Ever so quietly this week, the national arts scene became a bit more fragmented, a bit more stratified and a lot more invisible. The Associated Press has just spiked a chunk of its opera, dance and off-Broadway coverage. And in this case, no news is bad news.
In an email, AP chief theater writer Mark Kennedy described the decision to me:
"We sent out a survey before the Tonys to the members of our cooperative, asking about their use of our reviews," he wrote. "While music, books, movies and TV came back positive, the results proved what we have long suspected: Members overwhelmingly are not using our opera, dance or off-Broadway reviews."
"It's more than that," Kennedy continued. "In some cases, they actually resent [that coverage], thinking we can use our resources better. So while we of course will dip into the world of off-Broadway, whether for an occasional review or a story, we have to listen to the people who pay our bills."
This may seem like an inside-baseball story, of interest only to theatrical publicists and producers. But the ramifications are a little greater.
Coverage in The New York Times has prestige and tradition, and speaks to the arts community; The Wall Street Journal reaches art organizations' board members and corporate sponsors; USA Today has mass appeal. But the AP almost certainly has the widest reach of all: Its copy is available to hundreds of print and online outlets internationally, including the big three above.
Indeed, as news has increasingly shifted online, AP arts coverage is probably more accessible to more people than it has ever been. It appears directly on countless news websites — including NPR's — without any human effort, as part of a continuous news feed, where it's not subject to the day-to-day editorial priorities and space limitations that govern a print paper or radio show. Even when editors "don't use" this coverage, it appears on their sites; in some cases, an AP item may prompt an outlet to do its own story on the same subject.
In my days as a publicist, pre-Internet, reportage by The Associated Press often resulted in a single story cropping up in the most unexpected places. It would get relayed back to me by other publicists in other cities — or, charmingly, by the parents of co-workers.
Further back, when I was a teen hungry to learn, AP coverage fed my arts interest with news of culture beyond that originated by my local paper.
What's important to note is that this week's news is not the callous edict of a commercially driven corporate behemoth, but rather a practical decision by a member-driven service organization that operates as a not-for-profit. Yet it represents how, in an ever more challenging environment for the news industry, the arts are drawing the short stick.
Some might think that coverage of these areas is essentially local news for Manhattanites. But the arts ecology is more complicated than that. Sure, many people may not be able to attend a New York opera in person, but both radio and TV broadcasts bring those performances to audiences across the country — and the AP's stories may be the most accessible source of advance coverage for fans in a variety of markets.
Dance companies may well tour to those same locations, and since few can sustain themselves playing only in Manhattan, the AP's coverage has a direct impact on the viability of those bookings as well.
As for off-Broadway? That's the easiest to argue for. It's home to a significant number of new works that may never reach Broadway, but which increase the body of theatrical literature — and which often go on to play numerous regional and amateur stages.
This is particularly important when it comes to plays (as opposed to musicals): Of the 45 works recognized by the Pulitzer for drama or the Tony for best play since 1984, only five originated on Broadway. Yet that is the arena on which the AP will now narrow its focus. Coverage of "regional" arts organizations — long hailed as a similarly deep well of creativity — has already been marginalized.
This is just the latest news in a dispiriting trend. Onetime show-business bible Variety has all but eliminated regional theater reviews, along with a significant amount of its off-Broadway coverage; there's occasional opera coverage in its pages these days, and no dance coverage.
The Village Voice, home to off-Broadway's Obie Awards, laid off drama critic Michael Feingold just weeks ago, after more than four decades of service, even as it broadened its coverage of food.
There are countless other examples: Arts coverage at outlets large and small has been narrowing in favor of the largest and most popular companies and offerings, just as arts funding sources have been shrinking, and often tilting in favor of the bigger players. That stratification will only be reinforced by the AP's coverage reductions.
There's an invisible cost here. When attempts to reduce or eliminate funding to the arts crop up — which they do with a depressing regularity — they gain traction in part because not enough people encounter the arts, or even regular coverage of the arts, on a daily basis. When a resource as mighty as The Associated Press can't even offer material for consideration because of a professed lack of interest by other media gatekeepers, I worry it'll only lend support to those who want to delegitimize the arts with a charge of elitism.
Because celebrity holds ever-increasing sway in all entertainment coverage, and because the performing arts are (to too many editors) the poor stepchild of entertainment, I have a sneaking suspicion that if Hugh Jackman ever ventures off-Broadway, when Renee Fleming sings something at the Met, wherever David Hallberg dances, The Associated Press will probably manage to tell us about it.
But we will know infinitely less about all the fine work being done by those who aren't already well known, or at companies where tragedies mercifully don't happen, or among worthy troupes that could most benefit from national attention not found elsewhere.
And should The Associated Press's decision prove to be a model for yet more media outlets, then entire swaths of the arts may be, as long feared, on the brink of popular irrelevancy. Because soon no one may know they're there.
Editor's note: Since the publication of this commentary, The Associated Press's media-relations director has issued a statement further describing the wire's coverage decision. The Poynter Institute's MediaWire blog quotes that statement in its report on our item. The opening paragraph of this commentary has been revised to emphasize that the AP is eliminating reviews of opera, dance and off-Broadway theater, not all coverage of those subjects.
Howard Sherman is an arts-management consultant and writer. He has been executive director of the American Theatre Wing and the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center (where Avenue Q was workshopped on his watch), managing director of Geva Theatre and general manager of Goodspeed Musicals. He tweets as @hesherman and blogs at hesherman.com.