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Mark Shenton: Is theatre coverage in the tabloid press dead?

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Let’s hope this doesn’t become a self-fulfilling prophesy, but in New York the news that the city’s two big tabloids – the New York Post and New York Daily News — are shrinking their arts coverage even more than it is already marginalised has been greeted with a shrug by one of Broadway’s leading press agents.

The British-born Adrian Bryan-Brown, one of the smartest and nicest men on the Broadway block (and — full disclosure – a friend of mine), has commented: “It’s sad, but the truth is, it’s not where the audience is. The relationship with the tabloids has been fun and symbiotic, but audiences don’t read papers anymore. We’re pitching online. Even the most unsophisticated Broadway theatergoers are sophisticated online users.”

That fact is born out by where these words were spoken, in an online commentary by Jeremy Gerard, [1] one of the best theatrical commentators in town who is now on the online only deadline.com after a career that has taken him from the Soho Weekly and New York Times to Variety, all of them print publications that, in the case of the latter two, have a bigger presence online than they do on the newsstands these days. (On 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, where I am based when I’m in New York, hardly any of the local convenience stores even sell the New York Times anymore, though they still stock the tabloids).

Gerard has done what all journalists who want to stay in the game have done: namely, adapted to changing delivery methods, but maintained his own high standards as an astute and informed critic and commentator. That means he is still taken seriously in a landscape over-populated by people with opinion but not enough real knowledge or background.

The piece in question was reporting the fact that Michael Riedel — the New York Post’s most controversial and entertaining theatre writer — is being reduced to a single column a week; Rick Miramontez, another leading Broadway press agent, has simultaneously deplored the development while (not so) secretly being pleased about it:  “I appreciate that times are tough for print media, but I think it’s both irresponsible and shortsighted to diminish an industry that many consider to be the lifeblood of New York City. That said, only having to endure Michael Riedel once a week will make many of my colleagues and clients happy, I’m sure.”

For his part, Riedel is about to rock the boat — again — with his first book, Razzle Dazzle — the Battle for Broadway, that is being published this week by Simon and Shuster. The book chronicles the story of how Broadway was saved from oblivion in the 1970s and 1980s, when dark theatres abounded and Times Square was a sleazy, dangerous place. That’s when I made my first trips to New York — it was 1983, and I stayed at the down-at-heel Paramount Hotel (now a boutique designer hotel) and saw shows like Dreamgirls, Nine and 42nd Street for the first time. The real 42nd Street then was a hell-hole — the theatres on that fabled stretch between Broadway and 8th Avenue were mostly being used as porn cinemas.

Yet I had still found my spiritual home here (perhaps the sleaziness actually helped to foster that feeling). The shows here were bigger and brighter and more thrilling than anything I’d ever seen before. Riedel’s book makes me understand what was going on behind-the-scenes as well as onstage at a transformative moment in Broadway history, where it could have curled up and died or gone on to become, as it is now, one of New York’s most thriving industries.

Riedel was on the frontline reporting on it as it emerged from that era and he had a prominent perch from which to do it on the New York Post. Something serious is being lost now that the tabloids are less interested in the area than before; but of course it will survive. And so, I hope, will Riedel.

But meanwhile, the papers are driving themselves into oblivion: as Gerard perceptively notes: “As for coverage of the things that make New York New York — the theater, dance, art, music and movies that make all those bankers and lawyers and doctors want to actually live here — changes at both tabloids are showing mind-blowing indifference, not to say hostility, to any written product that can’t be commodified as click bait on the web.”