It’s almost like the last few weeks of arts news have been setting me up for Tuesday’s local shocker: That McClatchy Newspapers has gutted coverage of the arts and culture from both print and online. . . and that Donald Munro, the region’s resident arts journalist, was also out of a job.
After the announcements last fall that the Guardian was cutting Lyn Gardner’s theater blog, that the Austin Statesman cut its arts staff, and the New York Times cut its regional arts coverage, these items came in rapid succession last week:
Linda Wimer, theater critic for New York Newsday, resigned saying “I’m a critic, not a click-chaser.”
Layoffs come to the East Bay Times after Pulitzer win. “The change is coming as the Digital First Media-owned newsroom is consolidating design operations.”
David Cote Takes a Time Out After an ‘Amazing Run’: “…there’s this weird habitual thing happening of critics losing their jobs.”
If I were directing this scene, I’d say, “Hey, David. . . can you take that back and billboard that line a little bit for us? I think the foreshadowing there is going to be REALLY IMPORTANT!”
Because a few days later, I hear from Munro about how things are rapidly changing at The Fresno Bee. Less than a week later, he’s announcing his departure.
We’re caught in a maelstrom of analytics run amok. News corporations have decided that the metrics of value are clicks on web stories, and not enough arts goers click. They’re tightening their belts and looking at dwindling subscriber bases and making decisions that are the most expedient for them in the here and now. Which means more homogenous news writing and less robust reporting on the things that make a city unique.
Other news organizations have doubled down on the local angles, building up loyalty and marketing their subscriptions as a long-term investment by the reader in that loyalty. But for some reason, The Fresno Bee didn’t have the subscription base to continue floating arts and culture coverage. And for that, we may have to look at ourselves rather than at McClatchy – although I’ll contend that they did very little to push either print OR digital subscriptions. Still, we theater people should know the value of a subscription holder better than anyone. It’s more evident now than ever.
But I’ve been speculating about various aspects of this decision for about a day and a half now. I’m tired of it. The decision is made and no amount of boycotting, petitioning, or hashtagging is going to make McClatchy (based in Sacramento) pay heed.
So right now I just need to come to terms with the level of upset I am at this. I truly believe that arts journalism and criticism are an integral part of the arts community. A professional outlook toward what we do and talented writing about what we create breathes oxygen into our lungs. A critical, but hopefully fair, voice keeps us in check while a thoughtful note of encouragement keeps us moving forward. Art is a conversation and arts journalism is one important way that conversation is facilitated.
Donald Munro’s work does exactly that. The Bee’s commitment to covering Fresno’s arts and entertainment – in all of its wide diversity – has helped us flourish. Fifteen years ago when The Rogue Festival was still new, it got shoved aside for a piece on Britney Spears coming to town. But in the last several years, it has taken center stage in the Seven section, illustrating a shift in focus to the local scene.
When the Woodward Shakespeare Festival began in 2005, it was an event – made moreso by The Bee’s coverage. And also by The Bee’s lukewarm but encouraging reviews. It was enough attention to help WSF land a $100,000 grant that floated its operations for a few years. And in 2010 when WSF moved to a new area of Woodward Park, Munro did a generous 5-year check-in that put the raw, prairie-like space into the best light.
For me, starting The New Ensemble was an undertaking fueled by fire and a single-minded focus, but Munro was willing to come down to the Broken Leg Stage – a tiny 50 seat black box in the Tower District (with a not-quite-complete lobby featuring a prop “abortion fetus” from a Grand Guignol production a few months earlier) – to see The Turn of the Screw. It was July. The AC stopped working. He gave it a rave. It sold out the rest of the run and TNE began to find an audience.
In so many ways, the Fresno Theater Community and Donald Munro have spent the past 15 years or so training each other to find their voices. Munro has always been an excellent and thoughtful writer, but early on we used to complain that he was judging what HE thought the shows should be, not what the show itself intended to be. That’s a fancy way of saying, “He doesn’t get it.” Which is what we always say when we don’t like a review.
But we slowly learned to embrace being reviewed by someone who didn’t mind stating that he had higher expectations of us. We began to ask a little more of ourselves and now the baseline for what is considered a decent show in this town is quite a bit higher.
On the other hand, I like to think that Munro has learned from us to embrace where Fresno is at and what it does well in its theater scene. And also to embrace work that isn’t his favorite style, but may still have something to consider. His approach towards us has evolved. He’s not always perfect. He can have an unintended cutting turn of phrase from time to time. But anyone who’s ever worked with artists should be used to that.
And don’t get me wrong. We all still look at some of his reviews and say, “Were we seeing the same show?” But that’s the joy of subjective writing. And that’s the joy of art in conversation. Donald Munro’s work gives us that real conversation on a consistent basis. We none of us want to be in calm waters all our lives, and Munro’s mix of thoughtful criticism and encouragement is exactly what we’ve needed. It’s what we always need, whether we say so or not. His voice has been the final piece of the puzzle for a truly cosmopolitan arts scene here in Fresno – one we’ve grown to be proud of.
So to have that voice cut away from the paper of record – that balance of acidity and sweet removed from our ecosystem – is a heavy blow to theater artists here. It is a blow to me. I have no idea how someone who has both praised my work so well and also occasionally panned it mercilessly could come to take such a giant place in the the way I think about “the work”. He is my first professional critic. And a girl never forgets her first.
Munro is (thankfully) looking into ways to continue covering the arts scene in Fresno on his own. And if and when he does, I hope we all can swing our weight behind him because no matter what, he’s part of the family now. He may be that odd cousin we don’t know what to say to when we see him once a year at the family reunion, but he’s family nonetheless! Whether he likes it or not.
On a slightly separate note, this will also be a new challenge for the Fresno Arts Community as we now have to seek and cultivate other outlets to find audiences. The models for PR are very much in flux these days with fewer and fewer major outlets to be found. So I’d like to encourage us all to do the following:
- Talk to each other and share tips, contacts, anything you think will help to get the word out. Let’s not hoard that any longer. It isn’t really a zero sum game and when one show succeeds, it helps all shows succeed. We’re all competing with people staying home to watch Netflix. Let’s help each other get folks out to see a show!
- Start a blog or cover what you can on your own, if you’re of a mind. I will endeavor to do more coverage here at my discretion, but I need to think about how I’d like to approach it. Suggestions welcome.
- Please, please, please, share events that you believe in on your FB and twitter and instagram feeds. Email your friends. I know it seems spammy, but if you care about their longevity, help them build an audience.
- Buy subscriptions or make donations when you can afford them. If a blog or website or artist is important to you, kick a little in the bucket when they make the ask. Subscribe – to their feed and to their Patreon accounts. And support your favorite arts organizations financially or by volunteering.
Okay. . .that’s all for now, kids. By the end of the week, I’ll put my money where my mouth is and have some info on some alternative outlets for artists to consider to get the word out..
Back in a bit!