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'Star' scales back on reviewing arts events, much to promoters' dismay

December 15, 2008
As much as people in the arts wince at a critic's stinging words, there is one thing they dread more than an unfavorable review: no attention at all.

The Indianapolis Star, the state's largest daily newspaper, has scaled back its roster of critics in recent years — a reduction in coverage that put the onus on local arts promoters to get the word out through other channels, such as blogs.

"You reach people by the handful, not by the hundred," said Megan McKinney, former public relations manager for the Indiana Repertory Theatre. "It can be really labor-intensive."

After a round of layoffs at The Star this month, promoters worry that coverage will become even more sparse. The ax that fell on the Star, and newsrooms throughout parent Gannett Co., caught the paper's lone reviewer for theater, dance and classical music, Whitney Smith. A total of 20 newsroom jobs disappeared.

"We were shocked by the Star's announcement," said Jessica DiSanto, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Symphony CEO Simon Crookall and Glen Kwok, executive director of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, hastened to act on behalf of local arts executives. They have arranged a meeting with Editor Dennis Ryerson.

"We're looking forward to seeing what the Star's plan is," DiSanto said. "In this town, the number of performances has really gone up in the last several years. For one person to cover it all was a lot to ask."

In a column published in The Star Dec.7, Ryerson said arts coverage would continue. Jay Harvey, a former jazz critic who has been working on the copy desk for several years, will take over for Smith.

"We used to have more people covering City Hall than we do now," Ryerson said. "It's just the nature of the business. Resources have declined."

Yet Ryerson said he couldn't bear to see arts coverage decline further.

"Personally, the arts are important to me," he said. "We agonize over these decisions. That's why we just immediately asked Jay if he'd be willing to pick up where Whitney left off."

Ryerson said staff members at The Star's Indy.com want to pitch in on arts coverage.

"This is an opportunity for us now to kind of rethink some things," he said. "We want to do more than just what's happening onstage."

But the bottom line is The Star is making do with less. Smith used to concentrate on dance and music and wrote features. He picked up theater reviews after Nick Crews, a full-time critic, departed in May 2006.

The Star has not dedicated a reporter to visual arts since April 2007, when part-timer Skip Berry left. A few years before that, a column by art and architecture critic Steve Mannheimer disappeared.

"We heard more from the arts organizations than we did from readers themselves when we made these choices," Ryerson noted.

Not all arts managers are squawking. Steven Stolen, managing director at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, thinks that if local arts patrons demanded high-quality criticism, the daily newspaper would supply it.

"I'm not sure there's a great tradition in this community of critical writing," Stolen said. "Coverage at all is the highest priority."

In cities nationwide, fewer full-time journalists are covering the arts for daily newspapers. After Gannett's companywide cuts, the inside-theater publication Playbill noted the loss of another Broadway critic, Jacques le Sourd, at Westchester Journal. His departure came on the heels of New Jersey Star-Ledger critic Michael Sommers' taking a buyout a month earlier.

Ryerson noted that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Dallas Morning News are sharing arts writers, an arrangement they would not have tolerated five years ago.

"It's now becoming a largely freelance kind of profession," said Douglas McLennan, director of the National Arts Journalism Program, a member organization. McLennan, who lives in Seattle, estimates that layoffs and attrition eliminated 1,200 of 5,000 full-time jobs covering the arts, either as a reporter or critic, over the last 18 months.

In the beginning, arts groups protested mightily, McLennan said. "Those protests have gotten weaker and weaker."

In Minneapolis, Minnesota Orchestra spokeswoman Gwen Pappas said influential board members from every classical music group in town signed a letter to the Star-Tribune after Mike Anthony, a critic with 30 years under his belt, was let go.

But it did no good. The Star-Tribune and its rival, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, now use experienced freelancers, Pappas said.

"I have to say that both newspapers are doing their very best to continue to cover classical music in a meaningful way, and with a fair amount of frequency," he said.

New strategies

Arts groups are picking up on the same strategies used by political campaigns and corporate marketers-e-mail campaigns, blogging and other unconventional approaches.

"In some ways, arts organizations are having to reinvent themselves as media organizations as well," said McLennan, a critic who founded the digest ArtsJournal.com.

In one example, the Metropolitan Opera is broadcasting its shows in movie theaters around the country, and through satellite radio.

The task is not easy, especially for small groups performing before newspaper-reading audiences.

"When we ask people, that's where they get their information. They're baby boomers," said Bryan Fonseca, producing director of the Phoenix Theatre.

Fonseca said reviews coming at the top of a multi-date run have immense power to fill seats.

"Our shows would still sell better, that got a negative review, than got no coverage whatsoever," he said. "People are still reading between the lines."

Nevertheless, Fonseca said his colleagues at the Phoenix decided a year ago that it was time they wean themselves off the daily paper.

They're trying to determine how each play might appeal to special interest groups. In promoting "Love Person," for example, Fonseca said the theater will be looking to the deaf community, gay community and even people who study dead languages — because one of the characters is a professor of Sanskrit.

At the ISO, DiSanto said she's researching blogs, like one the Minnesota Orchestra started to complement its "Inside the Classics" series. The authors are series host Sam Bergman and conductor Sarah Hicks.

"There are so many different options and ways to be communicating with your audience," DiSanto said.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art launched a blog last year to tell people who spend a lot of time online about second-tier events at the museum, spokeswoman Katie Zarich said.

Zarich said most local journalists have to cover a variety of topics.

"It makes us have to supply quite a bit of information, which we're happy to do," she said.

For expert criticism, Zarich said, the museum seeks attention from people like Tyler Green, who blogs about modern art for ArtsJournal.com.

"Whenever we get covered in Tyler's blog, we know we're reaching the right audience," she said.

Room for more voices

The decline in the number of full-time journalists follows a long build-up in spending on arts. In the 1990s, the nation spent $25 billion constructing new museums, theaters and concert halls, McLennan said.

Locally, the growth continued into the 2000s. The city of Carmel is building its performing arts center, despite the price tag's escalation from $80 million to $125 million. The Indianapolis International Airport dedicated $3.89 million to public art in its new $1.1 billion terminal.

A select few news organizations, namely The New York Times and Bloomberg News, recognized the trend by adding full-time staff, McLennan said. (IBJ added Arts and Entertainment Editor Lou Harry to its lineup in May 2007.)

"It's a huge missed opportunity for newspapers," he complained. "The cultural world has gone through its greatest growth period in the history of the country."

McKinney, the former Indiana Repertory Theatre public relations manager, is preparing to roll out a local arts talk show on public radio station WICR-FM 88.7 in January. It will be the station's second promoting local arts.

"I have another opportunity to use my own medium to help compensate for some of the coverage the Star is lacking," said McKinney, executive director of the Fine Arts Society, which provides programming for the jazz-classical station.

As newspapers cut back, the field is opening to bloggers. In Indianapolis, bloggers have emerged to cover classical music (MahlerOwesMeTenBucks.blogspot.com), visual arts (on-the-cusp.blogspot.com), and theater, though not all of them write reviews.

Hope Baugh, a 47-year-old librarian, launched IndyTheatreHabit.comalmost a year ago. Right away, theater press agents offered complimentary tickets, she said. Her site attracts 4,500 unique visitors a month.

"I have a reputation of being a cheerleader," Baugh admitted.

Baugh also is a professional storyteller and doesn't want to earn a living as a critic.

"There still needs to be authoritative people writing about the arts, and doing it full time," she said. "This is a hobby that has taken over my life. I don't know if I can keep it up forever."
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