Curtains fall on arts critics at newspapers

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

For the first time since the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, Boston doesn’t have a newspaper staffer dedicated to the pop music beat. The city has writers covering everything from Aerosmith to indie rock. They freelance for papers, contribute to online music magazines, pen posts for radio station websites, and blog. But none of them have staff positions.

The six decades of constant pop coverage ended in July when I left my position as music and theatre writer at the Boston Herald. Earlier in the year the Boston Globe’s two pop critics left. The Boston Metro, a free commuter paper, eliminated its local music editor position in 2014. Upstart weekly Dig Boston axed its full-time music and entertainment editor around the same time. Seminal weekly and perennial arts champion Boston Phoenix, which won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1994, shuttered in 2013 after half a century in business.

“Boston is a music city, look at how many music schools are here and at the number of people purchasing concert tickets,” says Steve Morse, a Globe staff critic from the 1970s through the 2000s. “There should be much more coverage.”

Boston is home to the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music, which honed the chops of Quincy Jones, Melissa Etheridge, and John Mayer. Through the great recession, the area’s live music market continued to beat expectations, and last summer Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium set concert attendance and box office records. If Boston can’t support pop critics, how can other cities? The short answer: They can’t.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

The end of the age of the critic

Critics at newspapers are dying off even faster than print journalism. Theatre critics, film reviewers, A&E editors, and arts writers of every kind have been stripped from dailies and weeklies around the country. “Nobody can quantify the number of arts jobs lost because if you’re left at a paper you are probably doing more than one job,” American Theatre Critics Association chair Bill Hirschman says. “You are covering theatre, writing breaking news stories, doing advance features and acting as the arts editor all at once.”

Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel sees the same problem in trying to track the slashing of arts positions. “In some cases the jazz critic is also a copy editor or has some other main job at the paper and covers jazz as a sideline,” Mandel says.

By his best approximation, fewer than 10 of the Jazz Journalists Association’s 200 members have full-time jobs at newspapers (down from an already measly two dozen in the mid-’90s). The drop off in theatre critics has been dramatically sharper. Hirschman said twentysome years ago there were easily a hundred staff theatre critics at papers. Now he “can count on his fingers” the number of full-timers out of the American Theatre Critics Association’s 220 members. Even film critics, the marquee A&E position at any paper, have seen their ranks decimated. In 2000, the National Society of Film Critics had 30 of its 50 members working full-time at dailies and alternative weeklies. For 2016, the numbers have shifted to 10 in 54.

It is sad but expected when the Orange County Register gets rid of its pop critic and music editor, as it did in 2014, but keeps five people on the OpEd staff. Or when the Denver Post buys out its theatre critic, as it did in 2011, but retains 19 positions in the sports section.* But when the papers in New York City–the global center of the arts–abandon coverage, the trend becomes more troublesome.

The Village Voice, champion of underground culture, spent the last decade showing the men and women who built their brand the door, including “Dean of American Rock Critics” Robert Christgau. In 2015, the Daily News dropped its TV and music critics. Even The New York Times, the paragon of arts in print, quietly-but-dramatically scaled back in August when it ended regional coverage of galleries and theaters. Many in the theatre scene suspect the Times is about to dramatically reduce its off-Broadway coverage next.

“If what was happening at the Times was a standalone situation it would be bad enough,” Hirschman says. “What worries me is that mid-sized papers and major metros in other cities see this and say, ‘Oh, well the Times did, we should do it too.’”

 

Newspapers shift priorities

But papers need to make cuts somewhere. In 2015, weekday and Sunday circulation at dailies fell 7 and 4 percent respectively, according to the Pew Research Center. These are the biggest declines since 2010 and are truly dire when paired with an 8 percent drop in ad revenue, also according to Pew. Papers aren’t trimming fat, they’re amputating limbs.

While departments have seen round after round of layoffs and buyouts, arts staffers see their jobs targeted first. It’s not that the book critic goes before the city hall reporter. It’s that the book critic goes before the guy who covers high school hockey. The trend echoes the value judgements public schools have made where math classes and the football team stay but the drama club and jazz band don’t.

“This sports vs. arts argument is one I had constantly during the 25 years I was with Gannett,” New York Film Critics Circle chairman Marshall Fine says. “I would go to the Toronto Film Festival and see 20 movies in four days, a pretty good value for the paper. One year they told me it wasn’t cost effective to send me, and yet this was after they just sent a team to cover a New York Giants game in Europe.”

With their champions banished from papers, legitimate artistic endeavors start to recede from the mainstream consciousness in favor of fluffy celebrity-driven stories.

“When I got laid off I looked around to see the entire paper has become a kids’ paper,” says Scott Bowles, who worked for 17 years as a film critic and reporter with USA Today until the paper cut about 70 people in 2014. Among those canned were entertainment reporters and editors, plus three critics including book critic and 40-year-Gannett veteran Bob Minzesheimer.

“I don’t know if it was us chasing the fad or creating the fad, but papers lost their voice of authority to try to cater to youth,” Bowles says. “It’s all for kids. The papers, the movies and music. There is nowhere to go for smart analysis, beautiful features. Social media means everyone has a voice but what’s lost in the cacophony is that intelligent voice commenting on intelligent art.”

 

What is lost

Thanks to the web, arts writers have plenty of outlets (especially if they are willing to write for little to nothing). Boston alone has a glut of sites–WBUR web space the Artery, WGBH.org’s extensive arts pages, and online magazines Arts Fuse and Vanyaland. These destinations gain traction when print gives up on covering the arts.

“We can no longer expect our big regional daily to provide one-stop-shopping coverage of the arts,” Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy says.

Blogs and niche arts websites thrive (if not economically, certainly in terms of traffic). But they can do great work, gather thousands of readers and still not plug the hole newspapers have left by pulling arts pages. Niche sites cater to niche audiences. They ghettoize content and normalize the notion that a story about a tremendous new rock act doesn’t belong between a report about a corrupt city council member and a recap of a Cleveland Cavaliers game.

Arts publicists see the scope of the problem with even more clarity than writers. For decades they have used radio, TV, and newspapers to break clients in new markets. Radio and TV cater to eager fans–people who listen to alternative rock radio want to hear new alternative rock; viewers who tune into Conan are willing to embrace an unknown stand up comic. But papers traditionally speak to a wider audience. A writer can compare new roots band Old Crow Medicine Show to Willie Nelson, or draw a line from Bruce Springsteen to young songwriter Jason Isbell, and suddenly that artist piques the interest of somebody who only picked up the paper for the box scores or crossword.

“Newspapers are where most investigative journalism originates from, so it’s scary,” music publicist Jim Flammia of All Eyes Media says. “But it’s also scary for me professionally because I need places for our artists to get covered. My artists make their money on the road, so regional coverage is more important than national coverage, and that regional coverage comes from newspapers.”

Flammia, who represents Americana artists such as Old Crow and Isbell, depends more on the Akron Beacon Journal, Des Moines Register, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution than he does on Rolling Stone magazine to sell tickets. But he and his fellow publicists struggle to get clients interviews and reviews in newspapers. Bob Merlis, a 40-year-veteran of the music business, and Nick Loss-Eaton, who started doing PR in 2004, agree coverage has become increasingly hard to secure when names they have depended on disappear from mastheads.

It’s hard to argue an Old Crow profile is more important than investigative journalism. No movie review or author interview deserves to run over an exposé uncovering a pedophile priest or a series outlining systematic police brutality. But often those arts stories are cut in favor of a fantasy football column or gossip item on Justin Bieber’s new gal pal. In an age where papers survive by getting hyper-local, coverage of a gallery opening or local rock festival is often dismissed for cheap, generic wire copy.

“When a city loses its critics, there is less news and views about the art form they cover circulating locally,” Mandel says. “Most often news of lesser-known artists is lost, replaced by news of national and international pop culture celebrities issued by their publicity machines. … A local critic knows something that is simply irreplaceable about the local audiences and readership.”

While huge swaths of our culture ignore art in favor of celebrity culture, politics and sports, art matters as much as ever. Old Crow and Broadway maverick Lin-Manuel Miranda, novelist Donna Tartt and filmmaker Adam McKay change culture in seismic shifts. They are the culmination of a drive that begins with 16-year-old kids playing all-ages punk shows in basements and first timers reciting verses at weekly poetry slams (yes, those still exist–Boston has two that have been going on for nearly two decades). Following these individuals’ stories and success connects us to our communities and our humanity.

Newspapers should be the ones telling these stories. They should be championing these agents of change from packed Broadway theaters to cramped underground hip hop clubs, not hiding from them, not pretending they don’t matter or don’t exist.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Denver Post cut its theater critic in 2011. The paper’s last full-time theater critic took a buyout that year. The paper subsequently employed other theater critics working split beats.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jed Gottlieb spent a decade as the music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. He has written about arts, politics, and Back to the Future for Newsweek, Paste and many more publications. Follow him on Twitter.