The New York Times this week quietly ended its coverage of restaurants, art galleries, theaters and other commercial and nonprofit businesses in the tri-state region, laying off dozens of longtime contributors and prompting protests from many of the institutions that will be affected. They foresee an impact not only on patronage but, in the case of the nonprofits, on their ability to raise funds to survive.
“For all of us in the arts, this decision is an unmitigated disaster,” Bram Lewis, artistic director of the Schoolhouse Theater in the Northern Westchester hamlet of Croton Falls, told Deadline in an email. “The Schoolhouse Theater has been reviewed by Times critics
“For all of us in the arts, this decision is an unmitigated disaster,” says artistic director Bram Lewis. “Our record will be gone. The 50% jump in box office will be gone. The support in funding with a Times review will be gone.”
Alvin Klein, David Dewitt and Sylviane Gold for more than 30 years, our record will be gone. The 50% jump in box office will be gone. The support in funding with a Times review will be gone, the ability to fund-raise, build a board and be recognized among peers for artistic excellence will be all but silenced.”
The change comes as the NYT revamps its coverage of several beats, from Los Angeles to the New York metro region. When the paper announced this month it will no longer cover local fires and crimes, Public Editor Liz Spayd cautiously defended the decision, asking in her August 6 column, “Why should a newsroom that just announced lofty international ambitions spend resources covering news of no interest to readers in Beijing or London?”
Deadline has obtained an email dated August 2 from Times metropolitan editor Wendell Jamieson to more than two dozen freelance critics and reporters telling them their services would no longer be needed:
“Dean Baquet and I have decided that the resources and energy currently devoted to these local pages could be better directed elsewhere. Therefore, we will publish our final reviews and features in the New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island and Connecticut editions on August 28. The Metropolitan section as it appears in New York City will still be published and circulated throughout the region, but it will no longer include zoned content…Sorry about this, folks. I want to thank you for all you’ve done, all the fine writing you’ve given our readers. I wish you all the best.”
The effects of the layoffs extend beyond the contributors to the Times‘ local coverage. Over half the region’s population of 20.2 million people live in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut suburbs. Businesses and nonprofits there, as in the city, rely heavily on Times coverage — not only as so many local news outlets have disappeared, but also because of the legitimacy a Times review or feature story confers.
“Long Island boasts one of the country’s most thriving restaurant communities outside of a major city,” says Ryan Sutton, the chief critic at influential food site Eater New York and a highly regarded tracker of the industry. “(Longtime reviewer) Joanne Starkey’s recommendations helped shape how Long Island eats. Every single Long Island restaurant worth its salt has a framed New York Times review hanging up in the foyer. Now millions of residents will have one less source of authority. And that’s no small matter, given that second-rate Long Island restaurants often charge as much as their NYC counterparts. Those restaurants need critical pushback.”
The move also has heightened anxieties on the Times culture desk that reassignments or cuts in the department’s full-time staff are imminent. Insiders have told Deadline that critics and reporters have been compelled to take crash courses in producing for the Times website, in the hopes that the culture report — in which the paper has a historically proprietary interest — increases online viewership. Efforts to make the culture report more reader friendly can be seen in the recent proliferation of stories in which top critics interview artists they or their colleagues cover. (Such features are a mainstay of most publications, but the Times has until now maintained a fairly impermeable wall between critics and the people they cover.)
The Times declined Deadline’s requests for comment from metropolitan editor Jamieson and culture editor Danielle Mattoon. (Disclosure: I was a reporter and columnist for the Times from 1986-1991.) Danielle Rhoades Ha, the paper’s VP Communications, told Deadline that “the training you mention in your email below is happening across the newsroom and is not unique to any desk.”
The New York suburbs are home to much of the city’s cultural elite, some of whom also are angered by the cessation of local coverage. Mark Lamos, a director with major credits in the theater and opera worlds, is also the artistic director of the Westport Country Playhouse, a venerated nonprofit favored by neighbors Joanne Woodward and the late Paul Newman, among many other well-known artists, and a producer of shows that occasionally landed on Broadway.
“The impact is profound,” Lamos told Deadline in an email. “Our audience relies on the Times to bring them up-to-date cultural news. We have a vital and robust theater scene that has been in the forefront of the American nonprofit theater movement for years, not to mention great restaurants, important museums and musical performances of rare distinction. Why let your readership down? I find it inexplicable. Money, I guess.”
The economic impact of a Times review isn’t news — but the loss of those reviews will be felt by those commercial and nonprofit businesses. Chef and restaurateur Greg Grossman recently opened Oreya in tony Southampton on Long Island’s East End, where Times readers are wont to summer. Oreya earned a glowing review from freelance reviewer Kurt Wenzel, who waxed especially fond of the branzino. The stamp of approval was immediately felt.
“There’s no more coveted review than the New York Times,” Grossman told Deadline in a telephone interview. “We opened at the half-season with no street sign, and most locals didn’t even know we existed until the Times review came out. The weekday impact was instant. We went from about 50 people in the dining room on Wednesday and Thursday nights to 150. And they ordered three times more branzino than before the review. People rely on those reviews.”
“Local communities are the biggest losers,” says reviewer Kurt Wenzel, “since a new theater run or restaurant won’t get the opportunity to reach the sophisticated audience that the Times attracts.”
In making the changes on the Metro desk, the Times said its reasons were structural and philosophical, not economic (an argument that caused even the Public Editor to raise an eyebrow). And it’s hard to imagine, given the pittance freelancers are typically paid by the Times, that laying off a couple of dozen writers will save buckets of money. But the impact on the businesses they cover, and the watchdog role that the Times plays in so many other areas, is likely to be felt throughout the region populated by the paper’s most loyal readers and advertisers.
Wenzel was philosophical about being given the boot. “This is, in my opinion, the real shame of ending this part of the Metro section (beyond the livelihood of writers),” he wrote in an email. “The fact that there is now much less oversight of local culture and entertainment. Local communities are the biggest losers, since a new theater run or restaurant won’t get the opportunity to reach the sophisticated audience that the Times attracts.”
Schoolhouse Theater’s Bram Lewis is less sanguine about the loss of Times reviews. “It’s a stunningly wrong decision,” he said. “When the Paper of Record no longer sees a need to record, we are stranded. Close to half the Sunday Times [readership] is in the regions, and they all jump to their local pages first. It took decades to win such loyalty.”