Wednesday, January 12, 2011

North Coast Theatre and Journalism

In my year end column, I mentioned the shrinking attention to theatre in local media. Some of it is the product of how the newspaper business is playing out locally. We had for awhile what was probably an artificial abundance, as two Eureka dailies were battling each other. So for a few years, a show could get as many as four or even five reviews, though three was more likely. That newspaper war, plus other economic and media factors, ended one of the dailies and wounded the other.

Then the Eureka Times Standard further wounded itself by turning over its weekly arts magazine to some rap-enthralled white kids who ignored local theatre almost totally. Community and university theatres that used to get Northern Lights covers for almost every production never got covers for anything again, and only sometimes got any kind of story inside. The daily outside the magazine ignored them as well.

After that experiment failed, the Times Standard abdicated local performing arts coverage altogether--a stunning act for the only daily newspaper in the area. They pushed off their weekly magazine to a supermarket giveaway, the Tri-City Weekly, which several years later still gets spotty circulation here in Arcata and I suspect elsewhere. It also has a peculiarly long lead time, which means that shows with a two week run may not get reviewed at all before the show is history.

Meanwhile, the Arcata Eye was forced by its economic plight to cut staff and pages. I can't remember a theatre review there in the past couple of years. While the Humboldt Beacon (now owned by the same company as owns the Times Standard and the Tri-City Weekly) has the biggest and best arts section of the three, it also has spotty circulation outside its main focus of southern Humboldt. My twice monthly (on average) Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal is supplemented by occasional brief previews in the calendar section. But theatre is not much of a priority. Nor is my column, which seems to be the only regularly appearing column that the Journal doesn't promote.

Part of all this is probably the consultant-driven attitude that younger readers are the hope of the media, as opposed to older audiences who typically attend theatre. Advertisers like younger readers because they are more susceptible to their claims--for example, the idea that using a particular product might make them more attractive. Of course demographics suggests that older people are the ones who actually read newspapers, and that this is a pretty big group in Humboldt, but these tend to be overlooked if not ignored.

But to me the most disturbing aspect of this situation is the apparent dearth locally of young writers who can write about theatre, or any of the arts outside of popular music and maybe movies. I don't see the high school newspapers so maybe there's some hope there, but the HSU Lumberjack is appalling in this regard. A competently written arts article or review is so rare in that paper that I can't think of a single one in the past ten years. The Lumberjack pays little and usually no attention to the theatre and music events partly created by fellow students in the university which presumably is its focus. Its few attempts have been either embarrassingly inept or at best just substandard journalism, even in comparison with the rest of the newspaper.

I've made the argument in the past that ignoring these events is bad journalism because the Lumberjack fails to inform its student readers of events that they have already partly paid for (through the same activity fees that partially fund the Lumberjack), and many of which they can consequently attend for free. But after all these years I suspect it goes deeper. Does the HSU journalism program even attempt to teach arts reporting or criticism? If so, what does all this say about the effectiveness of that teaching?

Right now there are but two people in all of Humboldt County who write regularly about theatre. Beti Trauth, long a champion for local theatre, writes for the Tri-City Weekly and the Humboldt Beacon. I write for the Journal. Neither of us is a salaried full time staff writer. We're piece workers. I don't know for sure about Beti, but I don't get health care, and I don't even get mileage or expenses. There is to my knowledge only one radio show that interviews theatre artists regularly, and that's Artwaves on KHSU, hosted by Wendy Butler who used to write theatre reviews for the Beacon, and was the arts editor at the now defunct Eureka Reporter. When the three of us wise up and go, who will replace us? I would be happy to learn that I'm wrong.

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