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Local Dailies Collaborate to Make Up for Arts Staff Cutbacks

by Jerome Weeks 9 Dec 2008 6:33 PM

In the Dallas and Fort Worth daily newspapers, there will no longer be separate reviews of many cultural organizations and events. The two city papers are former rivals, yet the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have begun running the same review by the same writer. It’s the latest development in what has […]


In the Dallas and Fort Worth daily newspapers, there will no longer be separate reviews of many cultural organizations and events. The two city papers are former rivals, yet the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have begun running the same review by the same writer. It’s the latest development in what has been a series of cutbacks affecting area arts reporting and reviewing. With newspapers across the country facing serous financial problems, maintaining an individual, local critic’s voice is no longer a priority, even when the arts in question are locally based.

A month ago, the Morning News and the Star-Telegram announced that the papers may collaborate in unspecified ways — beyond the joint distribution agreement the companies had already arranged. Frontburner, the D Magazine blog, ran a memo by DMN editor Bob Mong that said those unspecified ways would include “a few targeted areas of newsgathering.”

It became clear this past weekend what this will entail for North Texas arts: The two papers will run a single, shared review. In effect, there will be a single daily newspaper arts staff unevenly divided between the two newsrooms. The Star-Telegram, for example, doesn’t have a classical music critic on staff, but the Morning News does, so the News’ critic apparently takes over many of the duties for both cities. In visual arts, on the other hand, the Morning News doesn’t have a staff critic, but the Fort Worth paper does — and so on.

Both dailies have recently undergone buyouts and layoffs that reduced the number of writers and editors in their arts departments. The work of the few staff reviewers who remain are already augmented by a small pool of freelancers. The work of these freelancers, it seems, will also now be shared.

The guinea pig for this collaboration was the Dallas Morning News‘ classical music critic Scott Cantrell. His review of the Fort Worth Symphony’s November 21 performance ran in both publications. Then the News‘ theater critic Lawson Taitte reviewed Stage West’s production of The Code of the Woosters — with the review appearing in the Star-Telegram and the News. The sharing of reviews then went the other direction this past weekend when Fort Worth freelance writer Chris Shull’s take on the Texas Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker was used by both dailies.

So the cross-use of reviews has occurred in classical music, theater and dance, and with both staff and freelance writers. What this amalgamated arts coverage may eventually mean for those arts where both papers currently have staff critics (TV, film and pop music) is not clear. For instance, will the two book sections merge? What happens when a Fort Worth journalist has a scoop about a Fort Worth arts initiative — does it run simultaneously in the Morning News?

And how soon will this collaborative effort spread to sports? Business news? Crime reporting?

In an e-mail answer to these questions, News editor Bob Mong (left) wrote, “We’re in a very early experimental period. Police reporting and business [are] not being discussed now.”

[Added 12/12 — You’ll note that Mong left Sports out of the discussion, which I thought significant at the time but it was out of the purview of this story. According to ex-Times Heralder Robert Wilonsky, the papers are indeed merging their sports coverageJerome Weeks.]

Catherine Mallette (right), the features editor of the Star-Telegram, echoed Mong’s reply: “This is something we are trying out with the Dallas Morning News in our Features sections, and we’re still at the beginning stages. Our first meeting with them about the idea was less than 3 weeks ago. Exactly how it works is still a work in progress.”

Jerry Russell, producing director of Fort Worth’s Stage West, argues that sharing a single review in the two papers makes a “huge difference” to the affected arts organizations.

“We understand the financial problems that newspapers are facing,” he says. “But Lawson’s review [of The Code of the Woosters] ran in both papers, meaning there was only one viewpoint in print. And you can’t eliminate personal bias from reviews. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had diametrically opposed reviews of the same show. This isn’t hypothetical. It happens not because of the show but because of people’s differing tastes. But now you’re stuck with one viewpoint. None of us want the newspapers to fold, but to narrow things to one viewpoint, that’s deadly.”

In contrast, Theatre Three will be facing relatively little change with the collaborative coverage. The Dallas theater company was reviewed by Taitte and will continue to be reviewed by Taitte.

“But not always,” notes Jac Alder, Theatre Three’s executive producer-director. “Lawson’s already stretched so thin.” There are a number of local theater critics online, but Alder says, “the fact is, we know that playgoers are newspaper readers. They go to the newspapers.”

The reduction of the newspaper reviews to a single voice will be felt, he says. Perhaps not at the box office. “But the truth is, we depend to a certain degree on critics to evaluate where we are, how we’re doing. In the sense that they are part of an ecology that favors the arts, and they’re gone, we’re going to feel that.”

The newspapers’ need for such cost-cutting measures has become painfully clear in recent days. The McClatchy Co., owners of the Star-Telegram, is so financially strapped that it’s seeking to sell the Miami Herald — having already sold the San Jose Mercury News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, the Tribune Co., owners of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, filed for Chapter 11 protection. In the Wall Street Journal article about the bankruptcy, reporter Shira Ovide wrote:

Newspapers have cut thousands of jobs this year, slashed stock dividends and taken other cost-saving measures to offset steep revenue declines. Even so, a number of publishers, including A.H. Belo Corp. [owners of the Dallas Morning News] and Sun-Times Media Group, are unprofitable on a cash-flow basis, a once unthinkable situation in the industry.

At a media conference Monday, Washington Post Co. Chief Executive Donald Graham said the company’s flagship newspaper will be unprofitable in 2008.

With newspaper revenue declining so quickly and fresh capital so hard to find, some publishers are expected to cut their losses and close their doors. “There’s no real light at the end of the tunnel,” said Fitch analyst Mike Simonton.

In light of this, Douglas Adams, president of the Dallas Symphony, says that if the alternative is no reviews, then he’s happy with a reduced selection of critics’ voices.

“If this is a creative arrangement that will keep reviews in print, then I think that’s wonderful. In the best of all possible worlds, of course, you’d like a lot of different reviews. I understand that completely. And I understand if I were in Fort Worth and now found all the reviews were coming from a Dallas critic. But better this than the alternative of none at all. And with Scott [Cantrell], at least you have someone who by golly knows what he’s talking about.”

Newspaper image from mediabistro/fishbowlLA

  • Kyle

    Sharp and insightful reporting. And just the sort of thing newspapers themselves ought to be analyzing, which they almost certainly would if this were a development in big biz of any sort other than their own. My first reaction was that maybe this partnership means I won’t be reading so many syndicated film reviews in the DMN anymore (Hello, Orlando Sentinel), but then I began to wonder how long the duplication of staff critics in the areas mentioned (books, pop music, and so on) might last in an era of shared resources or shared humans — whatever. I have a hunch. And I don’t like it.

    • Bill Marvel

      This might work out okay for reviews. But as you and Kyle point out, it raises the problem of art news coverage. Very few editors think the arts make news, which is why you don’t see much in newspapers — or, say, in the Observer or D magazinew or Texas Monthly, either. But in fact, the arts make news all the time. A glance through any arts magazine will turn up enough scandals, alarms and controversies to fill a newspaper for months. The collapse of the international art market has had profound effect on local auction houses. You’d never know it to read the local press. Arts organizations everywhere are sliding into bankruptcy or disappearing. What do we know about the financial health of those in Dallas and Fort Worth? Nothing. An ugly sculpture pops up in front of a fire station and neighbors complain, but do readers of the major dailies hear about it? Uh-uh. Nothing new about this. The press has not treated the arts as serious news for decades. Arts coverage has meant reviews. Period.
      Imagine if sports were covered in the same desultory fashion. There’d be hell to pay.

  • Dennis Maher

    A shared review is like a committee decision or military intelligence–a contradiction in terms. Those of us in the arts shouldn’t be surprised, however–when it’s time to make a cut, the arts usually gets the short end of the stick. This doesn’t affect me personally, as I don’t read reviews, but to paraphrase John Donne, “any art’s death diminishes me”, and the art of the review has taken a major, major punch to the lower regions.

  • Sarah

    Kyle, I think you’re likely to see MORE syndicated film reviews. Think about it — films are released nationwide, so it’s very easy to outsource those reviews to whoever in LA or NYC is reviewing them. The problem is, as it always has been, that the tastes of LA or NYC or Florida (or whoever) don’t necessarily reflect tastes in Big D. I predict that the Morning News will get used to the fact that their main movie critic has been gone for several months on a fellowship, and they’ve been able to fill the section, which is the only thing they care about. It’s terrible.

  • Jess

    My Mom, who lives in Waxahachie, told me after I sent her this article, that over Thanksgiving, they got two sections of the Star-Telegram in their Dallas Morning News.

    I’m a reporter so she pays more attention to newspapers because of that, but I wonder how much the average reader has noticed.

    I know many people don’t look at the bylines, but to get two whole sections from another paper is… strange, and noticeable.

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  • walter

    uh, you mention an art critic once, but then drop that part of the coverage. What’s the critic’s name? Has an art reivew been published in both papers? Etc. Generally speaking this story could be dramatically trimmed for clarity and length, making room for a few more facts. . . .

  • Garry

    This is why the traditional print medium is giving way to the digital on-line version in 2.0. We, the interested readers can do exactly this, post our reviews or stories about particular events, performances, openings and such right next to the single perspective approved by the publisher. When is the last time we wrote a review for others? We’d better start practicing and sharing our perspectives with each other or there will only be one. I trust YOU as much or more as I trust them.

  • Walter:

    Sorry. I didn’t think it would interest everyone (and would bog down the story) to go through the entire roster of critics and freelancers by name. Also, this ‘cost-saving collaboration’ is indeed only beginning, so it wasn’t clear (and still isn’t) just who’ll do what.

    But this morning’s Morning News provides your answer. Gaile Robinson’s review of the Kimbell’s Nativity and Fra Angelico, which originally appeared in the Star-Telegram several days ago, is now a News review by “special contributor” Gaile Robinson.

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to mention something that the various public discussions about this practice never seem to get around to: The reviews may run in two papers but it seems the writers in question still get paid the same old salary. And for freelancers, this means that there is one less outlet for their work. Once, you could have pitched a story to one editor, gotten turned down and then tried the other paper. Not anymore. I’m also betting the News and S-T have already revised their freelance contracts to permit them to do this ‘review sharing’ — without increasing the freelance fee a penny.

    • Garry: I like your point. Being able to weigh in immediately, agree or disagree with what a critic – or anyone else – says, is one of the most refreshing things about the internet. Makes for better conversation, and deeper insight.

  • Garry:

    The problem with online reviews is not posting them. It’s getting them read. Who would look for them among the potential billions of online readers and millions of websites — and why? — and how would they find them if, say, they couldn’t remember the name of the book or play or gallery? Then, how would they also read about that other thing they’d heard about in town?

    In other words, so far, no one really does what good big-city daily newspapers do: provide across-the-board reviews of local and national culture with a modicum of professional expertise, directed at a local audience, and all of this in one place for a cheap price. And that’s why the loss of newspaper arts coverage is tragic.

    There’s a simple reason that no one else is doing this at the level newspapers have: There’s very little money to be made with local arts. It has been popular culture (meaning corporate-funded and distributed art like movies and music and TV) that has (mostly) paid the bills for the arts pages. Right now, it’s not so much the internet that’s killing newspaper arts coverage. It’s the extreme downturn in print advertising. With the election money spigot turned off, expect even more newspaper cutbacks this next year.

  • Jon
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    • RoknCajn

      I totally understand why North Texas’ two big dailies have entered into this arrangement. It’s a matter of abject survival for both, and the move toward it has been quite linear since the late 1990s. Less staff in Arts at both papers meant, for those willing and/or able to do it (and believe me, there were some who weren’t willing, much less able), more work in more realms for roughly the same pay and professional recognition. Eventually, some work didn’t get done because the manpower wasn’t there. And then the dominoes began to rattle, then tip, then be in effect knocked asunder and buried by a stampede of thundering snowballs.

      What hasn’t been linear is the decision making and the vision. For instance, in areas at TDMN, for instance, plans to make arts coverage and event-information tabulation actually palatable and use-able for web 2.0 audiences have been kicked around for nearly a decade. But little has actually been launched because few in power have had a vision, much less been able to commit to a program, so that progression of the product could continue. The FWS-T has a belated start with http://www.dfw.com, and KERA, of course, has this wonderful forum of discourse.

      But I can’t help but think what could have been at TDMN if it’d allowed something resembling Art & Seek to launch and grow.

      I left TDMN earlier this year because, like many, I saw the paralysis and the siege mentality take over – and I COULD leave (many who remain simply can’t because they have mortgages to pay, kids to feed and educate, etc.). I’d hoped to free-lance to help make ends meet. But this new agreement will prevent me from doing that on a local level, and the free-lancers that I’ve talked to are as bothered as I am about it. I’d have to go national and supplement that with unrelated work to even approach my now-modest standard of living, which is about as streamlined as it can get already.

      Or, I can get out completely.

      And as Jerome indicated, the agreement is likely to broaden (more than likely, from what I’ve been told) into realms not mentioned here because, well, this is the arts, and the arts are somewhat experimental by nature themselves, right? :::rolls eyes::: But it’s by no means going to end here.

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  • garry

    It’s not just print or other traditional media….. it is the vision of the leadership, or lack thereof.
    This is in Allaccess.com this morning.

    Last.FM Hit By Layoffs In CBS Interactive Reorg
    CBS INTERACTIVE is cutting about 20% of the workforce at LONDON-based LAST.FM and merging the newsrooms of CBSNEWS.COM and its recently acquired CNET, resulting in an undisclosed number of layoffs, according to PAIDCONTENT.ORG and TECHCRUNCH. The CBSNEWS.COM and CNET.COM sites will maintain separate URLS and identities but will share content.

    In addition, the company is moving the CHOW and URBANBABY sites to the Entertainment group of sites that include CBS.COM and TV.COM, and combining its Sports, Music, and Games sites into a single unit.

    The moves follow the naming of CNET SVP MICKEY WILSON to replace CBS INTERACTIVE Chief Marketing Officer PATRICK KEANE earlier this week and last month’s elimination of CNET’s music website JUKE before its planned launch.

  • whittley

    You have to look at S-T newsroom leadership – editor, ME’s, etc – and udnerstand that this move is only to ensure their ability to pursue their vanity agendas and not think of the reader or the community first. This is another example of how the coverage that matters most to them is what enables them to keep their jobs and further their paychecks not what serves the readers.