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Cultural Critics Are Disappearing From Newspapers. Or, Wait, Is That The Good News?


by Jerome Weeks 27 Oct 2017

A few months ago, the ‘Fort Worth Star-Telegram’ laid off its last full-time arts critic. Of any kind.

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 coverage to compete with ‘The New York Times.’ Art & Seek chatted with several area arts leaders who are concerned about what this means for coverage of their efforts. In this week’s State of the Arts, reporter Hady Mawajdeh and critic Jerome Weeks discuss how the arts media landscape is being disrupted.

Our extended conversation:

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.

JWTrue, but this latest round means not a reduced staff of reviewers but no critics at all at major city papers. That’s a watershed. The arts here in Dallas, for instance, have been blossoming the past decade — with developments like the Winspear Opera House and the Wyly Theatre, with the Dallas Theater Center winning the regional Tony Award. Meanwhile, arts coverage has gone the other way. Fort Worth is the home of the internationally-known Cliburn piano competition and Kimbell Art Museum — that’s pretty unusual for a city its size. Yet the local paper now has zero arts critics on its staff.

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.'”

Which I have to say sounds like ‘we’re not discontinuing reviews but we’re discontinuing what you’ve always thought of reviews.’ And in the nearly two months since that email, features and reviews on Fort Worth arts have been pretty rare.

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

JW Yes, that’s becoming the norm. But we’re losing something with the lack of professional critics, someone whose job it is to keeps tabs on day-to-day developments, who can put individual arts offerings in a knowledgeable context, who, if or she is any good, can provide a deeper insight beyond ‘whammo, four stars!’

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 is what a multiplicity of critics in a particular area mean: different perspective having it out in public in what one might hope would be a stimulating conversation. And when it comes to critical chatter, Jeffrey Schmidt, artistic director of Theatre Three, says Twitter and Facebook have some 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 and museum directors also pointed out that when they apply for grants from some foundations, they’re required to prove they’re worth funding, what they do has value to the community. Even public libraries often decide which new books to keep on their shelves – out of the thousands that get shipped to them – 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 behind-the-scene peeks at museums. They’re covering a lot that traditional media hasn’t really been covering, and they’re doing it for audiences they didn’t really address.

JW You’re absolutely right. I spoke with Doug McLennan, he’s the founder of Artsjournal.com, one of the leading aggregators of high-quality online arts journalism. He says we’re in this transitional phase. We’re losing reviewing jobs. Yet we tend to romanticize the old days of those jobs, back when many newspaper critics were little more than boosters happy to get free passes to the show.

At the same time, online, this could be a golden age for writing on the arts, on theater, literature and music — from places like The Atlantic to 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.”

They websites have the space and time – and often the passion and the online smarts – to start some thinking and talking. The difficulty there, though, is that readers have to find these sites, the local ones. It’s not the case, as it is with a general-interest audience, of simply hearing about a new dance performance on the radio or coming across a theater review in the newspaper. People have to be knowledgeable enough about local arts coverage already to follow such sites – or just be willing to go to the trouble of looking them up. Who has the time or the patience to do all that?

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

JW I know that’s a favorite term, but it’s nonsense. Critics aren’t gatekeepers. They’ve never prevented someone from seeing or hearing or reading what they really want to. The critics are gatekeepers because they choose which artworks become the subject of attention and conversation? Then we’re all gatekeepers. Brain space is limited, reading attention is limited. No critic can guarantee his or her squib will ignite the culture or squelch an undeserved reputation.

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

Hady: So how do we choose that experience?

JW Well, if we’re buying a new car or TV, there are thousands of websites that’ll tell us these are the top 10, these are their features, maybe you should go with a funnier, earlier model, they fall apart slower. Such consumer guidance is hardly the only thing good critics do, but it’s one of their fundamental functions.

So let’s reverse-engineer our thinking about digital and real-life: All the cultural offerings going on in a city are spread out like a giant, analog version of Netflix. Or like the internet itself. Now, people talk about binge-watching on Netflix or becoming immersed in the web. They don’t talk about what most of us actually do with our TVs and cellphones and laptops: scroll through menu after menu, webpage after webpage, cat video after cat video, wondering if this or that is something we’d enjoy, something worth stopping for and spending our time on.

The same thing with a city’s cultural offerings: How do we decide among all the concerts, simulcast operas, theater troupes, book signings, stand-up comics, movie screenings and pumpkin farms on a single weekend?  Newspaper critics have been one, traditional guide. An educational service.

So are they being replaced effectively by their online counterparts? A number of the arts leaders I spoke with said print still has significant clout locally. Word-of-mouth is what has always gotten an audience in the door, of course. And print still can get word-of-mouth going. Dana Schultes of Stage West in Fort Worth said, for her, a review in the paper can mean the difference between a 50 percent house and a 100 percent house.

Artsjournal.com

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

The reason newspaper critics are now being lost isn’t because media outlets haven’t tried to keep up with the times, haven’t addressed different audiences.

Or actually, it isn’t just because of those things. Those have been real failings.

But bottom-line, it’s because the cultural criticism we provide is local. Local news in general, not just the arts, doesn’t pay well [see postscript below for evidence from the ‘New York Times’]. In many cities across the country – outside of big touristy centers like New York, Chicago or LA, where a commercial arts industry flourishes – there’s not enough ad revenue, not enough of a general-readership market to support paid, full-time, on-staff local reviewers. And even when legacy media companies go online with their local coverage, they generally imprison it in the same, old, crude metric of ‘clicks’: How many viewers do local reviews actually get? And newspaper editors have repeatedly found: not that many.

For his part, Jacques Marquis, the CEO of the Cliburn, is more sanguine about the 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.

So we’re in this upside-down situation with online media, print media and their audiences: Smart 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).

Yet newspaper editors say their online reviews barely draw any readers.

It may be a generational change – with younger arts goers preferring the quick hit on their smartphones. And the general-interest reader is often happy with the  round-ups and the snapshot assessments: All I want to know is ‘go or don’t go.’ Meanwhile, it would also seem that a smaller number of knowledgeable arts followers track down sites for the thoughtful considerations they’re looking for, a deep dive into an art form.

When we think of cultural critics – if we think of them at all – we often imagine the current crop as descendants of a line that started with, say, Giorgio Vasari on Italian Renaissance artists down through Charles Baudelaire’s literary criticism about Poe and George Bernard Shaw championing Ibsen and on and on through influential figures like Edmund Wilson and Clement Greenberg in New York in the ’50s and ’60s.

The flaw with this imagined line of ancestry is that all the Hallowed Saints of Criticism Past typically lived and worked in their country’s major cultural and/or financial center: Florence, Paris, London. New York City has had a veritable scrum of theater critics for more than a century – because it’s one of the very few cities with a real commercial theater industry that could underwrite such coverage with advertising. But even in New York, the publishing industry never has had the profit margins to support the ‘New York Times’ Sunday book section – let alone book reviews in newspapers and magazines across the rest of the country. The ‘Times’ keeps that thing going because, hey, it’s New York and it’s the ‘Times’ (although several publishing reps have told me getting a book on NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’ far outweighs any bump from the ‘Times’).

That’s why in America – outside New York  – local arts reviewers didn’t appear in most daily papers until the mid-‘70s. That’s when even medium-sized newspapers were pulling down 18 percent profit margins. Newspaper owners and editors began feeling all serious and ambitious, what with Woodward and Bernstein, so they wanted to be taken seriously as pundits and movers and shakers, 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 columnist relegated to the ‘society’ or ‘woman’s page’ – much like the very influential John Rosenfield was at ‘The Dallas Morning News.’ It was Rosenfield, for instance, 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.

Love or hate those old columnists, no one has that kind of mojo now, not in most of America.

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. It’s no surprise that when those 18 percent profit margins went away, the reviewers did as well – and the pages they commanded. All of a sudden, newspaper owners and editors, once so committed to the cultural aspirations of their cities, found culture wasn’t so important after all, not the way the editorial page still is. What was seen as a readers’ service has mostly been jettisoned. Or it’s getting reduced to what it once was: ‘the woman’s page’ with a different name.

99% Invisible

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

Essentially, newspapers, magazines and arts journalism in general are returning to the baseline situation that has prevailed in cultural criticism in America since … well, forever. Meaning, cultural criticism is no longer a professional career. It rarely has been in this country. 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 golden age of literary journals and periodicals in America (he even tried to start his own). He became a national lightning rod, an influential literary figure with his criticism. And he never really escaped absolutely grinding poverty.

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

I do go online for a lot. But that lack of real careers in local arts coverage holds online, too. What you’ll find on most such sites are reviewers who are the editors or the website founder, they’re the only people making a living with the site. You’ll find many university teachers doing arts journalism as a sideline, as a passion, or you’ll find smart, ardent fans and young boosters (who often could be found among local newspaper critics, of course). You’ll find artists and writers and musicians doing podcasts and videos, often bringing their creativity to the form or just hawking their own work, their own buddies.

In other words, it’s the mosh pit we call the web, and it’s mostly freelancers. Nothing wrong with that. Freelancers have produced some of our best writing. But as Doug McLennan of Artsjournal.com pointed out, what we’re missing these days is arts coverage as serious news: the kind of long-term, in-depth coverage the ‘LATimes’ did on the Getty, for instance, which resulted in the director resigning. Freelancers generally can’t do that kind of journalism.

In the end, what we may be seeing is the finale for a (fleeting, momentary) profession in America: the local, big-city, drama, book, music, film or visual arts critic writing for a general audience.

Or look at it like this: Professional cultural journalism is not just returning to its American norm. It’s joining the rest of the cultural industry transformed, for good and bad, by digital change. There’s lots of arts journalism all over the place, but it’s mostly becoming part-time, piecemeal. Very few people outside of the coasts are making a living at it.

So paycheck-wise,, critics are now much like the actors or painters or novelists they review. Welcome to the new gig economy.

Still, as Doug McLennan also pointed out, many of us claimed the American bookstore was dead-dead-dead because of Amazon. Yet the past several years have seen outstanding growth in the numbers of small, independent bookstores. They’re not just quaint flukes, a local phenomenon. They’re an industry trend. The people who just want to find and buy a book cheap and fast left the bookstore long ago; the people who loved the entire bookstore experience remained, and they make up a worthy market to cater to.

So there’s that: Small and local can fill a need.

Hady: So where does that leave art groups?

JWDoing 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. Obviously, that costs money and time and thinking, but some of the biggest organizations – like the Metropolitan Museum in NYC – have made themselves into huge online resources of arts information, videos and opinion blogs. And the Cliburn has been a leader in live-streaming its concerts and competitions around the world.

Of course, when it comes to news coverage or cool-headed judgments of shows and offerings, such organizations are not about to disclose their own financial or artistic shortcomings on any truly independent basis, but still: These kinds of efforts are clearly filling in what newspapers used to do, and they can do it in a highly web-savvy way.

That’s something else McLennan said: Quality content is what eventually wins out – in the arts, on stage, online and in journalism. Quality content, smartly presented, eventually gains readers. Period.

Postscript: Thanks to Mark Lowry for this link to a Michigan Radio story about the same 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.

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.