The prospect of imminent financial collapse tends to focus the attention. For our two daily newspapers, the Dallas Morning News and the Star-Telegram, every bit of attention is now focused on their primary mission, to deliver breaking news. Ads are too few and newsprint too expensive to give space to sidelines like art, theater, book, and music criticism that appeal only to tiny niches of their audiences. And it’s not just the big dailies. When Glenn Arbery, the arts critic for our weekly People Newspapers, was offered a teaching fellowship last year, economic pressure forced us not only to eliminate the position but the entire arts section.
Saving money by shedding niche reportage is not, of course, just a local phenomenon. How long, for example, do you expect the embattled New York Times to be able to publish, say, its chess column? Maybe another month?
But while it may be a national problem, where it hurts is right here in Dallas.
There couldn’t be a worse moment for Dallas to lose its arts critics. At the symphony, at the opera, at the dozens of local theaters, at our museums, at local galleries, we are a region bursting with artistic energy. In October, we will open the Center for Performing Arts, where some of this energy will be displayed on new stages for growing audiences. But will it result in anything good?
The temptation, of course, is to be satisfied by mere entertainment. Our measure of what is good has been affected by television and film, where the standard is whether or not we squirmed in our seats. But art calls for a higher standard: its purpose is transcendence. How many of us are qualified to render judgment on a performance or production or painting by a standard higher than personal preference?
Good professional critics teach and lead. They appraise a performance not on its merits alone, as you and I might do, but against the best they have seen. They correct and admonish, they praise and pan. Their intent is constant improvement. As they educate, they elevate. The arts without critics can fall into a temptation that’s the flip side of the one facing its audience. It is much easier, and often more profitable, to pander. A critic exists to call them on it.
Good critics do more than critique. The late John Rosenfield of the Morning News helped establish the American regional theater movement in the 1950s, at a time when cities like Dallas were exposed to nothing more than third-rate traveling companies of old Broadway standbys. He encouraged Margo Jones to open her little theater here, and then he convinced playwrights such as Tennessee Williams to risk putting their latest works in her hands.
If newspapers can no longer afford critics, where will we find them? The usual answer is the blogosphere. When Ed Bark took early retirement from the News, he promptly moved his television criticism to unclebarky.com. Former News critic Jerome Weeks can now be found at KERA’s Art&Seek blog. In late January, former Star-Telegram drama critic Mark Lowry and Dallas Observer critic Elaine Liner launched theaterjones.com (named in homage to Margo).
But blogs are no solution. As an occasional arts attendee, I often stumble across a review in the newspaper that makes me want to attend a performance. I don’t stumble across blogs. Perhaps performers or artists read them. Perhaps even season-ticket holders know where to find them. But it is the occasional attendee who provides the profit margin. When the few remaining reviews disappear from our newspapers, the occasional ticket buyer will be left in the dark.
I do not have a solution to the problem. But as a media owner, I do have a responsibility. At the moment, we are monitoring and talking to very bright people in other cities who are grappling with the same dilemma. When we see an idea that works, D Magazine will do everything in its limited power to introduce it to Dallas. To my mind, the need is too great to merely sit by and watch.