Monday, May 18, 2009

Failing their readers.

As many long-term readers are aware, I've been highly critical of the Sun-Sentinel's practice of re-printing Miami Herald reviews in lieu of covering the event themselves.

The South Florida Theatre Scene is painfully aware of the difficulties being faced by our nation's newspapers. But at the same time, newspapers can not survive if they do not meet the needs of their readers - us.

We read newspapers so we can make informed decisions. We trust them to provide us the information we need in a timely manner. In most cases, it's the story itself that is crucial. In straight news, the facts are the facts. In straight news, it doesn't matter who reports the story as long as the story is reported accurately.

But that's only true of straight news. Commentary and review are another animal entirely, and it is commentary and review that directly impacts those trying to make decisions about arts, culture, and entertainment. This area is almost totally subjective, and the facts are not necessarily part and parcel of the complete story. In commentary and review, the party making the commentary or offering the review is critical. We are seeking the unique interpretation made by a specific individual. It's the only time bias is not only tolerated, but demanded.

In commentary or review, we, the readers, do not reach our decisions by reading a single source, because that source is subjective; it is offered through the filter of the perceptions of the journalist. At the same time, understanding that what we are reading is biased, we necessarily seek out additional points of view. It is only through reading multiple points of view that we can derive something approaching the true merit of the subject of commentary or review.

One has only to read the recent aggregation of reviews we've compiled at the Theatre Scene to understand how the many different critiques are mandatory to our ability to select those events we wish to attend.

When the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post fail to provide us with those different viewpoints, they undermine their own reason for existence. They fail in their primary mission: keeping their readership informed. It's not a matter of simply carrying a story, we need the unique perspective.

By "sharing" columnists and reviews, the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post are not "saving money" or being "cost-effective." They are ripping us off. They are stealing from us, monetarily, because we purchase their product with the understanding that they are going to provide us with fresh viewpoints, but instead sell us something we've likely already read in its original publication. And they are robbing us, morally, by depriving us of the differing perspectives we need in order to make informed decisions.

The mistake being made by our major dailies is in believing that we are only reading a single source. The truth is that if you read newspapers, you read more than one. And this is even more likely if you read the online versions. Their current business model only reduces the value of their websites; after all, if they are only carrying one version of any story, why bother visiting the other sites?

We need our daily papers - all of them. And we need them to maintain their own unique pool of reviews and commentators. A message needs to be sent to the publishers that their current practices are unacceptable, and even self-destructive. Something must be done: a stand must be taken.

Boycotting the newspapers is out of the question: after all, the Theatre Scene's primary function is aggregating all the news and reviews into a single place. That means we must read and compile all the stories we can find. And frankly, you can't promote reading papers by starting a campaign to not read them. After much consideration, the Theatre Scene has come up with a unique approach to this dilemma: the bully pulpit.

Effective immediately, when the Theatre Scene discovers that a paper has reprinted another paper's review instead of producing its own, we will not simply ignore that paper as we have done in the past. From now own, we will note that that paper as declined to cover a particular show. That notice will be at the top, above the reviews. And it will stay there. Periodically, we will tally up the number of shows each paper has declined to review.

Admittedly, this is akin to kicking them in the shins. But one can only use the tools at one's disposal.

Of course, the knee-jerk reaction of the publishers will be to not publish ANY review on a show that they might have used someone else's review on. And while that would be a more honest approach than the one they are now taking, it would also continue the dissipation of adequate coverage by the newspapers.

So on a monthly basis, the Theatre Scene will tally up the number of plays reviewed by the three major dailies, and contrast it to the number of plays that opened that month. Of course, we will only count plays reviewed by the paper's own dedicated theatre reviewer.

We hope that you, the reader, will send emails to the publishers of the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post, as warranted. Let them know, in no uncertain terms, how you feel about their coverage, or the lack thereof.

Who to contact:

Miami Herald
Anders Gyllenhaal, Executive Editor,
Dave Wilson, Senior Editor/Administration,

Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel:
Howard Greenberg, Publisher,
Earl Maucker, Editor-in-Chief,

Palm Beach Post
Alex Taylor, Publisher,
John Bartosek, Editor,

1 comment:

  1. thank goodness for blogs such as this, or theatre lovers would be s.o.l.