Jay Handelman, arts editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, sometimes feels like one of the last survivors of a critically endangered species. And he’s not wrong. Over the last couple of decades, the number of full-time, health-insurance-enrolled, 401(k)-contributing newspaper arts critics has declined more precipitously than the Siberian tiger population.
“I do feel like part of a dying breed, for sure,” he said.
There was a time when two full-timers buttressed by a raft of decently paid freelancers covered the Sarasota area’s burgeoning arts scene. Today it’s down to Handelman, who makes ends meet with a much-diminished freelance budget.
If misery loves company, he’s got plenty. He’s also president of The Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association, Inc., which has considered teaming with a university to study the state of arts journalism. Although no one has yet chronicled the collapse of traditional cultural coverage in forensic detail, its decline is pretty obvious, even if mostly anecdotal.
“There isn’t much out there anymore,” Handelman said. “Even places that still do arts coverage, a lot of it is now done by freelancers or retired people who still want to contribute. I’m nearing the age where I might start thinking about retirement, and I don’t know if they would replace me. I tend to think not.”
The tyranny of clicks is one of the most-cited reasons for the decline of local arts coverage. Back in the days of print newspapers, there was no easy way to tell how many eyeballs landed on which stories. Now, of course, publications’ online editions carefully note how many people read a story about a new gallery exhibit as opposed to, for instance, a high school basketball game. Unfortunately for arts fans, cultural stuff typically gets fewer clicks, making it a target for budget cutters.
“Everybody knows that metrics are the driver of everything in today’s digital journalism world, and theater will never have the kind of numbers of, say, sports,” said David John Chávez, professional arts critic and chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. “If a writer does not want to move towards a personal website or into another section of the newspaper, then writing about theater will become a bit of a dying art form.”
That isn’t to say the “good old days” of local arts coverage were good for everyone. According to Holly Sidford, co-director of Helicon Collaborative (a consulting company that works with communities, philanthropies and arts and cultural organizations), many niche artistic groups and productions, especially those run by women and minorities, were as marginalized 30 years ago as they are today — perhaps more so.
“The number of arts critics of color or critics who came out of community-based cultural groups was exceedingly few,” Sidford said, “even when there were arts desks at most major papers. So there was always a bias to that perspective, in addition to limited coverage.”
Yet old-school media’s cutback in arts criticism and reporting still affects the entire sector, from touring
Broadway shows to neighborhood cultural collectives.
“Journalism wasn’t ever covering the whole field, but it’s covering even less now,” Sidford said. “So the average person sees less or learns less about all the different ways that artistic practice is going on.”
While readers see less coverage from traditional outlets, arts critics also find it harder to earn a living in the field. Many have moved from print to the internet, in hopes of finding greener pastures – or at least a more appreciative audience.
“I’ve seen some very successful folks who worked for years at major outlets and are now doing great stuff on their own,” Chávez said. “Is it enough to pay the bills? I wouldn’t know that. I’m certain it would be a challenge and a ton of work to sustain, but it’s been done. Quality is the key to a successful independent career.”
Bill Hirschman, editor and chief critic (and also publisher) of the website Florida Theater On Stage, has definitely followed that route. During his long career in traditional journalism, he covered the crime, government, education and social services beats for multiple papers in a half-dozen locales. Throughout that time the Missouri University School of Journalism grad (who possesses a theater minor) also wrote about the arts. In 1998 he started helping the full-time arts editor at his then-employer, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, while also freelancing for other, national outlets.
He began Florida Theater On Stage 12 years ago, shortly after he retired. The site covers every professional production from northern Palm Beach County down to southern Miami Dade County, which is almost exactly the same area the South Florida Sun Sentinel once served, back when it had an arts editor. That roughly 110-mile corridor, containing 30 to 35 professional companies, is now covered by Hirschman, 72, and a handful of freelancers.
His advertising-driven site (sales are handled by his wife, Oline H. Cogdill), brings in a not-negligible amount of money. But it’s not enough for Hirschman to live on, or to supply freelancers with a large amount of compensation. As with many such operations, the cash is kind of beside the point. It’s mostly a labor of love, though it’s hard to love the fact Hirschman and his small team recently had to cover six near-simultaneous show openings spread over a large chunk of southern Florida.
At least local theater companies seem to appreciate his hustle.
“We’ve had advertising from almost every theater company here for a good portion of our career,” Hirschman said. “The reason is that the newspapers and magazines and TV and radio cut their coverage almost to nothing. They were absolutely overjoyed and eager and supportive of anybody who wanted to provide honest and extensive coverage.”
In a similar vein, Third Coast Review specializes in Chicago-area arts and culture coverage — everything from theaters to video games to food. Founded in 2016, the site fills the void left by traditional media, which today covers much less of the local arts scene. Its stories also bore far deeper into the Windy City cultural scene than The Chicago Tribune typically did. As with Florida Theater On Stage (and numerous other arts-related sites serving specific regions), they make their money through advertising and donations.
“I think absolutely this is a response to a need to fill in the gaps in coverage,” said managing editor Lisa Trifone. “Also, where Third Coast Review is concerned, everyone who’s on the site and everybody with a byline is there because they want to be, and it’s a place where they want to contribute.”
The site is a paradise for a certain type of writer — someone enamored of the Chicago arts scene who wants to follow their creative muse, or take a deep dive into subject matter that’s typically ignored or given short shrift by larger outlets. But it’s somewhat less of a paradise for anyone who’s also looking for a full-time profession that can pay their bills.
“That’s the conundrum,” said Trifone (whose own “day job” is ownership of a marketing and publicity agency). “We have a business model that’s more of a labor of love than a business.”
Nicole Hertvik, editor-in-chief and publisher of website DC Theater Arts, agrees that traditional cultural coverage has long been in decline. But the pandemic, which shuttered theaters and museums for roughly two years, dealt the coup de gras. Even The Washington Post, which under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos hardly lacks for cash, has cut back on its Washington, D.C.-area arts coverage. In December of 2022 it even laid off the paper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic, Sarah L. Kaufman — one of the last full-time journalists in the country to cover the dance beat.
“They are looking to be a national or international publication, so they’re covering a lot more New York theater, and the bare minimum of what happens in the D.C. theater community,” Hertvik said. “Maybe 10 years ago The Post had a dedicated arts section every week. That’s all just gone. They had two dedicated full-time theater critics, and now they have one.”
There are other, smaller publications in the D.C. area that still cover local culture, but just like the big boys they’re working with ever-dwindling resources and ever-shrinking news holes. One publication Hertvik writes for used to do 800-word, freestanding show reviews. Now they combine three into one story, with each review getting around 300 words.
“I ended up at DC Theater Arts because I wanted to break into this industry, but I looked around and it was like, there’s no way to get a job in this field,” Hertvik said. “I would have loved nothing more than to get a job at a big paper and be trained by someone who’s been doing this for decades, but those training opportunities really aren’t there anymore.”
The site hopes to ameliorate that problem somewhat by helping to create a new generation of critics. It’s partnered with another D.C.-based organization, which helps subsidize their efforts to teach budding theatrical reviewers.
“Writing a piece of theater criticism is a really specialized skill,” Hertvik said. “It’s not taught in mainstream journalism courses. I’m not sure of the exact percentage, but we definitely have more young people who want to do this than we can accommodate.”
Those eager beginners will likely face the same overarching issue their elders contend with: The ever-shrinking amount of attention mainline publications give to the arts, coupled with the relatively modest financial resources of newer, online outlets, have pushed the entire field firmly into the Side-Gig Zone. It’s something Hertvik herself grieves over when she considers her own stable of freelancers, none of whom could hope to make a living from what her site pays.
“Everyone I know is doing it for very little pay, as a side gig or a hobby,” Hertvik said. “I’m working with all of these writers, none of whom I can afford to pay a full-time salary. Yet I still want quality work from them. In some ways it seems unjust, because how many people can afford to work for very little money? It’s not sustainable, and it’s not equitable.”
Her site follows roughly the same professional model as Third Coast Review and Florida Theater On Stage: reporting on cultural affairs in a specific geographic area (in DC’s case, the more than 80 professional theaters in the Washington metro), mostly using freelancers. However, its financial model is different — and perhaps a harbinger of things to come. Several years ago, DC Theater Arts became a nonprofit, allowing it to diversify its funding sources.
“The argument I’m making is that journalism is no longer profitable, but it’s still a public good, and the public still needs it,” Hertvik said. “It should be funded by nonprofits that also believe in that message.”
As anyone who’s followed the rise of nonprofit journalism over the past decade already knows, hers is not the only organization to have reached this conclusion. While attempts on the federal level to help local newspapers stay afloat have so far not borne fruit, philanthropic groups and other organizations have helped advance and finance numerous programs. Nonprofit journalistic operations run the gamut, from Block Club Chicago, which covers around a dozen city neighborhoods, to The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Salt Lake Tribune.
Not surprisingly, the movement found its way to arts journalism.
“There has been some effort in the philanthropic sector, the Knight Foundation in particular, as well as more recently the Ford Foundation, to try to promote and encourage nonprofit journalism and nonprofit coverage of the arts,” Sidford said.
One of the trailblazers of nonprofit cultural reporting is a 14-year-old southern Florida site called Artburst, which offers print and video coverage of the South Florida cultural scene, from dance to music to independent films. The site serves up roughly 2,000 stories per year about the approximately 1,200 art groups inside its geographic footprint.
“We started it because The Miami Herald, which is our legacy newspaper, was slowly laying off or retiring all of their arts journalists, and our arts organizations were having a real issue getting independent reviews,” said Laura Bruney, president and CEO of the Arts and Business Council of Miami.
Bruney’s group worked with the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs to develop Artburst, and secured pilot program funding from the Knight Foundation. It was originally conceived as a media-only news/arts bureau where local news organizations could access stories produced by Artburst freelancers, free of charge. And free of outside influence.
“We hired an editor because both the Miami Department of Cultural Affairs and other groups that partner with us for some of our programs thought we really needed to be independent in deciding who got covered,” Bruney said, “because we didn’t want to look like our partners got any kind of benefits.
“We don’t have anything to do with what’s covered. The editor decides that,” she added.
The site wasn’t founded out of pure altruism, however. According to statistics, the South Florida arts scene pumps about $1.4 billion into the Miami-Dade County economy, with some 16 million people attending some sort of arts event annually. The decline of local coverage threatened to damage that lucrative niche.
“The media only really wanted to cover the big events,” Bruney said. “They weren’t really looking at an inner-city children’s dance company. So about eight years ago we decided to morph the website into a consumer website. For the past two years we’ve worked to drive traffic to it. We of course still offer our stories to the media, but even with free content they’re still putting in way less of it.”
Bruney has talked with municipal organizations around the country that want to replicate the Artburst model. The problem, she asserts, is finding someone willing to bankroll the project who’s also willing to forswear trying to control its editorial content.
“The Knight Foundation funding ended after year three,” she said. “Since then, we’ve been 100% funded by the Miami-Dade Department of Cultural Affairs. We’re lucky that the director there understands the importance of audience development and creating a world-class cultural community. But I’ve found that it’s very rare to have the support that we have.”
To her knowledge, no other community has implemented a program similar to Artburst. However, there are still plenty of arts sites. They don’t pay a full-time salary, but at least they’re keeping the light of cultural coverage from guttering out entirely, and training a new generation of writers in the process.
While the decline of professional arts coverage and full-time newspaper arts journalists continues apace, lots of other people, for better or worse, are offering up their opinions and short-form criticism via everything from Facebook to TikTok. Getting the word out this way, Sidford thinks, isn’t too different from the publicity route that smaller, overlooked arts groups have used since time immemorial: word of mouth.
“Now everyone’s a critic,” she said. “They’re not doing long-form criticism, but there are other forms of engagement and commentary.”
For her part, Hertvik at DC Theater Arts has also brought on a TikTok correspondent. And sometimes those short-form, cell-phone–optimized “reports” get more clicks than the site’s traditional, written pieces.
“That’s either depressing or interesting,” she said. “I try to look at it this way: The old way is not coming back, so what is the new path forward? I don’t know if anyone has figured that out yet.” ,
Sam Stall, formerly editor of Indianapolis Monthly, has won countless Society of Professional Journalists awards and authored or co-authored more than 20 books.
Feature illustration by Kat Kuo
Tagged under: arts criticism