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Slash And Burn

December 24, 2008

It's interesting to read James Surowiecki's latest financial column in The New Yorker about the state of the newspaper business in the light of the current situation at SF Weekly, the publication for which I write a regular weekly column about theatre.

Two years ago at this time in December, the average SF Weekly was 104 pages long. This month, we've alternated between 72 and 80 pages (after having a couple of 64-page papers in November). Historically, January is a slow month for ad sales and the paper shrinks. The recession will likely magnify this seasonal trend. As a result, the powers that be have been forced to make some cuts to content, and, unsurprisingly, the Stage section is taking a big hit in the months ahead. The paper's coverage of theatre will drop from three plays -- my 1,000-word column plus two 200-word capsule reviews -- to just my column. The publication will not be running capsules in January. The situation is likely to remain the same in February and March at least.

This is unhappy news for my great team of capsule reviewers at SF Weekly. I'm sad about it too, as making decisions about which shows to review among the hundreds to pick from each month has been hard enough in the past. Now the task is going to be even more difficult. Even more terrible though, is the impact of the falling coverage on the local theatre scene. Small companies in particular rely heavily on reviews not just for selling tickets but also for getting grants. In these tough economic times, the fall-off in media interest is particularly crippling.

Surowiecki doesn't really provide any solutions to the problem in his column. But one part of the article in particular, about the ill effects of the impoverishment of content owing to reduced media ad sales, struck me as particularly poignant:

"Papers’ attempts to deal with the new environment by cutting costs haven’t helped: trimming staff and reducing coverage make newspapers less appealing to readers and advertisers. It may be no coincidence that papers that have avoided the steepest cutbacks, like the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, have done a better job of holding onto readers."

For publications like SF Weekly which depend almost entirely on ad sales, the future is bleak. I'm lucky to have an independent outlet for my writing about theatre -- this blog. And it's great that arts organizations across the Bay Area are becoming increasingly open to coverage on the blogosphere especially from trusted sources with a strong track record and brand recognition such as former Oakland Tribune critic Chad Jones' blog Theatre Dogs, Karen D'Souza's blog at the San Jose Mercury News website and (hem, hem) my own effort here at lies like truth.

But because I don't (yet) derive any income from blogging and don't have a trust fund, my ability to cover lots of theatrical productions as a blogger is somewhat limited by the need to make a living.

As Surowiecki points out, the business model for the future of the media industry is still in the balance. I'm optimistic that coverage will bounce back -- doubtless helmed by efforts on the Web. It's just going to take a little while.

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