OPINION: Let’s not do the timewarp again

The way we consume information is changing rapidly but for some sectors of the arts, the change seems to be something they are defiantly refusing to acknowledge. As the debate about online media coverage of the arts continues, The Reviews Hub’s Deputy Executive Editor, Glen Pearce, asks if it is time to end the two class system and look at content rather than themethod of delivery.

Twenty-one years ago, I graduated from the Central School of Speech and Drama, and have worked across theatre ever since. For the last 15 years I’ve been working in arts marketing and PR, as both an accredited PR practitioner from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and as a theatre critic and editor. I’ve worked in print, on radio and now online.

A lot has changed over those 21 years. There’s been huge leaps forward in staging, technology and the breadth of performance, and despite the ongoing financial battles, I’d argue that theatre now is more vibrant, more diverse and more popular than ever.

In one area though, the industry seems to be stuck in a time warp, conversely an area that had developed faster than any other sector.

At the beginning of the last century, Vaudeville was hit hard by the introduction of a new form of entertainment, cinema. A century on, and while theatre isn’t under the same level of threat, there’s an ostrich-like, bury our heads in the sand, mentality emerging over the refusal to acknowledge our media consumption had irreversibly changed.

The way we consume news and information had undergone a rapid shift. Print publication circulations have been in terminal decline as consumers move to faster methods of instant news consumption. In our hectic lives, consumers now expect almost instantaneous reportage, not wait until the print press roll the following day. Rolling TV news, radio, social media and online platforms all able to react quicker than their print counterparts.

Organisations worldwide have embraced the new model, print journalists now becoming multi-media journalists and major news organisations such as Reuters, BBC and CNN all recognising the need to adapt or die.

In theatre though, especially London-based theatre, from producers to PR agents, many still seem to be in some form of terminal denial that the media landscape has changed, and, as one long established London PR told me, the decline in print circulation is ‘a temporary blip’. Producer Danielle Tarento recently caused a twitter firestorm, suggesting that online critics lacked the ‘intellectual background’ of their print counterparts. There’s been plenty mentioned already on the topic but former online critic turned PR, Chris Hislop, captures the mood well in his blog.

As a PR professional, I work across a number of sectors but, while the majority have moved with the times, the arts seem to clinging onto past models. It’s hard to understand the rationale, but increasingly you begin to wonder if some producers and PRs want their product to succeed or if it is just about pleasing a small, decreasing circle of industry insiders.

Change is unsettling but the refusal by a small, but vocal, sector of the industry highlights a wider issue of snobbery and sense of entitlement in the arts at the moment. We chuckled recently at couple of “national” critics who deigned to visit a regional theatre and demanded that they be given a private area to consume their complimentary interval drinks. Or the veteran critic who kicked off because a venue had neglected to provide him with a taxi. Of course, this level of diva behaviour is rare but illustrates just how highly these people regard themselves, even if nobody else does.

Recently, our features editor, Paul Couch, wrote an article looking at the deity status awarded to this small group of print critics, but the issue is even wider than that. Directors, producer and PRs need to take a hard look at their audience and how they consume news.

Here at The Reviews Hub, we have a team of over 150 writers based across the UK. They range from university students through journalists to retired professionals with a lifetime of theatre-going knowledge but in many industry eyes, as we publish online, we are second cousins to some straight out of school reporter from the local newspaper who just happened to be wandering past the news editor.

More than one major PR agency has a policy of only allowing print media into press nights, with online often grudgingly admitted up to a week later. One major agency famously states they do not ‘do online’. Venues themselves are not immune, with many of our major publicly funded venues still favouring print media over other channels.

They face a tough decision. Many of the established print critics have grown to see their first refusal on interviews, news and reviews as an automatic right. This week the National Theatre announced they were withdrawing plus-ones from critics on press night to increase capacity for a wider range of media outlets. The policy change received a barrage of complaints from the print critics, claiming it was a reaction to poor reviews, that online didn’t have their reach and even that a guest was required to help formulate their reviews.

In truth, the National Theatre has probably realised their audience demographic is changing, and to continue to build a diverse audience base they need to look at how potential ticket buyers consume information. Nobody is saying that print publications don’t have a place in the media mix, but like any communication campaign, a broad outlet of channels is required and if it means letting others into the inner sanctum then so be it. Theirs is no longer an inner circle that can be fueled by exclusivity.

True, there seems to be a dozen new blogs setting up weekly and producers and PRs need to ensure they get value from their tickets. Managed well though, and with a skilled PR, they can obtain a good media mix, vital in any campaign. PRs such as Chloe Nelkin and her team have embraced online and the results show. With the decline in print showing no sign of abating, it will be interesting to see how many of the other producers and PRs will fare in five years’ time when they are left with no choice but to deal with online media.

I’m not disputing that there are those online whose writing and critical analysis doesn’t come up to spec, but appearing in print is no guarantee of a level of expertise. Take the local newspaper whose reporter admitted to me they’d never set foot inside a theatre but did a deal to swap a night off. Indeed, even many of our most lauded print critics have entered the industry via non-traditional routes. Should these now be barred from writing unless they can produce their MA in Theatre

An increasing inwardly focused industry is failing to react to changing times or question themselves on what a review is for. At the end of the day, reviews are there for the audience that reads them. If they choose to do so on their phone, a tablet, even God forbid, via the curse of emojis, that’s their choice. To suggest that what they are reading is by default inferior to print is both insulting to them and to the swathe of skilled, informed and knowledgeable writers. Without them, many venues would struggle to get any critical coverage at all.

Here at The Reviews Hub we’ve always said we’re proud to fly the flag for regional theatre, and in general those regions have embraced a multi-channel approach much more than their metropolitan counterparts. We’ve been having this conversation with venues for a number of years and it’s gratifying to see industry leaders such as the National now responding to the shifting media landscape.

We’re happy to fly our flag high with our 3,300+ reviews a year, regardless of what device our readers choose to consume them on. Let’s stop this snobbish and outdated critical class system and celebrate quality coverage of the arts in whatever medium. We encourage all PRs, producers and writers to join us in the conversation and look at how we can move arts PR and coverage into the 21st Century across the whole country.

The Reviews Hub - South East

The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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