The Death of American Theatre Criticism Redux… Redux… Redux…

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Let’s be obvious, but let’s also be clear: announcements of layoffs, reassignments and once-unthinkable changes at newspapers and magazines is not news in 2012 any more than it was news in 2011 or 2010 or 2009 or 2008 or 2007 or 2006; if anything, such tragic announcements are the antithesis of news, the non-news, the no-news. Even incredibly dispiriting announcements like this one are yawn-inducing, making the trend doubly sad, a sad that feels like tragedy.

Yet now and then an announcement rockets across our digital transom — and this one, regarding an avalanche of reassignments by the struggling Philadelphia Inquirer, make us sit up, take notice and fume. By dint of our mission statement, this blog covers arts and politics; by dint of our medium and throughout our six-year history, we have been deeply moved by the imperative to fight for American journalism as a whole, and for theater criticism in particular. (The CFR’s founder began writing criticism in 1990, while still in college.) What the Inquirer is doing may seem necessary to its management, but it is nevertheless needless, cruel, gutless and pathetic to us.

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To write, in a perfectly feckless staff memo

“We are still not profitable and we have a great deal of work to accomplish, but the road forward provides great promise. I remain confident the plans that I have described, and that we are preparing to implement, will lead to a growing and sustainable future. I cannot underscore enough that while there will be tremendous change, and lots of rethinking of cherished assumptions, our destination in reaching the other side of this journey will be great and well worth your hard work and willingness to adapt to new ideas.”

…is to admit, we think, a lack of vision. To decide the best way to proceed — again, among a tons of actions — is to shuttle the Inquirer’s distinguished and respected theater critic, Howard Shapiro, away from his beat and to reassign him like rotting meat to covering South Jersey is to send a strong and unmistakable signal to the Philadelphia arts and culture community that it may just as soon chug-a-lug a pint of hemlock and drop dead.

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Well, et tu, brutes.

Never mind that Philly sports one of the fastest-rising cultural classes and communities in the U.S.; never mind that a report, recently commented upon right here at the CFR, puts real numbers and real teeth to that claim: a $3.3 billion economic impact; at least 44,000 full-time equivalent jobs; $1.04 billion in household income. No, says the ignorant Inquirer: South Jersey is where the action is for the likes of Shapiro. Yes, we know Shapiro will do a professional job at whatever he covers, but what is the Inquirer expecting? Snooki as Ophelia? Pauly D as Polonius? The Situation as Hamlet? (“The abs doth protest too much”?)

Here are two very, um, interesting paragraphs from some coverage of the reassignments:

Why the reassignments? A memo went out to Inquirer staff on Friday, stating: ” … we need to dramatically bolster our coverage in the South Jersey and Pennsylvania suburbs, and Business news in order to better serve our print and online readers and expand our audience.”

That’s certainly one motivation for yesterday’s reassignments. But some insiders have suspicions that newspaper management is just trying to make the older, longtime (read: expensive) staffers’ lives miserable so that they’ll quit, making room for cheaper replacements. “But I don’t think that’s going to work,” says one employee of Philadelphia Media Network Interstate General Media, the company that owns the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com. “A lot of people need their jobs, and they will just do their best in their new assignments. This is a foolish play by the company, if, in fact, that is what they are trying to do.”

And so here is our response.

Dear Philadelphia Inquirer:

You can’t figure out where your market is? You can’t figure out how to serve it? How about you resign? How about reassigning your sorry asses? How about leaving real journalists, including but not limited to Howard Shapiro, to what they do best? How about giving the fine citizens of Philadelphia, from the thousands of artists and the tens of thousands of audiences and patrons, what they need and want and deserve from your publication? That you possess neither the brains nor the balls to figure out how to run your enterprise only reminds us that it is, and it must be, the scrappy blogosphere fills the appalling gap left by your nincompoopery and wretched incompetence.

Mr. Shapiro, you have our sympathy. You deserve better.

Sincerely,
American Theatre Critics and Journalists Everywhere

  • Sherry Sauerwine

    You nailed it.