New York Times & Wall Street Journal Prepare To Slash Entertainment Coverage And Staff As Print Ads Vanish

Jeremy Gerard
Deadline

As print advertising revenues continue to fall off the cliff, reviews and features related to film, theater and the rest of the arts are being cut at New York’s two prominent broadsheets, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Deadline reported in August that the Times had stopped reviewing theater, restaurants and art galleries in the Metro region, and bid farewell to the freelance critics and reporters who contributed to that coverage. That was just the precursor, however, to a more seismic shift in the Paper of Record’s plan for culture news coverage, as the Times absorbs a 19% drop in third-quarter advertising revenue, according to its own report.

These changes come at a time when arts and entertainment coverage — and specifically independent criticism — is being reduced or eliminated all around the country. In New York, where Broadway alone represents a $1 billion-plus industry, the New York Post, the Daily News and USA Today all have eliminated full-time theater critics in recent months. USA Today owner Gannett announced a mass reduction of staff at its recently acquired North Jersey Media Group, which includes the Bergen Record.

The blade already has fallen at the News Corp.-owned Journal, which announced that its Greater New York section, introduced six years ago to go head-to-head with the Times‘ local coverage, would be folded into the paper’s main section beginning November 14. The shift, along with other consolidations affecting the Journal‘s coverage of entertainment and the arts, comes in the wake of a 12% decline in domestic advertising, according to the paper.

The Greater New York staff complement of some three dozen reporters, editors and production people have been told to reapply for 16 jobs in the new configuration, including about a dozen reporters. The paper’s Personal Journal and Arena sections, covering lifestyle, art, sports and culture coverage, are also being cut and combined into a new section called Life & Arts, and will be folded into the A section mix. Those aren’t the only sections affected.

“A combined Business & Finance section, comprising the current Business & Tech and Money & Investing sections” will also debut November 14, according to a memo to the staff last week from Journal editor Gerard Baker. “I want to stress that these changes and their ramifications for the newsroom are necessary not just because we must adjust to changing conditions in the print advertising business, ” he added, “but because we know from audience research that readers want a more digestible newspaper.” Translation: If it doesn’t accord with the goal of serving online subscribers a faster, more concise read, it’s a goner. The new version of the print Journal will feature the two bigger sections on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with a third section on Mondays and Fridays. The weekend edition of the paper will remain unchanged, according to the paper.

A similar sea change is underway at the New York Times, where changes are likely to have more dire consequences for independent filmmakers, off-Broadway theaters, concert venues that aren’t Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, and art galleries and cabarets that depend on the Times‘ longstanding tradition of covering even minor cultural events on the off-chance of discovering new talent. (Disclosure: I began contributing to the Times in 1982 and was a staff reporter and columnist covering theater and television from 1986-1991.)

The Times has not been shy about the fact that a continued downsizing of the newsroom is in the offing as the paper also focuses on non-advertising based revenue — namely, online subscribers. According to several sources, the changes include an all-out effort to recruit subscribers in Canada, the paper’s largest market outside the U.S., and to protect and expand its core reporting on global and national subjects that serve the widest audience. Surveys of online readers, according to sources at the paper, told Deadline that the culture report barely registers on the list of top reasons for purchasing a paid subscription.

The Times disputes this. “Your facts are wrong,” a spokesperson for the paper, Danielle Rhoades Ha, told Deadline in response to questions. “In customer surveys our print subscribers consistently identify arts coverage as the most valued of our feature sections and the one they spend the most time with. Digital readers show similar engagement; our culture coverage has the largest monthly digital audience of our feature sections.” Monthly views of feature sections, however, don’t address the issue of how daily readers prioritize and consume news.

Consolidation already has begun in the Times‘ coverage of books and publishing. In August, executive editor Dean Baquet announced that the daily paper’s book critics and coverage of the publishing industry would no longer be overseen by culture news editor Danielle Mattoon but instead by Sunday Book Review editor Pamela Paul. “In order to continue and enhance our influence in a digital age we have decided to place all books coverage — daily and Sunday — in the hands of Pamela Paul, the current editor of the Sunday Book Review and one of our biggest stars,” Baquet wrote in a memo to the staff August 17.

While quashing rumors that the Times might kill the freestanding Book Review (it’s the last U.S. paper to have one since the Los Angeles Times killed its book review in 2008), Baquet wrote, “[it] will be Pamela’s job to think about how our coverage should change and, of course, how it should not change [as] part of the continuing effort by the masthead and the 2020 group led by David Leonhardt to imagine the newsroom of the future.”

Another star, former Broadway reporter Patrick Healy, who has spent the last 18 months as one of the paper’s lead reporters on the campaign trail, is returning post-election to the culture desk as a deputy editor. According to multiple sources at the paper, the Arts section is about to undergo a downsizing and refocus of coverage, which will be introduced after the New Year.

“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” another current culture staff member told Deadline, speaking anonymously — as did all of the staff members interviewed for this story because they were not authorized to speak and did not want to further jeopardize their positions. Times spokesperson Rhoades Ha disputed those assertions. “Arts coverage has always been a core part of The New York Times’ mission and remains so. Our culture team is growing and attracts world-class talent. The desk has 22 full-time critics (six of whom joined in the past year), 12 reporters with two additional positions currently open – i.e., we’re hiring!”

The revamped Arts front page will have no more than three stories (there now are sometimes as many as six) anchored by an oversize photograph, according to sources who have been apprised of the changes. (Today’s Arts section is a good example of what the section will more typically look like.) Critics have been urged to stop covering events least likely to appeal to online subscribers: indie movies having brief runs in art houses; one-night-only concerts, off- and off-off-Broadway shows that aren’t star-driven, cabaret performances, and small art galleries. Many of the Times‘ contingent of freelance contributors, who provide much of that coverage, are likely to meet the same fate as the regional freelancers last summer. But even staff critics have been given the same marching orders, telling Deadline they are being pressured more frequently by editors to focus on higher-profile events.

“The New York Times would never categorically cut reviews of any type of performance or art form,” Rhoades Ha told Deadline. “The Times will review everything that deserves a review, paying special attention to smaller works our critics deem especially important so that they get the attention they deserve.”

The changes can be attributed at least in part to the shift in print advertising from the the daily Arts section and Sunday’s Arts & Leisure to online venues. “The Times has started to swallow its own tail,” a person with business dealings with the Times told Deadline. “The content in Arts & Leisure is terrible, so pretty much nobody advertises there anymore. And then with no advertising, they have no ability to invest in making the content better. Print still has huge value if it’s in a context. The NYT has ceded their ownership of that context,” this person said, adding, “it’s embarrassing.”

Told of this appraisal, Rhoades Ha responded, “The Times remains a unique and vibrant destination for culture advertising in print and online, and we will continue to put resources and creative energy in delivering products and experience that deeply engage consumers and therefore advertisers. It’s hard to imagine anyone looking at our rich fall preview this year and thinking otherwise.”

One advertiser bucking that trend is producer Scott Rudin, who promotes his Broadway productions heavily in the print edition of the paper, not only in the culture sections but in such non-traditional sections as the Sunday Review, Styles and even Food; a recent insert regarding the presidential race was supported entirely by ads for Rudin’s shows. (Rudin declined to speak with Deadline about his print strategy.)

If these cutbacks enable the Times to sustain its exhaustive (and expensive) coverage of global news, few will likely argue against the triage. And a look at any copy of the paper from just 25 years ago (through the Times Replica Edition) is a reminder of how plush the Times once was with display and classified ads, a model that has literally disappeared into the virtual universe.

But for much of the last century and the beginning of this one, the Times had an almost proprietary stake in covering the culture of New York. In turn, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights and actors, artists and choreographers may have still have had to bus tables and do office temp work, but they could be assured of a Times review or features story that could launch a career, interest an agent, challenge a reader. Those days, too, are numbered.

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