With the election finally behind us, several of the nation’s most important newspapers took this awkward moment to begin major staff cutbacks this week, and it’s the world of culture and pop culture, not merely the ink-stained journalists, that will feel the impact. The decline and fall of newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal will have a devastating impact on theater, independent film, art and music, as reported earlier this week by Deadline’s Jeremy Gerard. The rise of the “alternative media” already has left its cataclysmic mark on our political life as the establishment media has awakened to the clout of names like Breitbart and Reddit and to the blogs and radio blasts from rural America.
The news business has been essentially confiscated by the Internet, and consider the cost: As the election has reminded us, the nation’s grip on truth has virtually disintegrated as the web has “ushered in a post-fact age,” in the words of media critic Farhad Manjoo. “Polls show that many of us have burrowed into our own echo chambers of information.” As Jim Rutenberg put it in the New York Times: “The internet-borne forces are enabling a host of faux journalistic players to pollute the democracy with dangerously fake news items.” Reflects Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, “If you have a society where people can’t agree on basic facts, how do you have a functioning society?”
If our citizens lack facts, they also increasingly will be lacking comment and information on culture and pop culture. There will still be critics, but they will be far fewer in number and their focus inevitably will be on the biggest shows with the biggest budgets. Emergency measures already are being debated. As coverage of music has drastically declined, for example, the Boston Globe has launched a pilot program in which nonprofit groups help pay for a critic. The nonprofits will cover much of the critic’s salary while letting the Globe retain editorial control over assignments and opinions. The experiment poses problems: Among the nonprofits are institutions underwriting the performances, which could invite favoritism.
The independent film business poses another fascinating microcosm of this dilemma. Indie companies increasingly disdain advertising their product in the Times, for example, yet ardently protest the New York Times’ decision to reduce the number of reviews. An example is A24, which has stalwartly maintained its focus on the social media. Even when its new film, Moonlight, received a precedent-setting Times rave from A.O. Scott, its usually restrained film critic, the company declined to take even a 1-inch ad in the paper to promote the review for awards season.
Newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times have gone to great expense to publish as many as 30 indie reviews in their Friday editions. Indeed, some distribution deals for indie pictures require symbolic New York openings and the reviews that accompany them. Given the new policies of drastically reducing these ads, indie companies will have to reconfigure their deals.
In the future, will nonprofits be called upon to subsidize film critics at major newspapers? It is hard to imagine that kind of structure. Yet the papers are up against it: The blockbuster superhero movies don’t need to advertise in a paper like the NYT since their audiences don’t read that newspaper. The indies need that audience, yet won’t pay for it. By contrast, theater producers desperately need the coverage and marketing clout of the Times and still take out massive ads, but if reviewing staffs for Broadway productions are reduced or eliminated as they have been for suburban and off-Broadway productions, that relationship, too, could be frayed.
The traumas of election coverage have vividly demonstrated the contradictions of the Internet. “If you study the dynamics of how information moves online today, pretty much everything conspires against truth,” as Manjoo puts it. In the future, will this disease spread to the world of culture?