Monday, February 09, 2009

An Online Debate - Guess Where the PR People Stand?

Thanks to the Oregonian for pointing out a strange article written by the Communications Director of the Guthrie Theater, Melodie Bahan. Bahan has a problem with the deterioration of the newspaper review. And, well, everything goes downhill from there.

First, Bahan asks, (seriously, mind you,) if Frank Rich was not the last of the great drama critics?

Then she brings up a subject which, on the surface, would appear to be acceptable to all: A call for more journalism about the theatre community and the shows.

Local theater critics are journalists first. Journalists are
storytellers, and there are thousands of stories in this large and active theater community that just aren’t being written. Features about theater are often glossy, shallow puff pieces that are indistinguishable from reviews. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone say to me, after reading a feature story about a show that hadn’t opened yet, “Wow, great review in the paper today.” And the very sporadic stories that do get reported are disproportionately about money – or the lack thereof – and therefore focus on only the large theaters. Plus, because these stories are so sporadic and lacking in context, complex issues are boiled down to one line conclusions.

Sounds good, but look closely at the above paragraph and you can see Bahan's slight suggestion; by equating critics with journalists she is setting up the reader for what comes later.

She then goes on to energize her audience with examples of all the exciting "stories" that are out there in the theater community. Finally, she offers an example of "critic and journalist" Christopher Piatt of Timeout Chicago:

Piatt and his team are writing stories that would make me cringe as a publicist if their counterparts in the Twin Cities attempted them. But he’s doing them in a way that provides context and poses tough questions without seeming to pursue an agenda. His stories are fully reported and sourced – nowhere in his stories did I read, “Some say…” or “The theater community is buzzing about…” – both phrases used by journalists who have no sources to confirm their own opinions. Real arts journalism is informative and detailed and
interesting, and it makes theater relevant.

Notice again, Bahan conflates reviewing and journalism with the careful dismissal of "opinions."

In the conclusion, Bahan feels she has laid enough groundwork to just come out and say it:

So, as our local newspapers hemorrhage money and staff, I challenge our arts journalists to do something heroic on their way out the door. Stop writing reviews and focus your energy on journalism.

In fact, I’m begging you. Just tell the stories.

The irony is that while Bahan does see the way forward in blogs and online publications, she doesn't see that artistic success or failure of the productions theaters are putting on is still the IMPORTANT information. Unfortunately, yes, we sometimes have to deal with taste and reviewers who may not be that interested in theatre history.

Actually, the whole article reads like a Communication Director's dream. More feature stories about how great the show is going to be, and, then, more stories about how great the show is going.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bahan's lucky. She lives in a town where the newspaper at least covers local arts. Here in Knoxville TN, we can't get the "News-Sentinel" to review the shows at the Clarence Brown Theatre (a LORT, like the Guthrie but smaller scale). This despite the fact that the theatre spends thousands every year advertising in the paper. She should count her blessings she gets any coverage these days.