Editorial: Where Have All the Critics Gone?

By Becky O’Malley
Friday January 25, 2008

Building support for live local performances is a Gordian knot which has no easy solution. At a recent gathering of supporters of a well-regarded classical music organization, someone asked in all innocence why the staff had not been able to arrange for more reviews of the group’s one-night-only performances in what still passes for the major metropolitan daily. Well, arts reviewers are dropping like flies all over the country as newpapers perceive themselves, rightly or wrongly, as being in trouble.  

From a blog entry last June by Henry Fogel, president of the League of American Orchestras:  

“What started out as a sad story from Atlanta, where the Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided to eliminate designated titles for arts critics and to reduce the number of reviews, is now looking more and more like a trend that is gathering momentum with the speed of light...The Atlanta news was followed immediately by news that the Minneapolis Star Tribune is eliminating the position of full-time classical music critic, and that was followed in turn by New York Magazine’s dismissal of their music critic Peter Davis. To say that these developments are alarming is, frankly, to understate the case.” 

This is only one part of the generally bad news that’s coming from the newspaper industry these days. The latest Los Angeles Times editor has quit rather than agreeing to dismember his newsroom and Phil Bronstein is being kicked upstairs in the Hearst organization, either as a reward for committing successful mayhem at their San Francisco paper or as a punishment for not doing a thorough enough job. Newspapers have been crying wolf for a few years now, primarily because they’ve been taken over by financial types eager for the same obscene profits they’ve come to expect from the development industry (Sam Zell, who now owns the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times) or on Wall Street. The real crunch is still in the works. 

Ursula Le Guin (Berkeley-bred) has a fine piece in the February Harper’s about the alleged decline of reading. She skewers the nasty financial types who have taken over book publishing, and not-too-politely suggests that they should take their money elsewhere: “I keep hoping the corporations will wake up and realize that publishing is not, in fact, a normal business with a nice healthy relationship to capitalism... And the relationship of art to capitalism is, to put it mildly, vexed. It has not been a happy marriage. Amused contempt is about the pleasantest emotion either partner feels for the other.” Much of what she says applies just as well to journalism, and especially to the branch of journalism which has engaged with the arts, the critics. 

Arts organizations have always thought that they needed reviews to build audiences. The San Francisco Classical Voice website, sfcv.org, does a yeoman-like job of trying to fill the void left by the demise of the classical music reviewer, but it’s essentially preaching to the choir. It’s not really a substitute for the chance to catch the eye of the reader of a mass-market newspaper who might be persuaded to try a new experience by a glowing review of a new production. 

The partnership between artists and the publications which report on them has been happier than the one between Wall Street and publishing, but it’s not without stress. While it might not be a happy marriage of interests, it’s still a symbiotic relationship. Here at the Planet, a very modestly capitalized general circulation publication with a very broad audience, we try to spread our favors around as much as we can, to benefit both the artists and the consumers of their efforts, our readers.  

We generally do previews of one-time-only events, limiting reviews to repeating performances to give the readers a chance to attend if they want. This has meant that we’ve published a great number of play reviews, since theaters tend to do repeats, and many fewer concert reviews, since most concerts these days are one-night-stands. There’s not Big Money in Small Papers, even if there might be in book publishing or in owning all the papers in a metropolitan area. We’ve launched a separate arts section to make sure readers can find the arts coverage, but it has yet to attract enough advertising even to pay for itself.  

We do continue to be disappointed by the inability or the unwillingness of some theater organizations to understand that it’s conventional for advertising to pay for at least part of the cost of publishing newspapers. It might seem unbearably crass for a publication like ours to announce that we will no longer review productions by theaters which have consistently refused to advertise with us, but the temptation to do so is strong. Some groups are too poor to advertise anywhere, and that’s understandable. But when our mailbox is full of glossy and expensive brochures for seemingly well-funded theatrical enterprises, and when we see big display ads for them in regional publications which have recently fired most of their critics, the temptation to limit our arts reporting to publicizing the struggling small-fry grows ever stronger.