On the loss of Backstage reviews

by Smartie on April 18, 2013

TheCriticSo, last week word went out that Backstage 86ed their reviews, and it appears that the immediate kerfuffle has died down.

There were loads of different reactions, from the “Wait, Backstage reviewed?” variety, to dispirited statements from many small companies about how Backstage were one of the few outlets they could count on to review shows. Of course, there were the groans about the quality of the writing in the reviews. But bottom line, for the most part, the community was mourning the loss.

The news came at a time when there was a bit of self reflection by the critic’s themselves in this really smart  criticism series curated by Rob Weinert-Kent on HowlRound.

Of course, I was asked by several people if there was anything to be done to reverse the decision. Sadly, I don’t think so. The metrics just were not there. Why should Backstage continue pouring money into a section that simply was not being read? There was someone in an office looking at page view stats, and Backstage readers told this person via their clicks that they simply were not interested in reading reviews.

“Don’t they know how important they are to the industry?” I was asked.

Well, if readers weren’t clicking on the reviews, the publication concluded that they reviews weren’t important to their readers.

Could they have figured out way to make the reviews section more integral to the paper itself? Sure, I bet they could have found some creative solutions. But the bean counters in the corporate office simply look at their return on investment. And paying for to staff a section that was ignored by their readership just doesn’t make bean-counter sense. They weren’t thinking about the industry on the whole, just the impact on their bottom line.

What troubles me the most about Backstage’s decision is that they have now set a precedent. Over the past few years, for example, Variety has cut down on the number of non-major shows that it reviews due to budget cuts. Now that it has merged with a Tinsletown-centric new media conglomerate, I don’t expect that to change. In fact, I won’t be at all surprised if legit coverage is cut entirely. (Hell, in the web redesign you can only find Legit if you hover over “Other.”) After all, Backstage is an industry publication, geared towards actors, but industry nonetheless. And industry wasn’t reading the reviews.

I can’t help but thing that as a community we are failing our reporters, critics and our publications. We don’t spend money in the publications, the lifeblood of every outlet. But we expect that they dutifully attend the theater and file reviews and features. Meanwhile, space is withering along with the ad dollars.

But there is no limit to the internet, you say! Well, that’s not technically true. Companies pay for a certain amount of usage data. The more data, and often the more traffic, the more they pay internet providers. Sometimes this usage is capped, but then they have to pay for overages. And this is not taking into account that they also have to pay for editors, writers, designers, IT staff, etc.

Back in the day of flush ad spending, the big money subsidized the arts coverage of the smaller companies. But as the ad money drifts away, the publications have no choice but to shrink staff, and shrink coverage.

I get advertising is expensive, and often there is no money in the budget for it. And I wish that that an enterprising ad sales person would figure out a way to make the financials work for small companies. I think it would benefit the indie theater community on the whole.

Did you know, for example, that the Village Voice has a super affordable eblast program for theater, and their theater sales rep is really willing to work with small company’s and their budgets? But do they sell tickets? Honestly, it depends on the show. Some shows make their money back. Some don’t see a dime.

(This is totally a post for another day, but I will address it quickly. Honestly, I think in only a few cases do you see a return on ad spending. However, it is the cumulative effort of marketing/advertising/pr that has impact on sales. That said, this is really about the health and longevity of the theater community on the whole, which also encompasses the journalists that cover it.)

The reality of the situation is that publications have rent to pay and a payroll to meet each week. If they can’t make the numbers work, something has to give. And usually what “gives” is what doesn’t generate revenue.

{ 4 comments }

Edward Einhorn April 18, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I have to disagree with you, Karen, about whether it makes financial sense for Backstage to eliminate their reviews. There are things that make money off of clicks. And there are things that make money off of branding. There is very little left that makes Backstage unique, in the age of Actors Access. Covering shows made actors and directors much more aware of them. I have used Backstage casting and found it less efficient than Actors Access. I was drawn to them nostalgically as long as they were supporting the industry. No longer.

As for the Village Voice, I have used their eblasts. Wasn’t sure they were making a difference financially, but I was sure that, at the time they started (and I was one of the first to use them), they cared about indie theater. Now they have pretty much eliminated every reviewer besides Feingold, and indie theater almost never makes an appearance.

Why would I use their eblasts? If they are not reviewing indie shows, their readers aren’t going. And if their readers aren’t going, their eblasts are useless.

I am currently working on a show about neuroeconomics, and one interesting thing I find is that often businesses make decisions based on a short term analysis without realizing that as a big picture, they are destroying their brand.

If Backstage dies in the next few years, and I honestly expect at this point it will, I wonder if anyone connects the dots.

Smartie April 18, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I don’t think we are that far apart on this one, Edward. That said…

Backstage already has their branding. And while they are definitely coasting on their reputation long since past, they don’t necessarily need to worry about branding since they have already built it. Film reviews were done away with also, and there was a real outcry in the film community (well, indie film community) as well.

And I applaud what you did with the Voice, and I do agree that you are spot-on when you say that any publication’s editorial coverage dictates whether or not their readership cares about theater. That said, we as a community still value that editorial, and we as a community need to support that somehow, esp as positions are cut. The situation at the Voice is dire, and pretty much due to budget cuts. Frankly, I worried they were cutting the section all together (like they did with Dance a few years ago) when Brian left.

I am very curious about your nueroeconomics show (oh my!). The mortgage fiasco was clearly tied to this short term thinking. However, in the case of these publications, which were operating on narrow margins at the best of times, I don’t think they have much socked away for a rainy day. And it’s monsoon season right now.

The money runs out quickly—how many communities have lost their local papers completely, or they have cut back publishing to a few days a week and are only available online (i.e The Times Picayune)? And this at a time when the buzz word was “hyperlocal.”

There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we’ll ever know–mismanagement I am sure played a part. But as a community our rallying cry is always “support us.” Well, that “us” also includes our reporters and critics. (And yes, regardless of what one thinks of their reviews!) I don’t know that we’ve been all that supportive.

That said, it’s not entirely our fault–advertising is cost prohibitive. The Voice is the only publication that seemed willing to work within budgets and also developed a number of affordable options for small theaters. I do think there’s a serious lack of imagination on the ad sales part as well.

Edward Einhorn April 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Thanks, Karen, for your thoughts. I do believe in supporting those who support us, and it definitely does effect my decisions in little ways. I subscribe to Time Out, I subscribe to the NY Times. But I do think that both Backstage and the Voice have seriously undercut themselves. And yes, Backstage’s branding comes from its history, but that is fading, and you need something to keep you in the public consciousness. The reason I think Backstage will die is because I think in a year or two people will assume it’s already dead. With no reason to be drawn to it, no one will even know it exists.

As for the Voice, I think the damage they have done to themselves is obvious, and tragic. My only hope is that the new owners will take it in a new direction. The name of the paper is the Village Voice. Perhaps if it actually paid attention to the live arts, so much a part of the village, it could still win back a following. For right now it feels like a husk with the center slowly being scooped out.

Smartie April 18, 2013 at 9:09 pm

We can all agree the system is broken. Not sure how this will evolve, and it’s daunting to think about. All of the publications you mention have made piles of mistakes, in my opinion, from editorial decisions to major corporate missteps. It is a race to the bottom at this point, and I wonder who is going to end up “online only” in the next year. I am pretty sure that’s the next step for Backstage. There is still money to be made in those casting notices.

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