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A(nother) nail in the coffin of arts and theatre journalism

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I’ve been charting the rising tide of arts and theatre journalists made redundant, particularly in America, regularly in this blog, but it only started hitting home – literally – over here when the Independent on Sunday summarily killed off the entirety of its arts criticism (though it still provides some arts coverage) in September, as I wrote here at the time.

We can’t afford, in any sense, to bury our heads in the sand here; and here’s yet more evidence of the ongoing cull. Bloomberg News yesterday announced that it has decided “to scale back arts coverage,” and this includes firing its theatre critic Jeremy Gerard.

Instead, according to the LA Times, “Bloomberg plans to continue to cover the arts, but with an emphasis on luxury.” Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matt Winkler is reported saying that Bloomberg will align its leisure reporting with its luxury channel on its website, and with Pursuits, its magazine for wealthy readers.

So arts are now exclusively the preserve of the rich? Hmmmm. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be the poorer for the loss of Gerard’s reviewing voice. I’ve been reading him ever since he was theatre editor at Variety, itself a publication that in 2010 laid off its then chief theatre critic David Rooney, as I reported here at the time, and has been using freelancers instead ever since. (Rooney now writes for the Hollywood Reporter and the New York Times).

Yet more important critics who have lost their critical perches in New York include the Village Voice’s long-serving Michael Feingold, who was laid off in May, again replaced by freelances; while Associated Press, the syndicated news service in the US, also spiked what Howard Sherman, who also writes for The Stage, called “a chunk of its opera, dance and off-Broadway coverage,” back in June.

Howard quoted an e-m from AP’s chief theatre writer Mark Kennedy at the time offering the reasons for the change:

We sent out a survey before the Tonys to the members of our cooperative, asking about their use of our reviews. While music, books, movies and TV came back positive, the results proved what we have long suspected: Members overwhelmingly are not using our opera, dance or Off-Broadway reviews. It’s more than that. In some cases, they actually resent [that coverage], thinking we can use our resources better. So while we of course will dip into the world of Off-Broadway, whether for an occasional review or a story, we have to listen to the people who pay our bills.

So this is literally a case of he who pays the piper calls the tunes. But a lot of good tunes are going to go unheard as a result.

As Howard Sherman perceptively wrote,

Arts coverage at outlets large and small has been narrowing in favor of the largest and most popular companies and offerings, just as arts funding sources have been shrinking, and often tilting in favor of the bigger players. That stratification will only be reinforced by the AP’s coverage reductions.

There’s an invisible cost here. When attempts to reduce or eliminate funding to the arts crop up — which they do with a depressing regularity – they gain traction in part because not enough people encounter the arts, or even regular coverage of the arts, on a daily basis. When a resource as mighty as The Associated Press can’t even offer material for consideration because of a professed lack of interest by other media gatekeepers, I worry it’ll only lend support to those who want to delegitimize the arts with a charge of elitism.

Now Bloomberg has joined AP in reducing its coverage, the outlets are shrinking by the day.

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