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EDITORIAL: The Critical Cultural Coverage Gap

Today, according to Deadline, the New York Times quietly announced the wholesale elimination of its regional coverage of restaurants, galleries, theatres, music, and other mainstays of its culture sections. The newspaper’s retrenchment is one of the most significant changes ever made to its arts coverage, eliminating much of its coverage of the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) beyond New York City with a single stroke.

The problems facing the American newspaper industry are extensive; the New York Times, while large and hallowed in its history, is certainly not immune to them. Advertising revenues have declined steadily across the board; the most remunerative online ads today are either clickbait disguised as actual news coverage or simple clickbait (e.g., “7 products that will save your life”). At the same time, news organizations are increasingly distrusted as biased, unreliable, filled mistakes, and prone to sensationalism. None of these are necessarily new – or, indeed, qualities associated with the Times – but they are pressures that ultimately drive efforts to cut costs, including axing pages of newsprint and staff headcounts.

For an iconic newspaper like the New York Times to cut detailed coverage of the area where half of its subscribers live is a strategic decision that may confuse many. It certainly is a step with significant ramifications not just for the readers interested in this coverage, but for the businesses, cultural organizations, and assorted nonprofits whose patronage was driven or buoyed by coverage in the Times‘s pages. It is not, however, a step that is unimaginable – after all, around this time last year, a local paper here in the Twin Cities decided to jettison most of its cultural coverage.

Once upon a time, a longtime journalist decided to found a newspaper that would solve all of the problems in journalism that he perceived in his career. This online-only newspaper, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, soon became an important voice in local journalism and arts criticism, carrying important stories that did not run in the printed press and developing the sort of expansive critical coverage of music, dance, visual arts, and theatre that not only rivaled the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, but exceeded them. For a time, the Daily Planet‘s arts coverage was the most expansive critical arts journalism in the state of Minnesota, an achievement anchored by the awards it won and the stories it broke – and even more respectable given the overall shrinkage in coverage taking place in its print and print-online counterparts.

As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end; between 2013 and 2015, a sea change occurred as the old guard of the Daily Planet staff left. The new staff had many ideas, including two that may seem startling: first, to stop paying reviewers and writers, and second, to replace its arts coverage – coverage that brought in most of the paper’s readership and advertising views – with an unfortunate development called feelings journalism. These two were not unrelated: the long-time reviewers and other contributors who were perfunctorily told that the paper was moving in another direction wrote an entirely different type of journalism than what is found on the Daily Planet‘s pages today. Take a walk through its arts and culture section today, and you’ll find that it’s something of a ghost town – often, a month goes by with no more than an opinion piece or two. Strong journalism and critical coverage start with informed writers; while we wish the Daily Planet‘s latest arts editor well with what they are doing, they are walking down a path that we don’t want to follow.

One of the fears related to the New York Times cutbacks is that no one will rise to fill the void. A blog written by a skilled, informed writer is wonderful, but more the exception than the norm. (The Twin Cities arts scene has many excellent theatre bloggers, which is not at all the case everywhere). Creating an institution that has detailed critical coverage that readers rely on and trust, and which develops connections and finds insights beyond the surface…that takes time and connections.

At the Arts Reader, we were fortunate that a core group of our writers came over from the Daily Planet. Much as we like our 50,000 readers, the New York Times leaves some bigger shoes to fill than the ones we stepped into. Whoever takes up the baton…best of luck to you. Goodness knows there are a lot of people who want to do more than count stars on Yelp when selecting a restaurant, who like engaging with meaty or tempeh-infused reviews of shows, and like to carry on an informed virtual conversation about the gallery exhibition they saw – even if they didn’t like it to begin with. Facebook and other social media are increasingly filtered to what we already agree with. We know still a demand for informed, critical journalism in the world.

Twin Cities Arts Reader