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Mark Shenton: Pulling Lyn Gardner’s blog is another nail in the coffin of arts journalism

Lyn Gardner. Photo: Nosy Crow
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I’ve often written about how endangered arts journalism is in mainstream national newspapers. As a supposedly niche interest (even if more people attend London theatre performances than Premier League football matches), it is an area that is being subjected to death by a thousand cuts.

Editors and publishers seeking to make urgent financial savings, as newspaper sales and advertising collapse simultaneously, are being driven to extreme measures. We saw the Independent on Sunday kill all its critics in one fell swoop a couple of years ago, a violent precursor to the print title folding. The Sunday Telegraph, too, has abandoned its critical coverage (and I’ve given up reading it since).

In America, the New York Post and USA Today have both cut their theatre critics; even the New York Times – the self-styled ‘paper of record’ – last summer quietly ended its bespoke cultural coverage in the tri-state area beyond New York City.

As Bram Lewis, artistic director of Westchester’s Schoolhouse Theatre in Croton Falls (which will no longer be reviewed) told Deadline at the time: “For all of us in the arts, this decision is an unmitigated disaster. Our record will be gone. The 50% jump in box office will be gone. The support in funding with a Times review will be gone.”

Of course, the New York Times sees itself as a global title, not a local one serving purely local interests. Its public editor Liz Spayd said in a column about the revamp: “Why should a newsroom that just announced lofty international ambitions spend resources covering news of no interest to readers in Beijing or London?”

That kind of philosophy will also see off regional and specialist coverage of theatre in the British mainstream press. The latest blow has been revealed here, as Lyn Gardner has just revealed that “as of April 1 my @guardianstage contract to write 150 blogs a year being cut because of @guardian cuts”.

This is distressing news, for many reasons. It’s not just that Gardner is one of the best, most vital theatrical commentators there is, constantly drawing attention to things away from the mainstream; she also has a keen appreciation of a wide theatrical landscape. She gets to more theatres around the UK than any other critic I know, and when it comes to the yearly Edinburgh Fringe, she is the first and probably most important point of call for anyone wanting guidance to how to sort the wheat from the chaff.

In Edinburgh, it sometimes seems there are more critics than there are shows – and pretty much every show can boast a four or five-star review on their posters from one publication or another. So reviews have been rendered largely meaningless unless they come from a named source with some history and pedigree such as Gardner, the Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan or The Stage’s experienced fringe team.

Nowadays, we live in a world where everyone is a critic: whether someone has seen one show or several thousand, they have an opinion about them and the means to broadcast them. But it is palpably false to say that all opinions are equal. Some people stand above the noise and clamour of the internet simply by virtue of the credibility their opinions have earned.

In a nutshell, that is what Gardner represents, and the Guardian is casually threatening to disregard that – and the huge following and respect her knowledge has gained. Losing it is a false economy. A critic such as Gardner is vital to the ecology of the theatre; not only does she know a lot about it, but she has cultivated long relationships with both its exponents and consumers that mean she is a vital source of conversation and trust between the industry she writes about and the the public who will find out about it through her words.

The Guardian was once a major source of theatre blogs, with a round of daily columns from different voices (including, at one point, my own) that provoked the liveliest theatrical discussions on the web. Gardner, and occasional blog contributor Michael Billington, are the last vestiges of it. The paper has no moral imperative to keep it going, and given the regular begging bowls that editor Katharine Viner puts out for people to contribute funds for the paper’s survival, it probably has bigger issues than the state and status of its theatre coverage to confront.

But what exactly is it fighting to stay afloat for? What to preserve if not the voice of one of its own acknowledged experts in the field? As yet another nail in the coffin of curated arts journalism is driven home, the urgency of finding new models for its survival is becoming ever more acute. Here at The Stage, we have seized this responsibility with alacrity, maintaining daily online and print columns and providing the richest source of UK theatre reviewing of any outlet in the UK. But we can’t be the last ones left standing.

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