MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the past, we depended on the local paper to find out what was happening in the clubs and theaters of our cities. But cash-strapped newspapers are laying off their local arts critics.

NPR's Laura Sydell reports that many of those critics and audiences are now going online.

LAURA SYDELL: The point of criticism isn't thumbs up or thumbs down, says Doug McClennan.

Mr. DOUG McCLENNAN (Director, National Arts Journalism Program): Culture does not happen in isolation. It isn't just what happened on the stage that night. It is how does it interact with the culture in a much larger way.

SYDELL: McClennan is the director of the National Arts Journalism Program, to which this journalist belongs. For a critic to be able to really cover the arts, McClennan believes the critic has to know the community.

Mr. McCLENNAN: The critic defines the territory, walks the perimeter of that territory and comes back and tells you, okay, here's the interesting stuff I found.

SYDELL: And that's what happened in Miami seven years ago.

(Soundbite of music)

SYDELL: A new choral group called Seraphic Fire was discovered by the critics, and they really loved them.

Mr. PATRICK QUIGLEY (Founding Director, Seraphic Fire): And made a real point to feature us for a number of our performances over the next couple of years, which drew attention to us as an ensemble before we really had any money to do any sort of significant advertising.

SYDELL: Founding director Patrick Quigley says local critics helped Seraphic Fire build a committed audience in Miami. Unfortunately, it may be harder for the next small, new arts groups to get as much attention, says critic Lawrence Johnson.

Mr. LAWRENCE JOHNSON (Former Classical Music Critic, Miami Herald): In all of southeast Florida, there is now no full-time classical music critic employed by any newspaper.

SYDELL: Johnson is the former classical music critic for the Miami Herald. He lost his job over a year ago. Since then, he's created a Web site called South Florida Classical Review. The site features criticism written by Johnson and other laid-off critics.

Mr. JOHNSON: I felt there was a real void. No paper was really covering the region's classical music organizations the way they deserve to be. So I started the Web site to fill the void.

SYDELL: All over the country, cash-strapped newspapers are cutting back on coverage of local museums, theaters, dance groups.

Mr. McCLENNAN: There are dozens of journalists now starting their own Web sites, banding together, trying to create electronic publications, looking at for-profit models, nonprofit models, low-profit models.

SYDELL: Arts journalist Doug McClennan.

Mr. McCLENNAN: Things aren't just falling apart. They're just reordering themselves.

SYDELL: And for some small arts groups, the move to the Web is an opportunity. Take the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco. It focuses on the work of African-American playwrights. And for many years, it didn't get much attention in the local papers, says Executive Director Quinton Easter.

Mr. QUINTON EASTER (Executive Director, Lorraine Hansberry Theater): The newspapers and the powerful interests were using information as a power, you know? And that's when we talked about that historical legacy of exclusion and invisibility of people of color.

SYDELL: Easter believes that the Web offers him a way to reach out directly to audiences.

Mr. EASTER: And individuals will be able to speak more powerfully, smaller communities, smaller groups will be able to - so I think that can be a good thing.

SYDELL: Still, when his theater finally got coverage in the mainstream news, it really made a difference because it reached beyond his own community.

Mr. EASTER: Those people who may not know about our theater when they read a review and are engaged by the subject matter of the play we're presenting, they may come to our theater, and they may come to know more about us and more about - know more about themselves, and we'll build audiences, and we'll build support for what we're doing.

SYDELL: Easter remembers the days when there were two major daily newspapers in San Francisco, and each one had two critics. When the reviews came out, the phones at his theater would ring off the hook. And if it was a good review, it would draw in people who had never been to his theater before and who maybe didn't even know they liked theater.

He worries that on the Internet, people only seek out what already interests them. Both audiences and artists are losing out on an opportunity to discover each other.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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