8 TCG Conference Miami. Photo by John Moore.

National theatre conference addresses crisis in arts journalism

DCPA Theatre Company Commissioned playwright Regina Taylor addresses a panel conference on arts journalism in Miami. Photo by John Moore.

The decimation of the traditional media structure has artists and journalists alike re-examining their surprisingly shared values

There is a widespread meme on social media that says: “First, they came for the journalists. … We don’t know what happened after that.”

Theatre-makers – and their audiences – suddenly can relate.

The ongoing collapse of the mainstream media began with the worldwide economic downturn but, unlike other rebounding industries, corporate media is never coming back to its former glory. And that downturn has inflicted significant collateral damage on a performing-arts industry that is only now beginning to fully appreciate its reliance on dedicated local arts journalists. Theatre-makers who have been telling stories for centuries are now looking around at empty press seats and asking: “Who is left to tell stories about the stories we are telling?”

Newspaper newsroom employees dropped by 45 percent from 2008 to 2017. More than 1 in 5 newspapers have closed since 2004. Those that remain, including the once mighty Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Denver Post and Miami Herald, no longer have even one full-time, dedicated arts critic, let alone one per art form. The drop-off in theatre critics has been even more dramatic. Bill Hirschman, President of the American Theatre Critics Association, told the Columbia Journalism Review that 20 years ago, there were easily 100 full-time theatre critics across the country. Now he can count on his fingers those who remain among his 220 members. That has meant fewer reviews, fewer previews, fewer profiles – and a lesser informed potential theatre audience. And that is affecting the bottom line for theatres of every status and budget size.

“There has been a massive decline in ticket revenue at theatres all across the country, and I think it’s because of the decimation of the traditional media structure.” – Dámaso Rodríguez

“There has been a massive decline in ticket revenue at theatres all across the country, and I think it’s because of the decimation of the traditional media structure,” said Dámaso Rodríguez, Artistic Director of Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon. A decline in arts coverage, he added, brings with it a decline in community visibility. It negatively impacts fundraising. Without consistent media coverage, more and more companies are now performing in a vacuum.

Arts journalists and theatre-makers, long thought to be adversaries, were brought together this month for the Theatre Communications Group’s annual conference in Miami as suddenly strange bedfellows sharing a mutual desire for the survival and proliferation of professional arts journalism. The worsening crisis was treated with an urgency equal to climate change and gender parity as primary discussion topics at the conference, which drew about 900 industry professionals to South Florida.

Emerging funding models for arts journalism

But there is some hope. One panel served to champion new funding models for widely varying nascent journalism platforms that are beginning to take root throughout the country. And it is both self-appointed new critical voices and scrappy veteran journalists who are largely leading this small wave against the tide. Here are a few examples that were examined at the conference:

  • Artburst Miami is an online media bureau covering the arts in Miami-Dade County. It was founded six years ago by the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs and the Knight Foundation after South Florida’s two daily newspapers eliminated all arts-writing positions. Artburst pays freelance journalists to write articles, reviews, previews and features on local theatre, film, dance and music.
  • Rescripted is a collective of 10 young Chicago theatre professionals (seven of color) whose mission is to critically engage with Chicago artists and audiences using an empathetic lens, while also cultivating and training the next generation of critical voices ages 16 to 24. Rescripted co-founder Regina Victor sees their coverage as a conversation between fellow artists. “When we see a show, we can apply our own expertise and cultural awareness to give you a fair, honest critique through our lens,” they said. “Our writers don’t pretend to be anything we aren’t. We’re biased and we’re going to let you know that.”
  • The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is believed to be the only arts organization in the country that has proactively hired a known local theatre journalist to a full-time staff position to work as a shared asset for the entire theatre community. After longtime Denver Post theatre critic John Moore took a buyout in 2012, the Denver Center found itself still having stories to tell but no longer having a dedicated reporter to tell them. So it hired Moore (the author of this piece) to launch the DCPA NewsCenter, which has since published more than 2,000 previews, profiles, videos and news stories – everything but reviews – from a variety of contributing writers. In its first four years of measurable data, Google Analytics credits the NewsCenter with bringing 3 million unique visitors to the Denver Center’s website and driving just under $2 million in ticket sales.
  • Arts Atl, founded in 2009, is a nonprofit collective of 10 freelance writers and interns who offer independent coverage of the Atlanta creative scene spanning art, design, music, film, TV, theatre, dance and books. Coverage includes interviews, reviews and trend stories. Content is paid for by ad sales, foundation philanthropy and donations.
  • Show-Score is a privately funded website that organizes organizes critic and audience reviews for all New York theatre productions. Boasting a database of 320,000 user reviews, Show-Score serves essentially as a Rotten Tomatoes or TripAdvisor for theatre.

Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, right, and her sister, Gabriela Sanchez, at the TCG Conference in Miami. Photo by John Moore.

Is there an unexpected bright side?

Ironically, the dawn of the post-print media has brought with it an explosion in new storytelling forms such as podcasts, videos and Instagram Stories. The proliferation of blogs and small internet collectives means there are probably more self-appointed critics writing about theatre than ever before. They just aren’t getting paid (much, if at all), and readership at these startups is a fraction of what daily newspapers once delivered. The new models listed above represent very few full-time, salaried positions, which calls into question their long-term sustainability over time.

But the downfall of the traditional media has come with some positive side effects. Under the old model, salaried critics have long tended to be highly educated, articulate … and, overwhelmingly, white men. But in this new era where anyone with a blog or a social handle can weigh in with an (unpaid) opinion, the old rules of who gets to be a critic have been obliterated. And artistic leaders are finding there is now much more diverse representation among critical voices. As Arts Atl Theatre Editor Kelundra Smith put it: “New voices are hopping the fences.” If you can only find them in the crowded abyss that is the internet.

The reviews, in review

With arts journalism in such flux, one major convention topic was the shifting place and perceived value of the traditional theatre review. Artistic leaders still value reviews for legitimizing up-and-coming companies in the eyes of national funding organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts. Old-guard readers still rely on a trusted independent voice to steer them to – or from – a performance.

Still, the convention provided an opportunity for journalists and artistic leaders alike to re-examine what makes for a useful theatre review.

Wesley Morris, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural commentator for The New York Times, says the primary question critics should be asking themselves when reviewing any art is not, “What are you doing right or wrong?” It’s simply: “What are you doing?’ ” Regina Taylor, author of Crowns and a commissioned playwright with the DCPA Theatre Company, offered clear guidelines for what she looks for in a theatre review:

  • “A description of the piece.”
  • “For the writer to provide context.”
  • “For the writer to provide a history of the writer’s previous works and how the current piece ties into that.”
  • “Fairness.”
  • “An acknowledgement of what I am trying to do in terms of the piece.”
  • “And from there, have I accomplished that or not?”

She added: “I am uncomfortable with speculation, gossip and criticism that has nothing to do with the work.”

Portland’s Dámaso Rodríguez added to her list:

  • “An acknowledgement of the playwright’s degree of difficulty.”
  • “I do not like criticism that is thumbs up or thumbs down, or seems to be checking boxes on a list.”
  • “And I am looking for a delicacy of tone.”

The final journalism panel at the conference idealistically asked whether the decimation of the traditional media structure and its aftermath is actually effecting a kind of reconciliation between surviving arts journalists and the companies they cover.

“Here we’ve had this grumpy, antagonistic relationship with journalists over the years out that, it turns out, was truly vital,” Rodríguez said.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Photo gallery: Sights from the 2019 TCG Conference in Miami

One of the featured performers at the TCG Conference in Miami was Denver native Thaddeus Phillips, who performed his ‘Inflatable Spaces’ at the Colony Theatre. Photo by John Moore.