Journalism in the 21st century has taken a lot of hits, and by now the ritual sacrifice has become familiar: As ad dollars flee, print pages shrink, newsrooms empty out, and freelancers or wire services take up the slack. Buyouts or layoffs of arts writers, especially, are epidemic, even in major cities with robust arts scenes to cover. And we have become all too used to a sub-genre of this familiar narrative: the theatre critic downsized out of a job.
Less familiar is the story of the noble exit, the resignation on principle, which is the route that Linda Winer, veteran theatre critic of Long Island’s single remaining daily, Newsday, is taking. In an email to colleagues over the weekend she announced that she would leave the post she’s occupied since 1987 on May 12, after finishing reviews for the current Broadway season and turning in a summer arts preview. “I still love reviewing,” she wrote, “but chose not to go in Newsday‘s inevitable new directions.”
Winer’s beef, it should be clear, is not with her employers, about whom she had nothing but kind words in a brief interview today. She’s instead stepping down in protest over (or surrender to) the apparent collective indifference of readers to arts criticism, as a chill wind of click metrics has blown through the profession and shriveled word counts even for the most venerable of critical voices. After nearly 50 years on the aisle, Winer made clear, groveling for clicks is not how she wants to spend the rest of her life.
How are you?
I’m really okay. It’s so sweet how everyone goes, are you okay?
I was surprised to get your email over the weekend.
I really have been planning to do this for a long time. I thought I should wait until this season was over. This has been sort of a busy, wonderful, grown-up season, which is good in one sense, but on the other hand gives me the feeling of: Holy shit, what did I do? It’s a feeling I get sometimes now when I’m sitting in the theatre. This has been my life for 48 years, since I started at the Chicago Tribune in 1969, where I was the theatre and dance critic until 1980. Then I went to the New York Daily News for two years, then USA Today for five.
I joined Newsday in 1987, because New York Newsday was hiring lots of people then—it was a real writer’s paper. They let us really write. Do you remember at the end of Nicholas Nickleby, how after all his travails he gets to go to work for Cheerybles? I felt like I’d gone to work for Cheerybles. The more I wrote columns that got me in hot water, the more I got notes from editors saying, “Great, keep it up!”
But then New York Newsday folded, and the job has been shrinking ever since. I’ve been writing 400-word reviews for a while now, and the column, which started out as a “politics of the arts” column, then became a theatre column, then turned into a reported feature calling itself a column. I have to say that the reviews, even at 400 words, are still so much fun for me. But with the new digital world, there’s too much stuff I don’t want to do.
Do you mean social media?
There’s a lot of item listing, hot stuff and New York City picks and flash and buzz, photo galleries and listicles and all that. And there’s a push toward more feature writing. I have nothing but wonderful feelings about Newsday—have had for 30 years, and continue to have them. But newspapers have to go in a different direction, and I actually don’t want to go in that direction. I hope I’m still going to be able to do reviewing, but I don’t know. I’m not hopping to another job, for first time in my life. I don’t have a plan. But I want to do more satisfying writing. And I want to ride more horses—I’m having my prepubescent girl-horse thing really late.
So you’ll be taking a bit of break.
No, I’m not retiring—to me that sounds like hot tubs and mojitos, and I like both of those, but that isn’t going to be my whole life.
I have to just say, I enjoyed your recent interview with Jesse Green, until it got to the subject of women critics, and then my head began to spin off. From 1980 until Elisabeth Vincentelli came on at New York Post in 2009, replacing Clive Barnes, I was the only female first-string critic in New York. I was the only woman at the New York Drama Critics Circle for years and years; I was like the mascot. Reading your piece, I felt that I had been erased, and that was sad for me and sad for women writers.
I apologize; I didn’t mean to give that impression. It’s probably true that I’ve taken you too much for granted, which is terrible, given how encouraging you’ve been to me and other writers of my generation.
I’m glad to hear that. Did you have any other questions?
Well, to clarify, are you leaving specifically because your editors were asking you to do listicles and photo galleries?
I was expected to do things like that more and more, and looking into the near future, there were just going to be more and more. That wasn’t the direction I wanted to go.
I didn’t realize your reviews were 400 words—all of them, even for big shows?
It was 375 words for a long time, but I kind of pushed it. I’ve been taking advantage.
This is for the print newspaper, right? Did the idea of writing longer pieces online ever come up?
No. They’re doing other things on the web, but not theatre criticism. We don’t get clicks. Do I really, after 48 years, want to think about how to make my stuff clickbait? The answer is no. I mean, I embrace the web; I’m not saying that I don’t. I just didn’t want to become a list maker.
You don’t mean like year-end Top 10 lists…
No, those are summaries—I like summaries. They make sense, because they give context. But I don’t want to have to list, you know, “What are the Top 10 toys of the new Star Wars movies?” Not that anyone has asked me to do that, but that’s my terror.
And you do all the Tony race stuff.
Yes, all the Tony speculation—who will win, who should win—that is all part of my delightful job. You know, I’ve done a bunch of backstage feature stories, and those have been sort of interesting to me for a while, and I’m glad I did them. But I don’t want to do more.
That’s interesting. I know very well about the declining readership for reviews, but I hadn’t heard that there’s a commensurate increase in feature writing. I guess that’s encouraging, though I still cherish criticism.
As with all newspapers, I think Newsday is feeling their way through this. I completely respect everything they have to do to keep newspapers alive, because I love newspapers. I get five newspapers delivered to my door every morning; I’m supporting the whole industry. I think doing more features is what they need to do to survive; it’s not what I need to do to survive. Please don’t make it sound like I have any gripe against the paper. It’s just that the job changed and changed and changed into something I was less and less interested in.
But this season has been interesting, you say.
Yes. I just finished my review of Six Degrees of Separation, and tonight I’m reviewing Bandstand and then A Doll’s House Part II. Also for 25 years I’ve taught critical writing to dramaturgs at Columbia, and my last class is Tuesday. I really don’t know how much theatre I’m going to be seeing after this. It depends on whether there’s anybody who wants me to. I used to say that they were going to have pry my cold fingers from the ledge. But I’m letting go.
I’m distraught about it, but I get it: to have your level of experience and knowledge, and to see shows you have a lot of interesting things to say about, but then to only have 400 words to say them with, it’s so out of proportion.
It’s crazy-making. It’s been like that for several years. I always tell my students: It’s not the yes or no but the why. And trying to discuss the why in such short spaces is really hard.
I should know this—you’ve probably even told me—but what led you to this career in the first place?
My degree was in music, I was a pianist—actually I should say my major was piano, I wouldn’t say I was a pianist. There was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship for the training of classical music critics. I tell my students: I know it’s boring to hear that the ’60s were so much better, but can you imagine the Rockefeller Foundation doing that now? So they picked four people from around the country that year, and I was one; the second year was an apprenticeship at the Chicago Tribune. This was at a time when the country was beginning to think that the arts were cool. And at the Tribune, there was no problem being a woman; Chicago had a great tradition of strong women critics. Which is why I was so surprised when I came to New York and saw all the men on the aisle. I thought, what’s going on here?
That’s right, Richard Christiansen’s predecessor was…
Claudia Cassidy. She was there for decades, and people would buy the paper just to read her. Tennessee Williams said she discovered him. If she were a man, there would be a theatre named after her.
At least in Chicago, right?
There is a small one there, but I was fighting to help make it happen on a larger scale; at some point I had to stop. I do think that in terms of women, things are getting better. But it’s slow, very slow. It’s that, “Don’t move too fast,” which is ridiculous—we’ve always been here. There have been a lot of Off-Broadway critics who are women. The general feeling has been, “It’s arty, so the girls can do it.” And there are a lot of female dance critics, because it’s men in tights and girls en pointe; that’s okay. But when it’s an $8 million musical on Broadway? That’s about money, so just send the men. That’s my theory, anyway.
Oh—now I see I have a question from my editor about my Six Degrees review.
I’ll let you get back to work. But let me just say: Thank you for encouraging and inspiring so many of your peers, including me. We’ll miss you.
That is great to hear.