After Lyn Gardner: Want Great Arts Coverage? Pay For It.

Lyn Gardner. Photo: The Guardian.

Just as our American cousins faced the news that Donald Trump proposed to wipe out the National Endowment for the Arts in his upcoming budget, a cut of a slightly smaller but similarly upsetting kind was announced in the UK. Writer Lyn Gardner used her Twitter account to confirm that, as of Apr. 1, she would no longer be employed by The Guardian to offer her valuable blogs and insight into the theatre industry. A change in the company’s finances has forced some belt-tightening, and Gardner, who has written for The Guardian for a number of years, will see her contract reduced to just reviews — a loss of more than 130,000 words per year.

It may seem trivial to compare these two things, but the ramifications of Gardner’s reduction in content comes at a time where arts criticism and coverage continues to be diminished across the board. Gardner’s voice offered authority and experience — her dedication to the promotion of all different types of theatre around the full breadth of the UK is really unrivaled, and sadly the loss of her output is already being felt.

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More than 40 UK theatres, including the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, have signed a letter to The Guardian asking for Gardner’s blog to be reinstated, calling it a “genuine piece of pioneering journalism” that is a “uniquely insightful and hugely valuable” and “essential component of the narrative of UK theatre today.” Such high levels of support from artists such as Rupert Gould, Rufus Norris, Edward Hall and Josie Rourke is somewhat unprecedented in terms of the continued squeeze on arts coverage and goes some way toward explaining how important Gardner’s voice was, and still is, within the wider industry.

Whether the weight of these sentiments will ultimately see Gardner reinstated or have no effect is yet to be seen. But one thing is for certain: it’s difficult to see exactly where the blame for the situation should be placed. The Guardian as a business is clearly struggling to stay afloat in the context of print and online journalism. For the past few months, users have been reminded that there is no paywall, and have been invited to contribute in order to help The Guardian survive:

We’ve got a small favour to ask. More people are reading the Guardian than ever, but far fewer are paying for it. Advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. And unlike many news organisations, we haven’t put up a paywall – we want to keep our journalism as open as we can.

But whose responsibility is it to pay? Are we all willing to put our money where our mouths are and pay to subscribe to newspapers in order to protect the jobs of our favourite journalists? I wouldn’t imagine so. Removing Gardner as a personality from this debate, it’s not difficult to do the maths and work out why, on paper at least, there is a reduction in arts coverage. The arts, and theatre in particular, remain relatively niche. True, whilst many of us within the “bubble” no doubt enjoy in-depth features, reviews and criticism, when one must balance the books across a news outlet as a whole, it can’t be too difficult to see where the finances fail to add up.

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Writing last week in The New Yorker, Alex Ross articulated the difficulties in tracking the audience reach of content that speaks to a loyal following, rather than relying on click-bait traffic:

…even if the data could measure every twitch of every eyeball, should that information control editorial choices? Foreign reporting often draws fewer readers, yet the bigger papers persist in publishing it, because it is felt to be important. One guesses that play-by-play accounts of baseball and football games receive relatively few clicks, yet the sports section is considered sacrosanct. It’s in the cultural field that editors are willing to let online traffic dictate coverage.

As newspapers function online today, more analysis and priority is given to what attracts new and “unique” visitors, as driven by SEO and social media, something which itself relies on answering questions of the masses or enticing new readers through catchy headlines. The sports section, Ross argues, is “considered sacrosanct,” no matter what their online traffic figures may suggest. Instead, it’s the arts section thats feel the squeeze, not just in the UK and the US but around the world.

I wonder, in part, if some of the blame must be shared collectively by the explosion of those of us who write, blog and share our opinions online (in this case, about theatre) so extensively. Has this over-saturation — indeed, not only in terms of theatre coverage but in terms of arts coverage as a whole — contributed to supply so dramatically outstripping demand? As the news broke about Gardner, it did not escape me that it was — and still mostly is — those within the industry, including those who write, who were first to lament her loss. Could our collective enthusiasm have played a part in The Guardian’s decision that, in a crowded market where content is increasingly devalued, one less theatre blog wouldn’t necessarily be missed?

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To an uninitiated section editor or digital editor, I can hear the argument that one less theatre blog, in fact, won’t necessarily be missed; it won’t necessarily change the status quo. Theatre blogs pop up on a daily basis; coverage of West End productions seems at an all-time high. What all of this overlooks, however, is the vacuum in the market that Gardner’s voice represents — something that theatres around the UK have tried to make clear through their open letter.

Supply outstrips demand: even as I write this, I have already seen numerous pieces that are covering the news about Gardner and offering their own analysis of the situation, but nevertheless fail to state an obvious point, which I referred to earlier: businesses do have bills to pay; the money does need to add up. It’s a conundrum in an age when everyone is, or everyone can be, a critic, while at the same time everyone in the industry can see that voices such as Gardner’s are needed more than ever. To the degree that there is still a meaningful debate about the influx of theatre bloggers — and the division, if you assert that one exists — between being a “paid” critic and a critic who is not paid, Gardner’s trusted and reliable voice contained a neat authority, one that shone a clear path through a muddy industry. Her careful assessment and deep encouragement of theatre writers and practitioners has helped many over the years, which is perhaps why so many of them feel this loss.

As someone who writes about theatre on a daily basis, I am always conscious of the need and benefit of withdrawing from the “bubble” — to try and see theatre and arts coverage from a more general perspective. Collectively, we need to ask what we want from our publications. We need to ask how mainstream media can help promote the arts to the masses, not just to those living and working within our own tight community. Gardner’s blog was a rare example of mainstream media connecting with theatre at a grassroots level whilst carefully balancing the mainstream journalism that keeps the industry ticking and relevant. This mix is necessary to create a dual carriageway of interest. But somehow we are going to have to address the commercial needs of publications — for those they serve and those they promote — and all of us, as consumers, will need to be prepared to pay for it.