Daniel Rosenthal: Has cricket found the way to save regional theatre criticism?

Laurence Fox in The Real Thing: could cricket have more to offer theatre than plot devices? Photo: Edmond Terakopian
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Cricket reporting was in danger of disappearing from the local press when the sport’s governing body stepped in to fund reporters. Daniel Rosenthal explains how a similar scheme might revitalise theatre criticism nationwide

During my first, and only, full-time job as a writer – junior reporter on the Southern Daily Echo in Southampton, 1993-95 – the features editor occasionally asked the newsroom if anyone fancied reviewing a play at the city’s Nuffield Theatre, or the Theatre Royal, Winchester. I said “yes, please” several times: two free tickets, no extra pay.

To describe the Oxford Stage Company’s Pericles in Winchester, I had all of 130 words.

From 1996, as a freelance journalist in London, I was able, for about a decade, to sell preview features and interviews about theatre in Manchester, Leeds and other locations around the UK, mainly to the Times and Independent. Then, as the internet sent newspaper circulation into freefall, and pagination and budgets (especially for freelance contributors) shrank, such broadsheet articles became increasingly rare. In print, the Independent, whose preview coverage invariably boosted a featured production’s advance, has vanished altogether.

As the internet sent newspaper circulation into freefall, broadsheet articles on theatre became increasingly rare

This personal experience underpins my interest in The Stage’s recent stories about producer Nica Burns and dramatist Peter Nichols bemoaning this decline in coverage – especially national press reviewing from the regions. In November, playwright James Graham argued that drama criticism may require public subsidy. I think he’s right, and that theatre can borrow a model for this from an unlikely source: cricket.

In April 2014, the Press Association abruptly cancelled its contracts with the freelance cricket correspondents it paid to sit at county grounds and cover championship, one-day and T20 games played by the 18 first-class teams, filing reports carried by national and local newspapers, in print and online.

Instead, PA reporters in an office in Howden, East Riding of Yorkshire – hundreds of miles from on-field action at, say, Bristol or Canterbury – began basing reports on online scorecards. Inevitably, their copy was less authentic than that previously supplied by writers at the grounds.

This change alarmed the sport’s governing body, the England and Wales Cricket Board, whose financial relationship to the 18 counties is, in certain respects, comparable to the arts councils’ partnerships with theatres: club revenues from ticket sales, catering and sponsorship are supplemented by essential, seven-figure annual grants from the ECB.

In 2014, the ECB, with the Cricket Writers’ Club, paid the ex-PA stringers to retake their press-box seats for the second half of the April-to-September season, their reports again syndicated by PA. For £30,000, the ECB Reporters Network was born.

It has covered the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons, and expanded significantly, explains Andy Wilson, the ECB’s first county cricket media editor: “It now provides features and previews as well as match coverage, including women’s T20 Kia Super League and disability cricket. About 700-750 days’ cricket in all. That has increased the cost, to approaching £100,000 for [writers’ fees and central administration]. But that was important, so we could offer our network – all freelances – better terms.

“It’s by no means big money, certainly as an hourly rate, but it means we still have experienced, respected, independent journalists covering every day – whereas [for county cricket’s media profile] we were previously in danger of, ‘Tree falls in jungle. Nobody notices.’ ”

Network copy reaches newspapers and their websites, ECB and club websites and social media channels. City-based newspapers that had long since dispensed with salaried cricket correspondents now happily run cricket copy they do not have to pay for.

“In many cases,” says Wilson, “we see [our] reports run word-for-word in their entirety, often as page-leads.”

If ECB coverage of a Yorkshire match can appear in newspapers in Bradford, Hull, Leeds and York, could a reviewer for an equivalent set-up – let’s call it the Arts Council Critics’ Network – have their assessment of the latest show at West Yorkshire Playhouse printed in the same publications?

The ECB network covers about 750 days’ cricket, with 400 to 500-word reports for championship action. Imagine a network syndicating 500-word reviews from 750 press nights a year. Hundreds of shows currently reviewed in print only by The Stage and perhaps the newspaper closest to the venue would reach a wider audience.

The ECB budget gives a notional ‘unit cost’ of £135 per day’s cricket. A network reporter will be on duty from 10.30am to 7pm for a championship match, and a critic at the theatre from 7pm to 10pm or later (plus writing time). So, on hourly pay, let’s set a unit cost of £100 per review: £80 for the writer, £20 for administration (including a salaried commissioning and syndication editor) – £75,000 for 750 shows.

Despite the surge in peer-to-peer recommendation via social media, research by the National Theatre demonstrates that reviews by paid critics are still a key driver of ticket sales. If each network review persuaded its readers to buy as few as five £20 tickets for that show between them, an additional £75,000 would flow into theatre’s economy and the scheme would pay for itself.

Accounting for one-star reviews that fail to sell a single seat against five-star raves that sell hundreds, and weighing that against extra spending on refreshments and programmes, there’s a persuasive economic argument for arts councils to invest (even if not all reviewed shows are produced by their clients). If the network prospers, it would obviously be good to pay critics more than £80 per review.

Peter Nichols: ‘Regional criticism helped launch my playwriting career’

To Alex Bayley, the National’s director of audiences and marketing, the benefits of such a network are clear: “More reviewing will increase awareness of theatre being staged around the country. Theatres will promote online reviews through email and social media, bringing extra eyeballs to the publisher sites – this would help [their] advertising revenues.”

Arts council funding should safeguard the editorial independence that is scarcely a concern for the ECB; a team’s defeat by an innings cannot legitimately be termed a five-star performance, whereas two critics can deliver one and five-star reviews of the same Macbeth.

The principle by which Arts Council England contributes to the National’s production budgets but cannot tell Rufus Norris which directors to hire ought to guarantee readers’ faith in the integrity of publicly funded reviews. If critics’ fees came directly from playhouses, readers might suspect – particularly with five-star verdicts – that he who paid the typist would be calling the tune.

Let theatres and touring companies (as some already do) pay for travel or accommodation, so the critic’s fee does not go straight to train companies and budget hotel chains.

Many questions arise. For example, the London Evening Standard’s arts coverage is already “presented in partnership with Hiscox Home Insurance”. Could subsidy for the network be supplemented by commercial sponsorship?

There would also need to be serious consideration of which shows would be reviewed, and by whom. The Stage and Act for Change’s Widening the Lens debate at the NT last October stressed the need to diversify drama criticism, and in December, ACE announced a £500,000 grant for the Good Agency to “identify, nurture and promote” exceptional black, Asian and minority ethnic, working-class, disabled and LGBTQ authors. The network could be the ideal platform for an equivalent, smaller-scale commitment to new critical voices.

Could national newspapers, which are always willing to print the same, objective news agency report of a court case, be persuaded to carry subjective, syndicated reviews, rather than ones by their own critic? Is there a danger that free network copy would give those papers that still review widely outside London an excuse to cut loose second or third-string critics? Would local papers carry syndicated reviews from outside their immediate circulation area?

As theatre battles for media attention and audiences, it needs answers to these and many other questions. How about a summit, coordinated by The Stage, involving UK Theatre, the Society of London Theatre, arts councils, Critics’ Circle and senior editorial executives from major press groups, including Johnston Press, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror? Invite Andy Wilson to give a presentation, let summit delegates set the terms of an Arts Council-funded feasibility study with a quick turnaround and digest its results. Then launch the network.