It all started, with what now seems like grim inevitability, when the Independent on Sunday laid off all of its critics in one fell swoop exactly five years ago. This, it turned out, was a precursor to the Independent becoming the first UK national paper to go digital-only.
Then, the Sunday Telegraph followed suit, losing its own band of critics, including Tim Walker (now in a new home at the New European).
And, earlier this year, to widespread industry consternation, the Guardian chose not to renew the long-standing contract of Lyn Gardner, who worked alongside Michael Billington but also served a much more distinctive constituency as a champion and supporter of regional and fringe theatre. This role earned her the respect of theatremakers across the country, and led to her winning UK Theatre award for outstanding contribution to British theatre last year.
Theatre critics, already insecure in the media industry, suddenly felt very apprehensive: if this could happen to Lyn, it could happen to any of us. The Guardian has not formally replaced Gardner yet, but has been using a rotating round of freelance contributors to cover her former beat. This may usefully expand the range of voices reporting on theatre, but it also means there is no sense of continuity, through which a reader can grow to know the tastes and point of view of a critic.
A similarly grim trajectory has been happening in New York, where three papers – USA Today, New York Post and the New York Daily News – have all laid off their theatre critics in the last couple of years (Elysa Gardner, Elizabeth Vincentelli and Joe Dzieminanowicz, respectively). Time Out New York dispensed with its theatre editor David Cote, and the Village Voice – which went digital-only a year ago – entirely ceased publication last month, which means farewell to a regular critical perch for Michael Feingold.
The world of paid journalism is getting ever smaller. It has just shrunk again, as, back in the UK, Whatsonstage.com announced this week that it is dropping its opera coverage and with it long-serving (and much-admired) opera critic Mark Valencia.
All of this comes at a time when there’s been an enormous proliferation in the number of other online outlets – whether personal or under umbrella sites – to fill the vacuum. But few do (or can) remunerate their contributors. So we’re rapidly seeing a new model for criticism emerging: one in which only hobbyists and retirees, or those who are financially independent, will be able to pursue a ‘career’ in the field. The arts world constantly talks up diversity as an aspiration; but this will inevitably lead to reduced diversity in the field of arts criticism.
Michael Gove famously declared during the EU referendum campaign “people in this country have had enough of experts”. Look where that has got us: standing on the knife-edge of a political change that is going to have long-lasting economic and social repercussions. The loss of experts in the critical world may not, immediately, cost as much, but as I once said to a prominent West End theatre owner on a first night: “You’ll miss us when we’re gone.”
Then, seeing a colleague, I quickly corrected myself: “You’ll miss some of us when we’re gone.”
That day seems to be arriving faster than ever.
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