NEW YORK CITY: And another one bites the dust. On Aug. 28, The New York Times published its final pieces of dedicated cultural coverage for New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as New York counties Westchester and Long Island. While the Times will continue covering arts and culture in the five boroughs of New York City, it is discontinuing regular articles about restaurants, art galleries, and theatres in the Tri-state region. The Times cutback affects about two dozen writers, including Michael Sommers*, David Dewitt, and Sylviane Gold, who regularly covered and reviewed non-NYC theatres.
The shift is part of a larger revamping of the paper’s Metropolitan section, which appears every Sunday in The New York Times in print, according to Danielle Rhoades Ha, vice president of corporate communications for the Times. “Senior leaders at the Times, including executive editor Dean Baquet, have publicly said we are investing in areas that will help us grow internationally and rethinking other areas of coverage, considering 90 percent of our audience is outside of New York,” she wrote in an email.
A new focus on the international market was signaled by Metro editor Wendell Jamieson in June, in an interview with Joe Pompeo of Politico. “I’m trying to reimagine coverage of what I believe is the greatest city in the world as part of a global news organization,” he said. “How do you cover New York differently when you’re covering it for the world as well as local readers?”
For theatre companies outside of New York City’s five boroughs, this loss in coverage is the latest in a downward trend in which newspapers nationwide are cutting back on arts coverage.
“The landscape of press and media has changed so much in recent years that, in terms of a direct impact on our theatre, we are looking at this as another bump in a very rocky road,” said John Dias, artistic director of Two River Theater in New Jersey, which was regularly reviewed by the Times. “We are concerned about our family of artists and the ecosystem of the field.”
According to John McEwen, executive director of New Jersey Theatre Alliance, while New Jersey has 33 professional theatre companies, local papers such as The Star-Ledger, which used to cover the entire state, now tend to spotlight the same three to five larger theatres (including Two River). The Times‘ coverage of the region was helping to fill that gap, McEwen said: “They would go to Trenton, and go to Passage Theatre, and Luna Stage in West Orange. These are smaller companies that are doing incredible work by new artists, and they would get covered periodically.”
McEwen believes that the loss of Times coverage will impact these smaller theatres and newer institutions the most, which have less visibility and are usually the most dependent on press to inform readers about their work. A Times review, in particular, could mean a revenue boost, both with ticket buyers and funders.
“Certainly an upcoming theatre, a theatre that is primarily doing new work—I believe it will have an unfortunate impact on them,” he said. In response, ArtPride New Jersey, a nonprofit arts advocacy organization, has launched a petition. And NJ Theatre Alliance has sent a letter to Times executive editor Dean Baquet and Metro editor Jamieson.
Mark Lamos, artistic director of Westport County Playhouse in Connecticut, has sent his own letter to the editor, signed by him and six other artistic directors of theatres in his state. For him, it’s not the loss of potential revenue from a Times review that is the problem (Westport was regularly reviewed by the paper). It’s the loss of information, especially for locals who depended on the Times for news about the arts in their state—including Lamos himself.
“Who cares about the five boroughs [of NYC] if you live in Trumbull, Conn.?” he said. “The main reason to have anything about your theatres in the Times is, it just lets people know you’re there, you’re functioning, and your heart is beating. To suddenly not have that presence, it’s greatly going to diminish our chances of reaching a wide range of audiences—not only weekenders in Connecticut but also residents who live here full-time.”
In his June article for Politico, Pompeo posited that money was the reason for changes at the Times. There’s been a continual loss of ad revenue in the newspaper business, and the paper had hit the ceiling on how many American readers it could persuade to subscribe, so the next obvious market would be international readers. Wrote Pompeo, “If it can’t get more money out of the same customers, it must find new ones.”
And so Times readers in the Tri-state area will join the mass of undifferentiated American readers of a paper covering a city near them; they will no longer be able to think of the Times as “their” paper as well. Ha explained that the areas in the paper that are being discontinued had “limited reader interest”—a statement that puzzled McEwen.
“I’m not really clear on what the Times is basing that on,” he said. “I know many, many people in the metro areas that look forward to that Metro section, as a way of getting good local coverage, and being introduced to a wide range of interesting stories about the cultural community in their area.”
This doesn’t mean that the Times is eliminating all non-NYC coverage. The culture desk will continue to send reporters and critics to the regions on a case-by-case basis, such as a recent story by Manny Fernandez about the Midland Community Theater in Texas, or Charles Isherwood’s recent report from repertory theatres in Oregon and Ontario.
But for many artists, the loss of Times reviews is just a reminder that theatres have to take responsibility for their own stories. They can no longer depend on journalists to attract audiences for them. Many nonprofits nationwide have started their own in-house publications to market themselves, such as the Denver Center of the Performing Arts, which hired former Denver Post theatre critic John Moore to oversee and create content; Moore had taken a buyout from the Post. Or it may be up to arts advocacy nonprofits to fill the news holes, such as the creation of @This Stage Magazine from Los Angeles Stage Alliance, or American Theatre magazine.
“I think the latest twist in the chain of events has propelled us to think even more strategically on how we can work together as a community,” said McEwen. “What other partners do we bring to the table? Are there ways to utilize our audiences? We look at our audiences, our trustees, our investors—what ambassador roles can they play on our behalf and how can we utilize that? Are there ways to utilize theatre and drama students, and journalism majors?”
In the world of Yelp, Facebook, and Twitter, digital word of mouth may increasingly take precedence over legacy journalism in letting people know about shows. Lamos admitted that for the most recent Westport production of What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton, the theatre did not use any quotes from reviews in its marketing efforts, and they still made the ticket sale goals, and then some.
“We’re not sure how we did it,” Lamos said. “We just got the name of the show out there. We had some great graphics.” For him, it’s a sign that theatres no longer have to be dependent on the press—and maybe being less dependent is a good thing. Not to mention, he added with a laugh, “It might be nice not to have to worry about the bad reviews anymore.”
*A previous version of this story had Alvin Klein as one of the reporters affected by the changes at the Times. Klein has been deceased for the last seven years. We’ve replaced his name with Michael Sommers, who we know is still alive.