Editorial: Mutual Back Scratching on the Arts Scene

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday September 11, 2007

The King in The King and I says “It’s a puzzlement!” when confronted with something he doesn’t understand. That line occurred to me last week when the publisher and I took in the Berkeley Repertory Theater’s 40th anniversary opening night performance of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, characterized by our reviewer as “sumptuous,” courtesy of comps provided by the theater’s PR department.  

The Rep has been in town even longer than we have, having started in an old house on College Avenue about six years before we moved into our old house on Ashby. Our kids used to walk to their matinees unsupervised by parents. Their current artistic director, Tony Taccone, taught two of our daughters in young people’s theatre programs with great results: one is now a college professor, a notable branch of the performing arts when done well, and the other is an opera singer. I think our name might even be on one of the bricks which memorialize contributors to their first new building. And the Planet under the four years of our ownership has faithfully publicized the Berkeley Repertory Theater’s efforts with the same previews, reviews and calendar listings which we provide for all local arts organizations free of charge. 

At the Solano Stroll, once again I thought “it’s a puzzlement” as I stopped off to check out the lineup of the many local theater groups in booths soliciting patronage and donations. Most of them are non-profit, which means that no dividends are dispensed to investors, though the compensation for staff and performers varies a lot. But even non-profits have to do something to let the audience know what they’re currently staging, and for that they’re dependent on the press.  

A significant segment of the press on which local theater companies depend is also “non-profit” in a different sense, that is to say not making any profit even though the form of organization would allow profits in theory. That’s true of the Chronicle as well as of the Planet, and I suspect it’s also true of the Express, even under its new ownership structure. Newspaper advertising revenue is declining, and as a result many papers are drastically cutting arts section staff and reviewing fewer and fewer productions. It’s a classic chicken-and-egg proposition: arts organizations are tempted to decide that they don’t have to advertise because they can get free “white space” publicity, but eventually that goes away if there’s no one at all willing to pay for it with advertising dollars.  

The Planet does have some faithful local arts advertisers: Ashkenaz, the Berkeley Opera, the Berkeley Arts Festival, the Berkeley Symphony, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the San Francisco Mime Troupe among others are consistent, and they report getting good results from their ads. It’s hard, therefore, to understand why some of the other companies think that they can build audiences without advertising. And also why they think they can continue asking for local community donor support when they seem to feel no obligation to give back to the local community by spending some of their advertising dollars locally. Some don’t advertise anywhere because they are chronically broke, but not all of them. 

The Berkeley Repertory Theater does advertise in the Chronicle, and probably in other publications as well, but they have consistently refused to advertise in the Berkeley Daily Planet. As executive editor, I’m not supposed to worry about advertising sales, but as one of the owners (read “funder”), when a succession of sales managers complains to me that it’s impossible to get the Rep to advertise, I can’t help wondering why.  

It’s not that they don’t advertise anywhere, but they tell Planet sales people that our readers “aren’t the right demographic.” If that’s really true, at some point wearing my editor’s hat I begin to wonder why we bother with reporting on productions which our readers by the theater’s own definition don’t seem to be interested in.  

The owners of this paper have always supported local arts organizations in many different ways. We have regarded publicizing performances in the Planet as an extension of this long-time effort. And providing excellent arts coverage is also part of our commitment to our readers to produce the best possible paper given limited resources. But now we’re wondering if we’re making the right use of those resources, especially when many of the better-heeled organizations which we regularly review and list choose to use their advertising budget to support other publications.  

We’d like to hear from our readers on this topic. We can’t afford much market research: A really thorough survey would probably cost more than we pay all of our excellent reviewers in the course of the year. But we’d appreciate it if readers would write in and tell us what kind of arts coverage they want.  

And another topic for another day is a similar discussion with the local real estate industry. The editorial content of our home and garden section, launched last year, seems to be a tremendous success with readers, judging by the letters we receive about Ron Sullivan’s gardening and nature columns, Matt Cantor’s home maintenance column, our stories about historic buildings and interesting open homes and our new web-based features: the open homes directory and the map of zoning permit applications. But with a few outstanding exceptions the home and garden section has had lackluster support from the real estate advertisers we’d hoped would pay for it. 

Our major ongoing emphasis continues to be on local “hard news,” which is what distinguishes the Planet from some of the other publications distributed in the East Bay. But we’re also proud of our arts and home sections, and we’d like to keep on producing them if we can. Should we continue to offer them, and if so what should be in them? Readers, please let us know what you think.