It is no surprise that the Guardian's decision to cut Lyn Gardner's regular blogs has been met with consternation by the theatre industry. Earlier this week 40 theatre companies signed a letter asking the editors to rethink their decision, while an online petition has reached nearly 2,000 signatures.
As a Guardian member I was especially affronted; I signed up precisely to protect their arts coverage, Gardner's voice in particular. And in a week when editor Kath Viner has trumpeted the membership numbers (over 200k), it's doubly odd that they have made this decision.
It's no secret that the Guardian is in dire financial straits - it's projected to lose £90m over the coming year. But Gardner's blogs seem a drop in the ocean in that context. I assume every section editor has been given a budget cap, which is never an easy situation. But to cut the one area of its theatre coverage that regularly highlights the fringe and work outside London is a crying shame.
Even if Gardner's blogs are salvaged, there remains the wider issue of the near-destruction of arts journalism as a profession. Alex Ross has written eloquently in The New Yorker about the fate of critics in the 'clickbait age'. He points out that as reviews don't tend to get big hits they are subsequently devalued, but that to measure success on this basis is deadly. He's right. But no amount of argument can change the fact that unless new funding models are found, and found quickly, professional arts journalism will soon be extinct.
'It could be that theatre companies themselves will have to fill the funding void'
Some comfort lies in the fact the internet is still in its infancy and many of the models that could support journalists in the future are still to be found. But what could those models be?
I recently ran a poll on Twitter suggesting four sources of revenue for theatre journalism: The Arts Council, private sponsorship, Patreon (individual donations) and paywalls. The latter of these narrowly emerged as the winner, suggesting people are beginning to endorse the 'Murdoch model' of paid-for content: The Stage is steadily adopting this approach and making a success of it. But many others have tried and failed. The truth is the theatre industry can probably only support one specialist title.
My former stamping ground WhatsOnStage keeps its content free through a mixture of advertising, club memberships and ticket affiliates. But again, it's debatable whether there is room for more than one theatre-specific site to make a success of this approach. And the key thing about specialist sites is that they tend to speak to a specialist audience. The reason the Gardner cut has caused such an outcry is that she has a platform on one of the world's most popular news sites.
It could be that theatre companies themselves will have to fill the funding void. As my former WhatsOnStage colleague Andrew Girvan wrote on Facebook, what if the 40 companies petitioning over Gardner's blog chipped in a few hundred pounds each out of their marketing budgets to fund it? This approach may raise questions over editorial objectivity, but could well be the only hope for preserving it in the future. I'm also hopeful that start-ups such as Curtain Call, which uses a subscription model, will become an ever-more important platform for writers such as myself.
But wherever things go from here, one thing is certain. If radical new models are not adopted soon, the voices of many more arts journalists will fall silent.
- Theo Bosanquet
Image: Screenshot of one of Lyn Gardner's soon-to-finish Guardian blogs
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