On Paying for Theater Reviews

I love Charles Isherwood’s theater reviews.

I don’t always agree with him and there are moments where I do think, “No, Charles. That was not a good move,” but overall, he is my favorite theater critic currently writing in America.

Isherwood, as it turns out, writes for the The New York Times, which allows for ten free articles before you hit the paywall. If you were to read just Isherwood’s reviews, not even Ben Brantley’s reviews, you would quickly hit the paywall, particularly in April when everything seems to opens on Broadway. I have a digital subscription to the Times as well as grab a physical copy on campus sometimes, so I don’t really have to panic about not getting to read every delightfully pithy thought Isherwood pens.

But I don’t have a digital subscription to the Times just for Isherwood’s reviews. For a long time, the Times has been my favorite newspaper in America and as a result I feel like it’s an essential read every morning. Additionally I have a digital subscription to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is called JS Everywhere. Even though I don’t live in Milwaukee, I feel like the Journal Sentinel is an essential read if you want to know what’s going on in Wisconsin, particularly with politics for the past year. Additionally, I can’t think of a newspaper that has consistently done investigative pieces that are as moving and brilliant as the ones done by the Journal Sentinel. Giving Journal Communications $4.99 a month is a price I don’t mind paying for all of the great content they turn out.

So when the Chicago Tribune announced they would put columnists and theater critics behind a paywall, I understood the reason why.

Admittedly, I am part of the reason why the Tribune probably decided to put its columnists behind a paywall. I got an account with my email address just so I could read columns written by Eric Zorn, Mary Schmich, and Rick Kogan as well as reviews by Phil Vettel, Greg Kot, Michael Phillips and sometimes Chris Jones. I have met Tribune reporters, editors and members of the Editorial Board, and as a result, I reverence and respect for the staff and the publication. I will not stop reading the Tribune until it ceases publication.

When the paid “digitalPLUS” was announced I looked into what it included. According to the Tribune‘s website, paying $14.99 a month includes:

-“Unlimited breaking news stories.”
-“Exclusive reporting, including insider sports coverage of Chicago’s teams and access to premium stories from sources like Forbes, The Economist and Variety.”
-Newsletters
-Tribune e-books
-Digital version of the paper.
-Free access to Tribune apps, such as the RedEye for iPad, which is $1.99 a month if you don’t have digitalPLUS.
-“VIP access to Tribune event tickets”

If you think about that, that would be worth $14.99. You’re getting more than just the content in the paper. And, ultimately, $14.99 is less than what you’d pay to pick up the Tribune everyday. And while some people will disagree with me, the Chicago Tribune has some pretty terrific writers.

But the people are upset over the Tribune charging people to read Chris Jones’ reviews! Theater artist Coya Paz did a piece at The Paper Machette (where I did a piece on science back in March) about the paywall and pointing out that she really didn’t read the Tribune when it was free, except for the reviews. (Overall, it’s worth a listen.)

However, Howard Sherman, former executive director of the American Theatre Wing, wrote on his blog:

I urge those who have or would have paywalls to continue to treat the arts as a loss leader and maintain that coverage online for free or almost free, outside of local and national news, business coverage and sports. You’ll keep America’s arts healthy by providing the raw material of national conversation and you’ll make sure that we’re talking about you, too. Because you want to remain part of the conversation too, don’t you?

Hold the phone.

As someone who has written about both the arts in Chicago as well as non-arts things in Chicago, I’ll throw this out: What is going on in Chicago that isn’t related to the arts is infinitely more important to the more than 3 million people in the city than Chris Jones’ opinion on the latest non-Equity tour that is playing a Broadway in Chicago house.

In the past year in Chicago, the amount of people who have been murdered has increased, libraries have been closed for one day out of the week and then reopened, a U.S. representative has mysteriously disappeared before disclosing health problems, a state representative has been accused of corruption, a historic building’s fate has been in limbo, and a teacher’s union strike occurred. And those are just the highlights.

When a crime occurs, people can learn about it from the news. It was from the Tribune, which I read online, that I learned that a local business owner in my old neighborhood had been killed in a shooting not far from where I used to live. Ultimately, keeping the breaking news free, which the Tribune is doing, helps keep Chicago informed and it is the basic duty of a journalist to inform their audience. Sure, when Chris Jones reviews a show, he informs people of if a show is worth seeing. Same thing when Phil Vettel reviews a restaurant or Greg Kot reviews an album. But the value of that information is not nearly as valuable as the information that is disseminated through local coverage.

And while Chris Jones is the most influential critic in Chicago, he is not the only critic. You can still read Sun-Times theater critic Hedy Weiss for free before hitting a limit. (People did not complain about access to her reviews being diminished by a paywall, but I think I know why.) The theater reviews for Time Out Chicago and the Chicago Reader are free to read without any limit that would cause a reader to hit a paywall.

I can see for someone like Coya Paz, who really only read the Tribune for theater coverage, that everything one gets for the price is not really worth it just to read the theater reviews. As for someone like Howard Sherman, I can see that someone who maybe isn’t interested in everything else going on in Chicago that the price is hard to justify just for theater reviews. But to suggest that arts coverage is maybe more important than local coverage or even business coverage takes cajones the size of Texas.

When the Journal Sentinel or Tribune run an investigative story into things that truly endanger the lives of hundreds, thousands of people it is to say, “This is wrong” and initiate change in how things are. A greater case could be made that an investigative story should never be put behind a paywall than arts reviews because investigations can get people to want to change the status quo.

So if you want to read theater reviews on newspapers with paywalls, pay up, let the paper know you disagree with what they’re doing by emailing them, or read someone else. There are plenty of print critics in Chicago that can be read for free to keep the conversation on arts going.

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