Monday, May 24, 2010

How the Sun-Sentinel Fails the Community

Last week, I was speaking with the director of a local ballet school.  I sometimes feel guilty that I don't cover dance in the Theatre Scene, but just covering legitimate theatre is a large task, and lines had to be drawn somewhere.  But that's not the purpose of this article.  As you gather from the title, I'm once again on the soapbox about arts coverage.

You think it's difficult getting plays reviewed, try producing Ballet - or any kind of dance.  This director was complaining about the difficulties of getting the Miami Herald's dance critic, Jordan Levin, out to cover their performances.  Granted, it's a school, and they don't do that many performances, but they mount at least one completely original ballet a year, and that's news-worthy.  The nature of the complaint was that Levin covers everything that Miami City Ballet does, but very little else.  Furthermore, the one time Levin came out to review a show by this company, most of the review centered on how a particular member of the company had studied and danced for years - at Miami City Ballet!

So what does this have to do with the Sun-Sentinel?  Why am I picking on them yet again?  It's because of the next thing the director said to me;
"...try submitting a review to a grant panel that extolls the virtue of your competitor instead of the value of your work!  It's bad enough that we only have one or two articles to show for a year of work.  And when you think you've found another story in another paper, it's the same one again!"
If you're not in arts administration, you may never have been involved in writing grants.  Grants are critical to the financial health of the arts; it's expensive to produce plays.  Ever wonder why Broadway ticket prices are so high?  It's because Broadway producers don't get grants and donations to help underwrite the costs of production.  If local groups had to do it on ticket sales alone, ticket prices would nearly double.  Worse, they wouldn't have that money until showtime; that's a lot of debt to carry.

(Before the conservative elements start wailing about tax dollars, grants are as likely - and these days more likely - to come from private foundations or corporate endowments.)

So how do reviews relate to grants?  Well, part of the process requires the applicant to include documentation.  This includes payroll and accounting records, of course, but to prove that the applicant is actively performing and reaching out to the public, they have to include reviews of their performances, and articles about classes, outreach programs, and other evidence to show that the applicant is active in their community.

This is where the falling coverage from traditional media directly impacts our economy.  By not covering the activities of these organizations, our newspapers are basically cutting off our arts organizations from millions of dollars in grant money.  Funds that would be spent on equipment and labor and services - funds that would come back into our community.

The Miami Herald is about the only paper still making a strong showing.  The Palm Beach Post, to its credit, has taken a step back in the right direction by bringing back Hap Erstein on at least a limited basis. But the Sun-Sentinel is failing us, and failing us badly.

Grant review boards want to see a number articles with different points of view; reprinting a local story doesn't benefit arts organizations for the same reason it doesn't benefit its readers; it doesn't offer a point of view unique to the Sun Sentinel.  News coverage only works if you get numerous stories by numerous writers covering a single event.  A single story about that event reprinted a dozen times does not constitute "numerous stories," and it certainly can't be considered "coverage."

Re-printing articles from the Post and the Herald, the Sentinel gives only the appearance of covering the arts, without providing any actual news tothe community it claims to serve: if we can read the same story by the same reporter in the Herald or the Post first, why should we bother with the Sun-Sentinel?  What are they offering that is worth the cover price? 

If it is to survive, the Sentinel needs to start generating content.  This is what is expected from a daily newspaper.

1 comment:

  1. Great post!
    Sorry for being a bit tardy to this story but I agree with everything written here, since the parallels to South Florida media's news coverage of local govt. and public policy are all too sadly obvious to ignore. Especially the part about actually having to try to personally persuade reporters and columnists to actually
    show-up at an event and report!

    Despite the myriad story-lines at Hallandale Beach City Hall, where anti-democratic and plain illegal behavior has gone un-checked for years under the current regime, the Miami Herald has only sent a reporter to a City Commission once in the past two years.

    And they continually ignore stories with great portent for the area... simply because they are in HB, but if the same thing happned in Coral Gables or Plantation or Kendall, it'd be on the front page of the local section.

    The local media's lack of curiosity is so troubling on so many levels, should it really be any wonder that so many drama and/or public policy enthusiasts in South Florida just shrug their shoulders when they hear about more news reporters getting laid-off? Why should we care about THEIR career troubles?
    Increasingly, we don't.