radio or coming across a theater review in the paper. People have to be knowledgeable enough about local arts coverage to follow such sites, and willing to go out of their way to do so.

In short, these review sites are mostly reaching people who are already fans.

Hady: So is this the last of the old-school cultural gatekeepers?

That’s a favorite term, but it’s nonsense. Critics are ‘gatekeepers’ only insofar as their responses to artworks become the locus of attention and conversation. And starting such conversations is actually a critic’s goal, a propellant for people to enjoy art, not to hinder them. In that sense, we’re all gatekeepers. Word of mouth has always been what sells tickets. The strongest impact a critic can hope for is to spark some of our minds into thinking, get some of our mouths mouthing.

The real gatekeepers are at the AT&T Performing Arts Center or the Fort Worth Symphony or the WaterTower Theatre, any cultural organization or subscription service online – basically, anyone who says, pay up in advance, before you enjoy this experience. Otherwise, you don’t get in. That’s a gatekeeper.

Hady: So how do we choose which experiences to pay for in advance?

If we’re purchasing a new car or TV, there are thousands of websites, of course, that’ll let on that maybe you should go with an earlier model, they fall apart slower. Such consumer guidance is only part of what good critics do, but it’s one of their fundamental functions.

But in terms of generating that precious word of mouth, are print critics being replaced effectively by their online counterparts? A number of the arts leaders I spoke with said print still has significant reach locally, while so far, digital has far less. One museum rep even said, they could invite all the website writers they want to an opening, and collectively, those sites won’t have the clout of a single review in the local paper. Or a feature on the radio.

It may well be that older theater audiences remain old-school media consumers. Dana Schultes of Stage West in Fort Worth said, for her theater, a review in the paper can mean the difference between a 50 percent house and a 100 percent house. One theater manager actually told me, even a negative review would draw more people than online notices. Just the headline or a photo in the newspaper would jog readers’ memories, ‘Oh, that’s right, I wanted to see that show’ – no matter what the reviewer actually said underneath it.

Artsjournal.com

Artsjournal.com, Doug McLennan’s website, has been curating arts news and blogs since 1999.

But the fact is that local reviews are hurting not because they’re arts reviews but because they’re local. Local news in general, not just the arts, doesn’t pay well [see postscript below for evidence from NPR and the ‘New York Times’]. In many cities across the country – outside of big tourist centers like New York or LA, where a commercial culture industry flourishes – there’s simply not enough ad revenue, not enough of a general readership to support paid, full-time, local critics. Or paid, full-time, investigative reporters. And even when legacy media companies do go all in with their cultural coverage online, they generally imprison it in the same, crude metric of ‘clicks’: How many online readers do local reviews actually get?

And newspaper editors have repeatedly concluded: not that many.

Which is what’s truly disturbing about this loss of print critics. Despite the chandeliers-and-champagne mythology surrounding the ‘elitist’ arts, it’s not rich patrons who’ve built and sustained all these arts institutions in our cities and suburbs. Even in wealth-besotted Dallas, it has been a wide, educated, interested, middle-to-upper-middle-class audience that’s supported the arts. We’re the ones who’ve voted in the bond issues, paid taxes for city and state arts support, sat in the theater seats, listened to the concerts. Big patrons may provide the tent pole, but we’ve provided the tent and filled it. And then we read about the circus with great interest.

We did this because we’ve always wanted a better city for ourselves and for our children, and a fertile and active arts scene, an understanding and appreciation of the arts from blues to ballet – all that has been part of what has been meant by ‘better.’ What’s the point of a city at all – if not increased exposure to different peoples and experiences, to a wonderfully varied cultural spectrum? The origin of the word ‘culture’ has the same root as ‘cultivation’ – to till, to grow, to rear, to enrich.

So where did that idea of ‘better’ and all those engaged readers and audience members go? Online? Not according to the digital research that newspapers have done. It seems we had a Grand American Middle-brow, Middle-Class Cultural Moment from World War II until the dawn of the 21st century, and if the so-called ‘greatest generation’ got us through the Depression, World War II and the Cold War, this Middling Moment gave us many of the arts institutions we still live with today – and which we see crumbling around us. Lincoln Center. City symphonies and ballet companies. The Shakespeare Theatre Company. The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The Detroit Institute of Art.

My belief is that the Great Recession damaged fundamental structures in our economy and culture – or exposed inequities that have been with us for a while now, damage we’re still struggling to understand. And these disruptions are not (always) simply related to dazzling, new tech innovations. I see Facebook threatening newspapers, for example; I don’t see it threatening the essential appeal of live theaters or live clubs. Nationwide, theaters and clubs didn’t slide in serious numbers during the dot.com boom in the late ’90s, the way independent bookstores did. They began dying off after the housing market tanked in 2008, and they’ve not exactly bounced back.

So it’s ongoing, punishing, marketplace economics, not just Silicon Valley, that’s squeezed out critics: The middle class has seriously shrunk with income disparity; median income peaked in the ’70s with no serious gains accruing from the current, long-running bull market. Being middle class demands far more of us now. When it comes to typical reviews, whether they’re in print or online, the difference doesn’t matter much. Most of us theatergoers, museum wanderers, dance lovers simply don’t have the time or energy to seek out reviews and read them any more. Work hours have increased, salaries have stayed flat, higher education is increasingly out of reach for many of us or it’s burdened us with huge loan debts, while entire cultural professions like graphic design, songwriting and architecture have been hollowed out. And child care – for parents looking for a night out or simply to maintain that necessary second career in a two-career family – child care in this country remains a tangle of temporary, jerry-rigged solutions.

So when we try to find some cultural connections in our immediate urban surroundings, it’s easier just to catch a fleeting Facebook tout from a friend instead of tracking down a thoughtful essay somewhere. No wonder reviewing has joined those endangered cultural professions: If newspapers figured out a cheap way to condense reviews into Post-it notes and stick them on people’s car windows or cubicles, their reviews would probably have about the same profile, the same influence as web reviews – and the papers would still have about the same shrunken arts staff.

For his part, Jacques Marquis, the CEO of the Cliburn, is more sanguine about the media upheavals than most arts leaders. He sees the relationship between arts groups and the local newspaper as a give-and-take. He understands the financial constraints newspapers are currently under:

We’re trying to work with them more closely to understand their needs and their way of doing things in order to work as a partner with them.”

It’s worth noting: The ‘Star-Telegram’ is a media sponsor of the Cliburn.

Hady: You called this “becoming the norm.” However it plays out, it’s been shown to be a generational change. It’s the future, something arts groups and art critics are going to have to deal with.

True. Younger arts-goers are preferring the quick hit on their smartphones. And you yourself have written about the new ways young visual artists are using Instagram to create buzz, find fans, even get gallery owners interested in their work. There are real assets to social media – rapid-fire, interactive tools that can work for the arts.

It also seems that a smaller number of knowledgeable arts followers do track down web sites for the thoughtful insights they’re looking for, a slow, deep dive into an art form, some careful distinctions being made about how culture matters. And sharp websites, including Hyperallergic and Glasstire, have brought back long-form arts essays in a big way (partly as a result, Glasstire’s editor-in-chief, Christina Rees, recently won the first $40,000 Rabkin Prize for arts writing).

But that ‘generational change,” our probable intellectual future, looks very different when viewed through the history of American arts journalism. When we think of reviewers – if we think of them at all – we often imagine our current failing crop as descendants of an august ancestral line that started with, say, Giorgio Vasari writing about Italian Renaissance artists down through George Bernard Shaw championing Ibsen and on to influential figures like Edmund Wilson on literature, Kenneth Tynan on theater, Susan Sontag on camp and Clement Greenberg on American painters in New York in the ’50s and ’60s.

The flaw with this imagined genealogy is that almost to a person, the Hallowed Saints of Criticism Past typically lived and worked in their country’s cultural and/or financial capitol: Rome, Paris, London. A veritable scrum of theater critics has existed in New York City for more than a century – simply because it’s one of the very few cities with a real commercial theater industry. It can underwrite such coverage with newspaper advertising, even TV advertising.

In the rest of America – outside New York – local arts reviewers didn’t really appear in most daily papers until the ’60s and ’70s. That’s when even medium-sized newspapers were pulling down 18 percent profit margins – and movie and restaurant ads supported local arts coverage. That’s why the food critic is generally the last to be laid off at a paper – their writing still generates ad revenue.

With Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, newspaper owners and editors also began feeling important and ambitious. They wanted to be taken seriously as pundits and machers. And their city’s cultural climate needed to be seen as sophisticated (or just given a boost to get more people and companies to move there).

Before that watershed moment, big-city dailies often just had a single ‘arts columnist,’ a local arbiter of taste, often the society columnist but almost always a writer relegated to the ‘society page’ or the ‘woman’s page’ – much like the influential critic John Rosenfield at ‘The Dallas Morning News.’ It was Rosenfield who gave an important boost to Margo Jones, one of the founders of the resident theater movement in this country, the woman who helped Tennessee Williams and William Inge get their starts as playwrights.

Seen in this context, our hinterland newspaper reviewers have existed only for what amounts to a blip of cultural time – just the last 40 years or so. They’re almost a fluke in our cultural history. It’s no surprise that when those 18 percent profit margins went away, the reviewers did as well. All of a sudden, newspaper owners and editors, once so committed to the cultural aspirations and self-image of their cities, found culture wasn’t so important after all, not the way the local sports columnist or the editorial page still is. What was seen as a readers’ service has been jettisoned. Or it’s getting reduced to ‘the woman’s page’ with a different name: ‘Life & Culture’ or ‘Leisure & Travel.’

99% Invisible

99% Invisible, the website and radio program, is devoted to the architecture and design we take for granted.

So across the country, this ‘generational change’ is more like a reversion to the historical norm. Cultural criticism has rarely been a paid, professional career for most of our country’s existence. Puritanism and anti-intellectualism have much stronger holds on the American soul: Most of us don’t even consider the arts themselves worthy of serious pursuit, an actual career, an effort deserving community support. Yale University’s literature grads have dropped by 60 percent the past decade. So what do you think we feel about arts reviewers?

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the first Americans to try to make a full-time living as an editor-poet-lecturer-journalist-fiction-writer-critic. Poe wrote during an early explosion of print in America, a golden age of literary journals and periodicals (he persistently tried to start his own). He became a national lightning rod as a critic, an influential literary figure with his essays, short stories and public poetry readings.

And he practically starved to death. He never really escaped poverty. Yes, drink had a lot to do with his failure. So had the brutal economics of piecing together a literary career in America.

Hady: Again, I return to my previous point. Go online.

I do go online a lot. My own writings appear there, obviously. But that lack of real careers in local arts coverage holds online as well. You’ll starve just like Poe. Critics are as much a part of our eroding American middle class as disappearing readers and unemployed musicians. What you’ll find on most such arts websites is that the only people making a salary are the site’s editors or founder. Many university profs do some arts journalism as a low-paid side hustle, a way to keep their hand in – especially when it’s for an outlet like  ‘Slate’ or ‘Salon.’ Or you’ll find smart, ardent fans and young boosters riding their own hobbyhorses. You’ll find artists and writers and musicians doing podcasts and videos, partly as a form of marketing themselves or their buddies.

In short, it’s the mosh pit we call the web. And such freelancers and amateurs have produced some of our best, most creative writing lately. But as Doug McLennan of Artsjournal.com pointed out, one thing we’re starting to miss these days is arts coverage as serious news: the kind of long-term, long-form coverage the ‘LATimes’ did on the Getty, for instance, which resulted in the director resigning. Or the ongoing, extensive digging into the sexual harassment charges against major media and entertainment figures. Piecemeal freelancers generally can’t do that kind of journalism, and getting hip with the web and its latest info-design features doesn’t, either.

I cite Timberg’s ‘Culture Crash’ again for his point that the loss of a single record store, literary bar or theater can seriously hurt a city’s arts scene in ways we often don’t realize for years. Something so small can re-shape a neighborhood by dispiriting or depleting the crowd of artists and fans once drawn there. It’s not simply a matter of nostalgia for an old hangout or attraction. As Timberg puts it, the loss of a single tooth can transform a person’s face from beautiful to damaged. These places and groups, even their lobbies at intermission, are de facto community centers, and their death means one less place where artists and art lovers meet to gossip and quarrel and get inspired.

Well, ditto for the loss of local, professional critics. She or he could have been the spark plug behind a particular energy in the arts, a proselytizer, a path to richer experiences for readers. In the end, what we may be seeing is the curtain coming down for what was all along a fleeting profession in America: the arts reviewer writing in a city’s daily paper for a general audience. But that may be a harbinger of other ongoing but ultimately drastic shifts in our urban infrastructure we won’t fully understand for years.

Hady: But perhaps we’re also witnessing the birth of something else, something new.

In which case, whatever that will be, I sure hope it pays. Because the current web set-up doesn’t support consistent, thoughtful, ongoing, influential, locally-focused cultural criticism or hard-news journalism – any more than many of our media companies do nowadays. Nor does the web support many working artists whose careers were seriously disrupted by the recession. So paycheck-wise, critics are now in the same economic hole as the artists or actors, musicians or novelists they cover. Welcome to our great gig economy, the ‘crash of the creative class.’

But as Doug McLennan also pointed out, for more than a decade now, many of us have believed the American bookstore was dead and buried. The rise of all-powerful Amazon and the collapse of Borders cemented that in the popular mind. Yet the past several years have seen notable growth in the numbers of small, independent bookstores like the Wild Detectives in Dallas. The loss of Borders and the decline of Barnes & Noble opened up a kind of ‘cultural space’ or market opportunity in different cities and towns. Such indie bookstores with their specialized, curated inventories and their beer and wine and all their special events – concerts, films, book panels – such bookstores are becoming small community centers, too. Which, in effect, the best ones always were. We have felt their lack in our urban environment and have responded.

And these stores are not just quaint flukes. They’re an industry trend. The people who always want to buy a book cheap and fast – they left bookstores long ago. The people who love the entire bookstore-hangout experience remained, and they make up a worthy market to cater to.

So there’s that hope: Perhaps a ‘cultural vacuum’ is being created by the loss of newspaper critics that we’ll figure a way to fill somehow. Small and local, it seems, can fill some needs. But can it ultimately provide a living?  That’s the crucial question. As David Byrne wrote in ‘How Music Works,’ once the recording industry got hollowed out and all the profits went to the tech companies: Do you think all these people – not just the musicians but their agents and producers and roadies – do you seriously think they’ll continue making music if there isn’t any money to be made?

Hady: So where does that leave theaters and dance troupes and museums?

Doing what many traditional media outlets still haven’t managed to do. Putting money and writers and real smarts into new media – to reach audiences, to tell their story. To convince people that breathing the same emotional air as living actors onstage or encountering a masterful sculpture in a gallery provides an electric jolt that’s richer and more immediate than all those sparkling pixels.

I know, good luck with doing that. Obviously, it costs money and time and thinking, but some of the biggest organizations – the Metropolitan Museum in NYC , the National Theatre in London – have made themselves into huge online resources of arts education, videos and opinion blogs. The Cliburn has been a leader in live-streaming its concerts and competitions around the world.

Of course, when it comes to serious news coverage or cool-headed judgments of performances, these same arts organizations are not about to disclose their own financial or artistic shortcomings. Not on any independent, trustworthy basis. But still: These kinds of efforts are clearly filling in some of that educational purpose that newspaper critics used to, and they’re doing it in a web-savvy way.

That’s something else McLennan said: Quality content is what eventually wins out – in the arts, on stage, online, in journalism. What’s really undercut the media companies is that they forgot this.

Quality content, smartly written, smartly presented, eventually gains an audience. Period. And I believe that holds for criticism. People have always turned to knowledgeable, persuasive, inspiring, entertaining sources for ways to think about and appreciate the arts they enjoy. Or just to help them understand what the heck they saw last night at the theater.

Why would that change now?

Postscript: Thanks to Mark Lowry for this link to a Michigan Radio story about the same dire situation in that state.

Postscript 2: As evidence for my contention that it’s not arts news or reviews that are the problem online, it’s actually all local coverage, there’s this article from the ‘NYTimes’ on how several news outlets that have been focused entirely on local news are failing or cutting back, at least in Manhattan. And if you can’t make local news pay in Manhattan, where can you?

But in the financially daunting era of digital journalism, there has been no tougher nut to crack than making local news profitable, a lesson Mr. Ricketts, who lost money every month of DNAinfo’s existence, is just the latest to learn. In New York City, the nation’s biggest media market, established organizations such as The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal and The Daily News have slashed staff or withdrawn from street-level reporting. The Voice stopped publishing its print edition in September.

NPR also aired a story that made the same point when the New York ‘Daily News’ gutted its reporting staff: There’s “no lack of papers pulling back from local news.”

Image above and outfront: Shutterstock.

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  • Mark Ritchie

    I hope nobody is using the Dallas Morning News as an example of not having online clicks for reviews. I challenge anybody to find anything on that site.
    Today, just so I could type this comment, I typed “Dallas Symphony” into the search box. The top hit was Gaffigan’s appearance — in 2016. Ironically, Gaffigan just conducted the symphony this weekend.

    Then I typed “Cantrell”. I got a month-old review, rather than the ones he’s just published.