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I blinked…More Arts Critics Eliminated at Major Papers.

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…and now I have several items of bad news to report. Absorbed in the intricacies of first-year Latin and stunned by the Karajan Renaissance, I missed a few weeks of music world news. It seems to happen in the spring, whether it is in Atlanta or Minneapolis. Cutting costs right and left, managers in the traditional print media have been busy firing critics once again. Last May the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cut back on arts reviews and eliminated its specifically assigned arts reviewers, the Minneapolis Star Tribune eliminated the position of full-time classical music critic, and New York Magazine fired its illustrious music critic Peter G. Davis. This year it’s the Seattle Times, the LA Weekly, and the New York Times, which ran an article last June about the casualties of the previous spring after the news had done the rounds of various professional journals and blogs, some of which printed letters of protest. This year the toll is even more serious, but so far there hasn’t been much response outside of Musical America and the Music Critics Association of North America Web site. (Click here for their compilation of reports and letters., and here for my own comments.) And this year, I doubt we can look forward to an article in the New York Times.

In mid-April the Seattle Times, as part of a downsizing of 200 staffers, bought out Melinda Bargreen, who has been on the staff for 31 years. Her position is considered expendable by the management and will not be filled. (Click here for her farewell article.) Around the same time, LA Weekly, a subsidiary of the troubled Village Voice Media, eliminated the position Alan Rich, 83, who has written a highly regarded column, “A Lot of Night Music,” for the past 16 years, terminating its regular classical music coverage. (Click here for his parting shots.) Just before that the Voice itself had laid off its film critic, Nathan Lee, as well as its dance critic of forty years, Deborah Jowitt. As Susan Elliot has reported in Musical America (May 13, 2008), The New York Times has been seeking to eliminate 100 employees from its newsroom of around 1330 through attrition and buy-outs, and in the course of this senior music critic Bernard Holland, Jennifer Dunning, dance critic, Diane Nottle, deputy editor for classical music and dance, Gwen Smith, assignments coordinator for dance and art, and Lawrence Van Gelder, senior editor, are going, leaving the paper with one full-time dance critic, two full-time music critics, as well as James R. Oestreich, editor of classical music and dance, and a couple of free-lancers. This is dire news indeed, since the New York Times has had such a preeminent reputation for its arts coverage, although it has perhaps been out-performed by the Wall Street Journal and other financial newspapers in recent years.

Alan Rich, for example, has already taken up a position at Bloomberg. (He will also maintain his own site, So I’ve Heard.) One could say that along with an undeniable shrinkage in arts journalism (Columbia closed its national program in 1995.), there has been a shifting of the remaining resources away from the dailies to more specialized publications. While the Financial Times has maintained especially distinguished coverage of the arts for some years, other publications, like Bloomberg, Fortune, and Forbes have found glamour in it as a complement to restaurant reviews, articles on expensive travel, and art and antiques. New York Magazine after firing Peter G. Davis is left with no classical music content worth mentioning. Online media—blogs and magazines like the Berkshire Review for the Arts—now provide a wealth or reviews, commentaries, and resources, unrestricted by the necessarily secondary position of the arts in daily newspapers. The appointment of a music director like Alan Gilbert or the Met’s Tristan agonies must yield to former governor Spitzer’s exciting lifestyle or the latest progress in the Middle East, although Riccardo Muti, in his recent appointment as music director of the Chicago Symphony did not fare too badly. As the Internet further undercuts the viability of the print media, arts coverage of all kinds and qualities flourishes. Most revealing of all is the way in which Alex Ross, music critic of the New Yorker—a position as solid as any in journalism—supports both his magazine reviews and his recent, very well received book, The Rest is Noise, with a blog of the same title.

It must also be said that the Web sites of the arts institutions themselves provide more and more information for the public, whether through season schedules, educational programs or other programs (although hardly objective reviews), and local resources like Cultural Pittsfield and greylocknews provide valuable services, to name only local examples.

You might think that an online journalist might derive some satisfaction from the success of his medium. That is not the case, however. I’m worried. As I stated in the article I wrote about the subject last year, classical concerts, opera, theater, dance performances and the rest all have a traditional and perennially valid place in the context of the daily local news. Whether it is New York, Atlanta, or Pittsfield, Massachusetts, cultural events remain a vital part of the daily life of the city, and an informed critical voice belongs on the pages of daily newspapers as long as they continue to survive, which may not be long.

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