Arts Commentary: The Declining State of the Art of Arts Journalism

By Bob Abelman

Theater critics, film reviewers, A&E editors, and arts columnists have been stripped from our dailies and weeklies. Why should you care? Oscar Wilde warned that an age without criticism is “an age that possesses no art at all.”

French lithographer Honoré Daumier’s The Promenade of the Influential Critic, first published in the Le Charivari magazine, June 24, 1865.

During the days of Shakespeare and Jonson, professional drama critics didn’t scuttle out of the Rose, Swan, or Globe theaters to meet a deadline for the morning edition. If the stage was mentioned at all in print during the Bard’s day, it was usually in the context of a fiery controversy between the dramatists and the politicians or the Puritans.

A literate audience large enough to warrant the establishment of newspapers and magazines carrying reviews didn’t surface in earnest until the 1700s. In London at that time the theater critic was usually treated with disinterest and disrespect. According to one historical text, it was an occupation pursued only by “managerial toadies who were puffing their own wares, opportunistic knockers, [or] unclassified eccentrics.” In the United States, theater criticism was described as a product fit for “fly-by-night news-sheets and scurrilous pamphlets popping up everywhere, mingling blind-item theatrical gossip with detailed analysis, often willfully and malevolently inaccurate, of plays and performances.”

Of course, the power and notoriety of the arts critic grew over the decades, perhaps because becoming culturally informed was seen as a democratic good, or at least it had accrued social cachet. Nobody wanted to be considered a lowbrow. Just a few decades ago, in fact, American critics were seen as an elite corps of taste-makers, culture shapers, and standard bearers, writing in the most arts-centric cities in the country for the most powerful publications in the world.

But, over the past few decades, things have changed. Reviewers have become an endangered species in the arts ecosystem. “We critics, reviewers, consumer reporters are the dung beetles of culture. Our job is to consume excrement,” admitted David Cote in 2010, then the theater editor and chief drama critic for Time Out New York. “But by doing so,” he added, we are “enriching the soil and protecting livestock from bacterial infection in the process. We are intrinsic to the theater ecology. Eliminate us at your peril.” This statement was made after the unexpected and unprecedented sacking of Variety’s chief film critic Todd McCarthy and chief theater critic David Rooney. “Cost-cutting” was the watered-down explanation offered by Neil Stiles, president of the publication.

The layoffs at Variety were just the tip of the iceberg. Arts journalism in print has been in an accelerating state of crisis ever since, reeling from a digital revolution that has seen decreased print subscriptions, diminished print advertising, and more than one in five newspapers in the United States being shuttered. At this point, the number of journalists working for existing papers have been cut in half, according to the New Yorker. As part of the collateral damage, the ranks of the professional critic, reviewer, A&E editor, and arts writer have similarly dwindled, including the above-quoted David Cote. The Chicago Tribune’s Lori Waxman neatly explained the shrinkage in her 2020 commentary “Where Have All the Arts Critics Gone” — when money is tight, “arts coverage is often the first to go.”

Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg

Over the past decade, two longtime film critics at Newsday, Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour, took buyouts. Ruth Reichl was one of the last towering food critics, but her magazine, Gourmet, folded. Nathan Lee, one of the Village Voice’s full-time film critics, was laid off — and so was the late drama critic Michael Feingold — before the storied New York alt-weekly eventually shut down in 2018 after a 63-year run. After 18 years with the Denver Post, theater critic John Moore was released. Steven Leigh Morris, the longtime theater editor and critic at the LA Weekly, survived six rounds of layoffs before he was let go and his position eliminated. Bloomberg News, the NYC-based news company, laid off its theater critic Jeremy Gerard. Literary critics and classical music critics fell by the wayside when McClatchy, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country, cut 10 percent of its workforce. The New York Times has chosen to reduce the amount and scope of its theater criticism, with only one full-time theater critic and a string of freelancers supplementing the coverage. The Associated Press lessened its coverage of Off-Broadway, opera, and dance productions.

Noted TV critics at major-market dailies — including the Dallas Morning News, Seattle-Post Intelligencer, New York’s Daily News, and the Houston Chronicle — had been either let go or reassigned. All this is happening when there are more television program outlets and streaming options than ever before. “The fact that newspapers are giving up this role as navigators over this most pervasive of mediums,” noted Dave Walker, former president of the Television Critics Association, “is totally weird to me.”

The pandemic has added more to the casualty list, with full-time arts critics and journalists replaced by a parade of jobbing freelancers with little experience and even less clout. In Cleveland, in an article titled “The Death of Thought at the Plain Dealer,” Scene Magazine senior writer Sam Allard had this to say about the current state of arts criticism after the latest series of layoffs in 2020:

The PD/ is utterly devoid of cultural criticism. Almost unbelievably, there is no movie critic on staff anymore. There is no TV critic. There hasn’t been a full-time book critic for years. There is no theater critic. There certainly isn’t a dance critic. While there is routine coverage of the openings and closings on the action-packed Cleveland restaurant scene, there is no dining critic. The classical music writer is now freelance. There is no comedy columnist or humorist, no nightlife columnist, no gossip columnist, no “minister of culture.” There is no pop music critic.

As for Scene itself, a free alternative weekly newspaper, arts and entertainment coverage has also been dramatically constricted, particularly during the Covid-19 period. The music editor, Jeff Niesel, who reviewed concerts, interviewed local bands and touring acts, and assembled the weekly concert listings in the home of rock ‘n’ roll, was among those laid off in the pandemic’s wake. And much of Allard’s resource-intensive feature reporting and investigative work, which includes film criticism, has been replaced by daily blogging responsibilities. “I’ve maintained that the pace of the modern digital newsroom is inversely proportional to thoughtfulness,” says Allard. “And arts criticism, which is only valuable when it’s thoughtful, tends not to fit into the equation.”

New ownership by ever more extractive, cost-cutting, union-bashing private equity firms, hedge funds, and billionaires is also leading to attrition. Following financial struggles at the Jeff Bezos–owned Washington Post — and facing the strong possibility of being laid off — the paper’s longtime theater critic Peter Marks took a buyout (one of 240 offered by the outlet). He left the newspaper on December 31, 2023. A replacement hire is unlikely.

In Rhode Island, the Providence Journal — the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in the United States — has also been hollowed out by corporate owners. According to the Boston Globe, several rounds of company-wide layoffs, hiring freezes, suspension of company contributions to 401(k) accounts, and mandatory unpaid leaves started gradually, but have been increasingly dramatic after the largest newspaper in Rhode Island was bought by GateHouse Media in 2014. The company merged with Gannett in 2019 and, with falling circulation, the corporation’s knives were out as over 60 journalists across at least 18 publications lost their jobs. In 2022, the company announced that it was reducing arts coverage and discontinuing publishing event listings from arts groups in all its Massachusetts and Rhode Island papers.

As the quantity and quality of professional arts coverage and criticism in major media outlets erodes, so too does much of the public’s awareness of, attention to, and discussion about the arts. And yet, alternative sources of arts coverage are surfacing. But are they too little, too underachieving, and too late?

The Mercenary Critic

Courtesy of Colin Mitchell, former editor-in-chief of Bitter Lemons.

In 2015, in an effort to fill the increasing void in credible arts criticism in Los Angeles, Bitter Lemons – a newly formed theater criticism website — mounted a pay-per-play initiative. After signing up a team of veteran freelance critics, called the “Review Brigade,” the website invited theaters to pay a rotating crew of interchangeable bylines to come and review their productions.

For $150, a theater would receive a review of at least 300 words that was suitable for posting and quoting, although payment did not guarantee a positive review.

Then-LA Weekly theater critic Steven Leigh Morris was, quite understandably, not a fan of the mercenary criticism offered by Bitter Lemons. “Regardless of any critic’s claim that payment by his subject won’t affect his independence,” he argued in an editorial, “when the theaters become the critics’ employers… it places the primary relationship of the critic with the theater rather than the reader.”

And when blurbs from the reviews are reposted or quoted in advertisements, he added, there’s no way for readers to know whether these words of praise are the result of thoughtful and disinterested reflection — or a cashed paycheck.

The American Theater Critics Association agreed. It released a statement deploring this practice, noting that it “creates a clear appearance of conflict of interest [that] undermines the crucial credibility of not only the Bitter Lemons critics, but all critics.” And because theaters could purchase as many reviews as they wished until they got one that was sufficiently favorable, said the ATCA, criticism itself was compromised.

Prominent members of the L.A. theater community labeled the Bitter Lemons plan “predatory,” since it preyed largely on the smaller, lesser-established, publicity-starved theaters. But can we blame them?

The banner on the Bitter Lemons website reads: “Bringing Los Angeles theater together. Whether it likes it or not.” The website’s goal was the “democratization of theater criticism.” It could be argued that the enterprise leveled the playing field for smaller theaters that were marginalized by the big dailies or underserved by the poorly staffed weeklies, even before the recent cutbacks and layoffs.

It can also be charged that much of the outrage expressed by employed critics is a bit hypocritical. After all, isn’t there always the risk of compromise when separating editorial from advertising when papers run reviews and also accept advertising dollars from those same theaters? (Or in some cases serve as “Media Sponsors” for stage productions.)

And can’t critical independence be challenged because reviewers accept “comp” tickets offered by theaters — a practice that dates back to the 18th century — rather than pay our own way when reviewing a show?

Bitter Lemons folded a few years after it began, suggesting that mercenary criticism — whether as a form of payola or a promising paradigm shift in arts journalism — was either an unsustainable and unpopular business model or just ahead of its time. Ten years later, with the list of critical casualties rising, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some sort of variation on Bitter Lemons popping up in major markets, composed of former critics of major, big market newspapers.

But what of the smaller markets?

Rural Mirages: The Rise of Non-Metropolitan Newspaper Barons

Photo: courtesy of

While headlines have focused on the strategic maneuvering of the biggest newspaper chains, privately owned regional chains have been aggressively buying dailies and weeklies in small and mid-sized markets that were shed by corporate giants. The result: news deserts in rural areas.

“Invariably, the economically struggling, traditionally underserved communities that need local journalism the most are the very places it is most difficult to sustain either print or digital news organizations,” said Penelope Abernathy, from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

Since the pandemic, three companies have valiantly attempted to reverse the tide: CherryRoad Media now owns over 80 papers in Midwestern states, most of which were bought from Gannett; Paxton Media owns 120 newspapers in 10 Southern and Midwestern states; and Ogden Newspapers owns 101 papers in 18 states stretching from New Hampshire to Hawaii. These companies run their newspaper operations at a relatively low profit margin and supplement the traditional media business by offering technology services in its new markets — designing, launching, and hosting websites, for instance.

A key factor in these purchased papers’ profit margins is the maintenance of a very limited newsroom. Kyle Troutman, editor of the Cassville Democrat and Monett Times, told me (in an email exchange) that when the Monett Times (Monett, Missouri is a small city of around 9,000 people) was purchased by CherryRoad Media in 2022, the paper was run “with only an editor and two reporters on staff.” And arts coverage? “Those reporters covered everything,” he added. “We never had an arts journalist position, but the reporters’ duties had them covering the SKITS theatre group, Ozark Festival Orchestra, and Cassville Arts Council.”

Limited arts coverage by catch-all reporters is better than no coverage at all. And making do with privately owned regional chains of newspapers is certainly better than no newspaper at all.

Vanishing Borders and Expanding Beats

In light of the Providence Journal being gutted by its corporate owners, the Boston Globe launched a dedicated team of journalists to cover Rhode Island. “We saw opportunity in Rhode Island, where quite honestly great newspapers like the Providence Journal were seeing significant cuts and that market is particularly engaged in news,” said then-editor Brian McGrory in an interview with NiemanLab.

Globe Rhode Island launched in 2019 with a small team of journalists with deep ties to Rhode Island” and with the intention “to tell more of the [Rhode Island] stories and tell different stories. There’s a lot of room for more journalism in the state,” noted Lylah M. Alphonse, editor of Globe Rhode Island. “Since then, we’ve added more dedicated reporters who live in and love the Ocean State. We’ve added new beats and initiatives, so we can drill down on the important issues that may not be getting the coverage they deserve.” Included is a critic dedicated to covering the Providence-area professional theater scene.

Playwright Oscar Wilde once wrote that criticism “takes the cumbersome mass of creative work, and distils it into a finer essence,” adding that “the duty of imposing form upon chaos does not grow less as the world advances.” He warned that an age without criticism is “an age that possesses no art at all.” Clearly, we’re not there yet, but those who care about the future of the arts should be afraid of all that is going to disappear if professional critics, reviewers, A&E editors, and arts writers, anxious to reinvent themselves, can’t find welcoming homes where they can sustain their craft.

Bob Abelman reviews theater for the Globe Rhode Island and Motif magazine. He is the former theater critic for the Austin Chronicle and the author of two theater-centric fictionalized memoirs, All The World’s a Stage Fright and its sequel, Murder, Center Stage. 


  1. Steve Provizer on February 14, 2024 at 12:54 pm

    To single out one element from your interesting article: “comping” critics to events. If the critic works for a large media outlet, that outlet should pick up the cost of a ticket. However, almost all critics don’t, and their reviewing activities would be severely curtailed if they had to pay for tickets. Less coverage would ensue and that’s not what we’re after. And, almost 100% of the time it’s venues that supply tickets, not artists. So the issue of a comped ticket tainting a review is pretty much a non-starter.

    • Bob Abelman on February 14, 2024 at 6:23 pm

      Yes, most theater critics at large media outlets (including me) receive comped tickets from the theaters. And, yes, it is highly unlikely that this exchange impacts a review. No professional critic worth their salt would remain in that position for long if their views could be so easily compromised. I simply raised the issue in the context of the pay-per-play Bitter Lemons phenomenon, where compromise is much more likely.

  2. Franklin on February 15, 2024 at 7:46 am

    It’s no accident that most of these layoffs date from 2020. Axiomatically, the state of art criticism can be in no better condition than its subject. Clifton Duncan has argued that the theater world wildly overreacted to Covid and will never recover:

    2020 also saw the weaponization of identity politics and its subsequent effect on arts programming. The contents of the 40th and final season of the New Rep speaks for itself:

    It is like this to varying degrees all over the arts.

    Then there is the situation of criticism itself. Younger readers apparently prefer aggregate viewer/reader/consumer reviews to the singular and necessarily hierarchical voices of critics. Long denigration of the canon in all disciplines for its lack of representation – true enough, though one questions the depth of the critique – has deprived them who would enjoy the arts of a common set of assumptions to which a critic might speak.

    In general, I doubt that the papers are scrapping arts coverage out of greed or philisitinism, but because they’ve asked their audiences what they’re reading, and the critics keep landing at the bottom of the list. Much of the damage to their reputations was, if not exactly self-inflicted, at least partially the product of widespread bad assumptions and bad practices. You could argue that would-be New Rep attendees would have stayed away even if Covid protocols were sensible and the theater’s offerings were diverse in a real sense and not the colloquial one of the DEI regime, and that the economics of journalism would have wiped out the critics in any case. But now that Bari Weiss’s Free Press has more subscribers than the Dallas Morning News, the critics should perhaps think about the candor of their voices and find another model, as it seems that truth-telling continues to be in demand.

    • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 16, 2024 at 9:22 am

      The COVID-killed-the-theater argument has some merit, but long-term economic and cultural forces have been slowly squeezing the performing arts over a cliff for well over a decade. Michael J. Kaiser’s prescient Curtains? The Future of the Arts in America was published in 2015 and it predicted much of what is happening now — the pandemic accelerated many of the corrosive trends that he examines. Greed and philistinism are not the only culprits — just part of the unhealthy mix.

      As for arts criticism, it has been systematically decimated over the past two decades. Now the same forces — rapacious economics and AI-fueled technology — are coming for the newsrooms. (In 2023 there were a tidal wave of layoffs in broadcast, print, and digital news media. This was not pandemic related.) I heartily agree that some of the problems afflicting arts journalism are self-inflicted: critics became bland, boring, and docile — craven diplomats rather than independent judges. But it is also part of a general cultural/intellectual breakdown, greed and philistinism playing their fair share.

      As for the amusing statement “truth-telling continues to be in demand” I would suggest a good look at what sits at the top of the news feeds generated by major social media — such innocence rates a Mencken-inspired horse laugh.

      • Steve on February 16, 2024 at 2:10 pm

        I don’t know the world of theater criticism, but I can say that film and music criticism have suffered because they’ve turned into gig work or a hobby rather than a profession which receives institutional support or pays anything close to a living wage. The demise of Pitchfork may end up benefiting Substack (which has its own problems with grifters and the far right), but how many of the writers they fired could even make a substantial part-time income there? And the fact that individual writers have to try and find an audience for their own work on social media without real support from a newspaper or website has contributed to the culture of hot takes and brain-dead contrarianism.

        • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 16, 2024 at 4:11 pm

          You are pretty much on the money.There is none. Even when a precious few theater critics had institutional support, most were freelance — and making a living that way was near impossible. I did from the ’80s through the ’90s — after 2000 there was no chance. The already low rates were not being raised (they are still rock bottom in most publications) and work dried up. I don’t know what the pay scale was at Pitchfolk, but suspect that it was not all that generous. The reality is that, over the past two decades, arts reviewing has become a hobby (attaining a living wage is a chimera). Exiled to the lower depths, arts criticism has ended up discrediting itself, afflicted with what you say and so much more — lack of knowledge, nerve, editorial oversight, etc. And now the mainstream news media is going to be sliced and diced in the same way.

          As for Substack, I have moved the Arts Fuse newsletter there. The problem with hate speech is that it is everywhere — it is in universities, social media, etc. My biggest beef with Substack is that too many of its writers have come down with bad case of logorrhea. There are no editors … so it attracts writers who like to blather … and blather … and blather. And that sin cuts across the ideological spectrum.

      • Franklin on February 17, 2024 at 12:31 pm

        I didn’t say that the demand was universal, only that it existed. The dwindling field of criticism might benefit from studying the success stories.

        • Bill Marx, Editor The Arts Fuse on February 17, 2024 at 2:04 pm

          Understood, but are we talking about ideological dogma or arts criticism?

          There is no ultimate truth-telling in criticism (this is assuming that the reviewer is honest, and not prevaricating or on the take). Arts criticism for the Greeks was essentially an act of judgment — it involved debate over evidence, analysis, and feeling. It was a form of rhetoric – how persuasive could you be about your take on the art under scrutiny. That notion of informed, disinterested debate propelled the evolution of arts criticism in 18th century English coffeehouses and magazines as well. Granted, some heavy hitters, like Samuel Johnson, tried to utter final words about artists. For example, he attempted to sink the metaphysical poets — like John Donne — but failed. So much for his “truth.” Boswell records energetic bouts (of talk) when the greatest critic of his time was plainly out argued by opponents. Once, poignantly, by Boswell himself, who had to overcome his insecurity when disagreeing with the Great Cham.

          Is it a truth that Tolstoy is a great artist? I would not dare to disagree, but I am fascinated by critical counterarguments – in the same way that Tolstoy’s negative criticism of Shakespeare fascinates. T.S. Eliot tried to shove Milton aside. Nothing is settled. Art’s value must be asserted afresh — journalistic criticism is about the spirit, not the letter, of aesthetics.

          What is needed today is not cultural criticism that sets out “the truth” – we have armies on social media droning on to that end. What would help arts criticism survive is an expansive understanding of what it can do — beyond the death-grip of serving as a gossip/consumer guide. Editorial spaces should be preserved where robust exchanges filled with evidence and analysis are welcomed. (That is what The Arts Fuse is all about.) There are not enough of those outlets; if Bari Weiss’s Free Press is one of them, that’s all to the good.

          Do I want to read “the truth” about art – via dogmatic edicts handed down like tablets from on high? Do I want to see people I disagree with vanquished because they are writing untruths? Not really. I read arts criticism to be challenged, stimulated, to be made to think about art, experience it in deeper ways. It is one vital way (not the only one) in which the value of the arts to society and our souls is articulated. Arts criticism has always been about clashing points of view — what Nabokov called “strong opinions” — that should be crafted to persuade, not bully.

  3. Howard Mandel on February 16, 2024 at 9:18 am

    As president of the Jazz Journalists Association, I am concerned about the dearth of paying positions for journalism about the arts, but also take heart from the artists I cover, who will not stop making music regardless of the size of their fan base. Similarly, jazz journalists keep writing about, photographing and broadcasting jazz, an American-originated art form that’s spread worldwide and garners lip-service acclaim more than market share. People want to communicate and will continue to do so, despite challenges and even obstacles. They may have to do so without being paid for it. I think that problem is asserting itself for a lot of non-fiction and fiction writers, too. Maybe serious writers overall.

  4. Kai on February 17, 2024 at 3:41 pm

    As a book reviewer I once put actual bread on the table thanks to the LAT, NYT, Newsweek, etc. Now it’s pieces for ‘smaller’ publications such as The Arts Fuse. Luckily I can continue to contribute to what is essentially arts charity, as long as hope remains that some readers welcome a professional’s take. For me this means drawing on a deeply informed perspective (my ‘beats’ are lit in translation, especially from the German, French and Japanese). It means honest discussion of strengths and weaknesses, while working to present my perforce subjective preferences in such a way that readers are free to form their own.

    As to the larger picture–can tech be forced to find a way to tag (like cancer warnings on cigs) AI generated or tainted works?

  5. Rob J Kennedy on February 19, 2024 at 4:54 pm

    It’s the same in education as it is in arts criticism, at least it is here in Australia. The previous government doubled and tripled humanities degrees. The results of this for the arts industries are obvious.

    But even before the conservatives started gutting the arts through their ideology, the MSM, particularly newspapers had been getting rid of reviewers to cut cost as their advertising revenues decreased. I can’t blame them that much, but did they ever do readership demographics, were their arts articles the least read? I suggest no.

    We once had a newspaper here that led arts coverage and reviews. The Canberra Times. Now it has possibly the smallest readership in Australia. And they do not have dedicated arts reviewers at all.

    Newspapers have cut their own throats.

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