In the Dallas and Fort Worth daily newspapers, there will no longer be separate reviews of many cultural organizations and events. The two city papers are former rivals, yet the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram have begun running the same review by the same writer. It’s the latest development in what has been a series of cutbacks affecting area arts reporting and reviewing. With newspapers across the country facing serous financial problems, maintaining an individual, local critic’s voice is no longer a priority, even when the arts in question are locally based.
A month ago, the Morning News and the Star-Telegram announced that the papers may collaborate in unspecified ways — beyond the joint distribution agreement the companies had already arranged. Frontburner, the D Magazine blog, ran a memo by DMN editor Bob Mong that said those unspecified ways would include “a few targeted areas of newsgathering.”
It became clear this past weekend what this will entail for North Texas arts: The two papers will run a single, shared review. In effect, there will be a single daily newspaper arts staff unevenly divided between the two newsrooms. The Star-Telegram, for example, doesn’t have a classical music critic on staff, but the Morning News does, so the News’ critic apparently takes over many of the duties for both cities. In visual arts, on the other hand, the Morning News doesn’t have a staff critic, but the Fort Worth paper does — and so on.
Both dailies have recently undergone buyouts and layoffs that reduced the number of writers and editors in their arts departments. The work of the few staff reviewers who remain are already augmented by a small pool of freelancers. The work of these freelancers, it seems, will also now be shared.
The guinea pig for this collaboration was the Dallas Morning News‘ classical music critic Scott Cantrell. His review of the Fort Worth Symphony’s November 21 performance ran in both publications. Then the News‘ theater critic Lawson Taitte reviewed Stage West’s production of The Code of the Woosters — with the review appearing in the Star-Telegram and the News. The sharing of reviews then went the other direction this past weekend when Fort Worth freelance writer Chris Shull’s take on the Texas Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker was used by both dailies.
So the cross-use of reviews has occurred in classical music, theater and dance, and with both staff and freelance writers. What this amalgamated arts coverage may eventually mean for those arts where both papers currently have staff critics (TV, film and pop music) is not clear. For instance, will the two book sections merge? What happens when a Fort Worth journalist has a scoop about a Fort Worth arts initiative — does it run simultaneously in the Morning News?
And how soon will this collaborative effort spread to sports? Business news? Crime reporting?
[Added 12/12 -- You'll note that Mong left Sports out of the discussion, which I thought significant at the time but it was out of the purview of this story. According to ex-Times Heralder Robert Wilonsky, the papers are indeed merging their sports coverage -- Jerome Weeks.]
Catherine Mallette (right), the features editor of the Star-Telegram, echoed Mong’s reply: “This is something we are trying out with the Dallas Morning News in our Features sections, and we’re still at the beginning stages. Our first meeting with them about the idea was less than 3 weeks ago. Exactly how it works is still a work in progress.”
Jerry Russell, producing director of Fort Worth’s Stage West, argues that sharing a single review in the two papers makes a “huge difference” to the affected arts organizations.
“We understand the financial problems that newspapers are facing,” he says. “But Lawson’s review [of The Code of the Woosters] ran in both papers, meaning there was only one viewpoint in print. And you can’t eliminate personal bias from reviews. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had diametrically opposed reviews of the same show. This isn’t hypothetical. It happens not because of the show but because of people’s differing tastes. But now you’re stuck with one viewpoint. None of us want the newspapers to fold, but to narrow things to one viewpoint, that’s deadly.”
In contrast, Theatre Three will be facing relatively little change with the collaborative coverage. The Dallas theater company was reviewed by Taitte and will continue to be reviewed by Taitte.
“But not always,” notes Jac Alder, Theatre Three’s executive producer-director. “Lawson’s already stretched so thin.” There are a number of local theater critics online, but Alder says, “the fact is, we know that playgoers are newspaper readers. They go to the newspapers.”
The reduction of the newspaper reviews to a single voice will be felt, he says. Perhaps not at the box office. “But the truth is, we depend to a certain degree on critics to evaluate where we are, how we’re doing. In the sense that they are part of an ecology that favors the arts, and they’re gone, we’re going to feel that.”
The newspapers’ need for such cost-cutting measures has become painfully clear in recent days. The McClatchy Co., owners of the Star-Telegram, is so financially strapped that it’s seeking to sell the Miami Herald — having already sold the San Jose Mercury News and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In addition, the Tribune Co., owners of the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, filed for Chapter 11 protection. In the Wall Street Journal article about the bankruptcy, reporter Shira Ovide wrote:
Newspapers have cut thousands of jobs this year, slashed stock dividends and taken other cost-saving measures to offset steep revenue declines. Even so, a number of publishers, including A.H. Belo Corp. [owners of the Dallas Morning News] and Sun-Times Media Group, are unprofitable on a cash-flow basis, a once unthinkable situation in the industry.
At a media conference Monday, Washington Post Co. Chief Executive Donald Graham said the company’s flagship newspaper will be unprofitable in 2008.
With newspaper revenue declining so quickly and fresh capital so hard to find, some publishers are expected to cut their losses and close their doors. “There’s no real light at the end of the tunnel,” said Fitch analyst Mike Simonton.
In light of this, Douglas Adams, president of the Dallas Symphony, says that if the alternative is no reviews, then he’s happy with a reduced selection of critics’ voices.
“If this is a creative arrangement that will keep reviews in print, then I think that’s wonderful. In the best of all possible worlds, of course, you’d like a lot of different reviews. I understand that completely. And I understand if I were in Fort Worth and now found all the reviews were coming from a Dallas critic. But better this than the alternative of none at all. And with Scott [Cantrell], at least you have someone who by golly knows what he’s talking about.”
Newspaper image from mediabistro/fishbowlLA