The Playgoer: Sifton Defends NYT theatre coverage

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sifton Defends NYT theatre coverage

Ok, promise not to pile on the man every day this week, but he is opening himself up to public scrutiny all week. And here's an eloquent question directly about the theatre coverage--encapsulating many oft-repeated complaints--from a downtown AD.

Over the last 10 years we have seen the elimination of the Sunday theater critic, which took away a second chance for Broadway shows with a second opinion. (Famously, Clive Barnes loved “The Wiz” and loathed “Shenandoah” on Thursday and Walter Kerr loved “Shenandoah” and was mixed on “The Wiz” on Sunday. Both shows thrived — The Times loved them both.)

We have also seen the demise of the “Onstage and Off” column, as well as a drastic reduction in coverage of off and off-off Broadway productions. This was explained at one time by The Times now becoming a national rather than a local newspaper.

It’s The New York Times. New York is the theater capital of America. The Times should cover it fully. At the present time, while the coverage that exists is excellent, it is only a shadow of what the “Gray Lady” was doing in the past. This is detrimental to theater in New York, to say the least.

— Martin Platt, co-director, Perry Street Theater, New York

Good points, to be sure. But I'm happy to report Sifton gives a fair and persuasive answer that the Times is actually reviewing more shows, and more non-Broadway shows than ever before.

[T]he notion that there has been a “drastic reduction in coverage of off- and off-off Broadway productions” at The Times is just wrong, I think.

Looking back to 1997 in our in-house database of articles, I make a rough count of 286 theater reviews for the year, including the work of the Sunday critic. In 2006, by contrast, we published 516. In the past 365 days we published 449. An average season on Broadway is, what — 35 shows? We review a lot of off- and off-off Broadway theater.

And you produce more! We’re trying, and will continue trying, to cover it all.

I have indeed noticed the increased downtown coverage. Seemed like for a while they were experimenting with groups of blurb reviews (a la Voice "Sightlines" style), which are limited in their word count, but can at least expose the reader to more titles. I wouldn't mind seeing more of that, frankly.

In fact I'm seeing many of the same shows reviewed in the Times that I see in Time Out and the Voice. Many, not most. But it's a step.

What I'd like to see more of in the Times--indeed in all the local theatre sections--is an even more pronounced sense of why they're covering what their covering. I like to feel a paper has really sought out the most potentially interesting work in the furthest corners of the city, based on the artists' history, the subject matter, or the venue. Not just the lure of a forgotten TV actor or an unrelenting press rep.


Anonymous said...

The problem isn't a lack of reviews. (Although the Sunday critic was a great institution that should return.)

It's that, at least to my eye, it seems like there is a lot less theatre reporting than there was in The Times 10 years ago--especially outside of the Sunday section. Especially discussing anything other than Broadway.

And what reporting remains is dominated by celebrity-driven coverage and puff pieces.

If Jason Zinoman, say, had 800 words a week--or even every other week--devoted to exploring What's Going On In NYC Theatre, that would be a vast improvement over the current state of coverage.

Playgoer said...

I completely agree.

I'd also just like to perspma;;u attest that Dr. Cashmere is NOT a pseudonym for one Jason Zinoman.

Actually with Zinoman and Campbell Robertson they have two very fine and knowledgable theatre beat reporters. Let them loose!

The thing about the "On Stage and Off" column that WAS valuable is it at least gave reporters like Zinoman and Jesse McKinley before him a guaranteed weekly space to show their reporting. Sifton is right that news breaks too fast these days. But, hey, that doesn't devalue Michael Riedel's meager two columns a week.

You know, when you look at old, old NYT theatre pages (as I often do for research) they had a DAILY theatre news-tidbit column. Would still be do-able. Just split up the "Arts, Briefly" to separate the theatre from the Paris Hilton/Pete Doherty items.