While I was the theater critic for The Denver Post, I never quite understood the malicious glee so many seemed to be taking in the irreversible downward slide of the corporate newspaper industry, which went into a free-fall along with the global economy in 2008. But the end had really begun by our own hand back in 1996, when newspapers like ours started launching online web sites and giving their content away for free. (For the record: Information-gathering is not free.)
Careful what you wish for. Because newspaper staffs are shrinking as fast as news holes, and professional full-time theater critics are as endangered as the Dodo Bird. We are left with a new generation of civilian internet writers who have no economic incentive whatever to be tough or to take a contrary stand. As a result, the ethics of Internet theater criticism are getting ickier by the day.
We’re talking critics being paid to write reviews by the theater companies they cover. I’m not kidding: The smallest theater companies in Denver, now without much of a prayer of getting the attention of one of the few remaining, thinly stretched employed newspaper critics, have formed a club that offers dues-paying member companies the opportunity to have a local freelance journalist it retains to review their production—for fifty dollars a pop. Not much likelihood of a pan there. Meanwhile, invited Yelp.com citizen reviewers now often sit alongside working journalists on press nights for the Denver Center's big Broadway touring productions.
The result: a sea of acidic sunshine...and bad grammar.
Critical response to art is no longer visceral and real; it's bought and sold. We are witnessing the rapid erosion in trustworthy discourse from trained, consistent voices to help steer readers toward (subjectively determined) glorious theater, and away from (subjectively determined) chaff.
They say the audience completes the artistic process. Well, the critic is part of that audience. While the artist’s job is to “hold the mirror up to nature,” it is the critic’s sacred responsibility to hold the mirror up to the artists. But a mirror in which every reviewer sees only the perfect face of Snow White and never a warty old witch is a mirror cracked.
When it comes to arts criticism, the Internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. It would take the power away from those unqualified few lucky newspaper hacks like me, and put it into the hands of “the people.” And that has happened. The mighty have fallen, been reduced in scope and significance by the economy and their own editors, or, in my case, simply stepped aside. As a result, I was the last full-time, dedicated professional theater critic in Denver. There are now more than two dozen part-time or split-beat newspaper critics, along with freelancers and blogger critics who write to widely varying degrees of purpose, proliferation, and point. They are all well intentioned. But only a very few regularly hold the theater community to a higher artistic standard.
If “the media” is to blame for any given problem (and when is it not?), well, then, we’re all part of this problem. Because I define the media as anyone with distribution. That means anyone with a cushy staff job at a daily newspaper, anyone with a blog, or anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account. That means you, posting a status update saying, “This is the most moving piece of theater you will see in your life!”
Two things the new generation of self-starting blogger critics have in common: Almost none of them are paid anything close to gas money to write about theater. And, perhaps coincidentally—perhaps not—what they write is almost always insufferably, uselessly positive. Some do it for love. Some just want to cheerlead for the community, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Some hope it leads to bigger and better-paid writing gigs. But where are those gigs, exactly? Who is paying anyone a living wage to write about theater anywhere? No one, in part because there is no demand from consumers that “The Man” do so.
Speaking of, who is “The Man” anymore, anyway? The Examiner? The Huffington Post? Those are newfangled networks of web sites that publish articles by citizen journalists who are paid next to nothing. These companies make most of their money by aggregating content that someone else paid to produce. But because some content, like theater, is inescapably local, some things you have to bite the bullet and produce yourself.
The Examiner, for one, pays its local writers by a system that encourages them to both write, and then aggressively market their own work on the company’s behalf. Two birds, one stone and all. Because you don’t get paid if you don’t get the hits. After reaching a threshold, you get paid by the click. And not much per click. For a theater writer, we’re talking maybe twenty dollars a month. The more you circulate your links on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like, the more likely you are to garner enough clicks to treat yourself to a Burrito Supreme on your way from a theater it may have cost you twenty dollars to drive to.
That creates no incentive for a writer to say anything that is challenging, hard-hitting or even (egad!) outright negative. Because no one you are writing about will then participate in the proliferation of your link. Now, if you tell your readers to “run to see this show!!!” you will soon pop up in news feeds all over Facebook. And then, heck, why stop at a Burrito Supreme? Order yourself a full combo.
Here are the real consequences when the print media goes away and is replaced by all things electronic: First, there is no sense of where to go. There is no single source where everyone turns for a consensus of credible opinion. That, in turn, creates the second problem. “The opinions you do find are from amateur journalists who are not trained in how to observe, absorb, process or write about what they are responding to,” said Steve Wilson, who directs plays for Denver’s handicapped Phamaly Theatre Company. “Or worse, arts organizations themselves are writing or blogging or finding partisan people to do it for them, creating the slanted, hollow, politicized journalism that has diminished media since the rise of highly partisan talk radio.”
I think what’s really being lost is why and for whom theater critics are supposed to be writing in the first place. Not for the edification of the artist’s ego, but to help busy, beleaguered readers make difficult economic decisions about how to best spend their limited discretionary income. And that means being tough when necessary. Advocacy reviewers do no one any favors when they champion work that is not championship work. Not their readers. Not your company. Certainly not the writer’s own reputation.
Speaking for my own kind, the proliferation of unpaid novice theater writers has left no room—or presumed need—for anyone to hire experienced arts journalists. And when there is no employment in it, legit journalists are forced to scatter and find alternate ways of making a living wage in some other field.
If you have been following my theater coverage at CultureWest.Org, you would not be the first to call me a hypocrite. Because since August, I have very much become part of the problem. I am creating all kinds of newfangled theater content, and, yes, I am giving it away for free. Because no amount of entrepreneurship on my part would ever create a livable wage from it. The market is not big enough for that. No, I need a job. By going about my business covering theater as if I have an employer (when I don’t), I am contributing to the growing dis-incentive for anyone to hire me to do for pay what I am already amply doing for free.
But there is method to my madness. The day I stop producing content is the day I stop being relevant to the ongoing conversation about culture in Denver. In that event, if a real job ever does come around, I’m just the guy who “used to do it.” I choose instead to stay in the game. So I still do it, every day.
I just chose to stop writing theater reviews altogether. Because if I am ever going to take up that sacred responsibility again, one that includes holding your community to a consistent, higher standard of excellence, and one that invites all of the angry phone calls and voice mails and sleepless nights that come with it—you can be damn sure I am going to have to be getting paid by someone to do it.