The End of the Affair  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2007

The End of the Affair   

Squeezed for profits, newspapers send their staff film critics packing. Is this sound cost-cutting or a missed opportunity?

By Jennifer Dorroh
Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's managing editor.     


"My grandma's in town, is there anything

I can take her to see?"

"You have already ruined this movie for me!"

"I won't see any film unless you recommend it."

"I disagree with you about every movie. I know if you like it, I won't."

Like the newspaper readers quoted above, almost everyone who has an opinion about movies also has an opinion about movie critics. We're grateful they convinced us to give "Knocked Up" a chance (or not). We share their love of (or disdain for) the "Spiderman" franchise. We agree (or take issue) with every word they've ever written about Quentin Tarantino or Angelina Jolie.

We care about what they write. But do we care where they write? When we crave a movie fix, does it matter whether the film review we read comes from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or down the street?

A growing number of newspapers are betting that we don't care. Under pressure to increase profits, trim expenses and sharpen their focus on local topics to compete better online, they are jettisoning or shrinking their homegrown movie criticism.

This year in Tampa, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale and Denver, papers have bought out, laid off or reassigned their movie critics. Last fall at the Dallas Morning News, one of two full-time film critics took a buyout and wasn't replaced. The cuts often were part of an overall reduction in newsroom staff, arts coverage, or both.

Do newspapers need local movie criticism, or is eliminating it simply a smart cost-saving move that frees up resources for more important local fare?

This question is entangled with some of the most fundamental quandaries that newspapers face during this time of massive upheaval: How can we best position our dwindling resources to offer something unique in a crowded marketplace? How much interaction with us and with one another should our readers expect? Are there places where we should cede territory, and, if so, in what areas should we fight to stay competitive?

Most newspapers that decide to cut homegrown criticism do so as they reshuffle their staffs to concentrate ever more closely on local beats. To this end, they eliminate reporting that readers can get, or are already getting, from other sources online.

At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, as at many papers, this reorganization touches everything from arts and book reviews to national and international news. The paper doesn't plan to dispatch a reporter to cover the 2008 presidential elections. It sent two journalists to Iraq this year, but not to report on the war in general. Instead, they documented the experiences of Atlanta's armed service members deployed there.

"We've made a strategic decision that our future rests in providing readers unique local stories" and other local content, Bert Roughton, the AJC's managing editor for print, wrote in an e-mail interview. "To be consistent with this strategy, we've decided not to use our staff to produce reviews that we can get from other sources."

The paper's longtime movie critic, Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, was one of 44 newsroom staffers who accepted buyouts this summer. From now on, reporter Bob Longino will write a movie Q&A column and lead an online forum and blog as "Alan Smithee," which, Roughton says, "is the name that Hollywood would place on a screenplay of uncertain provenance." He'll also cover local film events.

He may "write reviews about movies coming to Atlanta, but generally only when we don't have another source for the review," Roughton wrote. "We will use our staff to write only those stories that have some clear connection to metro Atlanta and perhaps Georgia."

Similar pressures and strategies have led to the elimination of staff critic positions at other papers. To cut expenses, Denver's Rocky Mountain News bought out 17 newsroom employees, including Robert Denerstein, its film critic for 27 years. (He may continue with the paper as a freelancer.)

In April, the Tampa Tribune laid off eight newsroom employees, including movie critic Bob Ross, and began using wire reviews. "The reality is that we're going to have smaller staffs, so you have to look at what your franchise is as a local newspaper," says Executive Editor Janet Coats. "We're doing the best we can to focus our resources on creating the content that people expect to get from us and not from another source. Increasingly, that means trying to keep as many of your reporters as possible focused on local newsgathering," on beats like sports, local government and schools.

In June, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reassigned movie critic Phoebe Flowers to a general entertainment and pop culture beat, with a focus on local arts, according to Editor Earl Maucker. The paper's film reviews now come from other Tribune Co. papers.

"Local news is the absolute priority," Maucker says. "We have a limited number of resources. On any given day, a lot of things go uncovered because we don't have the resources to be where we'd like to be. We decided those resources would be better deployed on local stories."

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, considers this a sound strategy. Reporting on local theater and music "is a tighter match toward covering the local community" than writing movie reviews, he says.

Stephen Gray, managing director for the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project, which explores how newspapers should position themselves for the future, asks, "Should you cut a sports reporter covering local sports or cut a movie critic? You want to focus on local coverage, where you're doing a local story on a local institution or phenomenon."

Rather than compete with the many reviews available online, he says, "To cut where a zillion other sources are available makes sense."

If a paper's aim is to offer distinct content, others say, keeping the film critic is the right way to do it. "Hyperlocal is not just about covering your very narrow geographic area. It is about giving you something that you can't get anywhere else," says Douglas McLennan, founding editor of ArtsJournal.com, a Seattle-based digest of arts journalism. "I would argue that if your local paper is just going to reprint the [Universal Press Syndicate's] Roger Ebert review, people can get that in a thousand different places. It's not going to build your audience or readership, or in any way make them loyal to whatever brand it is you're trying to produce."

In an effort to differentiate their film coverage, some papers, like the Dallas Morning News, are focusing less on reviews and more on film-related features and local news.

Before undertaking "a strategic reduction in staff so that we really became more of a local and regional paper" last fall, says the paper's editor, Robert W. Mong Jr., managers took a "survey of our most serious readers of arts and entertainment coverage. What they clearly want from us is context, a more thematic approach to our more ambitious work."

As part of the reduction, the entertainment section, Guidelive, started running more wire reviews and slimmed down on three weekdays. The paper bought out 111 of about 560 newsroom employees, including Philip Wuntch, who had been a film critic there since 1974. This left one full-time staff movie critic, down from three before a round of layoffs the previous year. (See "The Dallas Mourning News," April/May 2005.)

The remaining critic, Chris Vognar, writes fewer "commodity-type reviews," Mong says. Instead, he writes features about the film industry and the local movie scene.

With three major film festivals and a vibrant art-house culture in Dallas, there is plenty for Vognar to cover locally. That's increasingly true in communities around the country. There will be more than 170 film festivals in the United States this year, in locales from Park City, Utah (Sundance), to Concord, New Hampshire (the Somewhat North of Boston, or SNOB, Film Festival), according to the Internet Movie Database. Many local and state governments fund robust incentive programs to lure production companies. And with advances in digital video, local filmmakers are becoming ubiquitous.

For many critics, such activity brings an intense local focus to the beat. "Critics need to be in touch with local exhibitors, academics and regional producers," says David Edelstein, chief film critic at New York magazine and film reviewer for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air." "You can't just cover the new George Clooney movie."

But the Clooney beat is local for Rich Copley, who covers film as part of his job as culture writer at the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky, Clooney's birthplace. In fact, although Lexington may not spring to mind when most people think of movie capitals, the city is a good example of the reach that film can have in Middle America: Copley also closely tracks Johnny Depp and Ashley Judd, two stars with Kentucky roots, as well as former state gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford, whose production company helped finance Sundance Audience Award-winner "Grace is Gone." For several years, Copley has followed the work of Jason Epperson, who appeared on the Fox reality show and filmmaking competition "On the Lot" this summer. "You have to keep an eye out for local talent," Copley says.

"And when a film like 'Seabiscuit,' which is about thoroughbred racing and where they spent a month here filming, comes along, there is tremendous interest here," he notes.

In Las Vegas, the Review-Journal's critic, Carol Cling, wrote about the summer's made-in-Vegas movies, noting which releases got local details wrong. "I provide specific insight into movie-related news such as when the local CineVegas film festival had to sponsor 'Shortbus' because no local theater chains would book it that wire coverage of 'Shortbus' would lack," she commented on the Web site of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

In addition to monitoring the local film scene, hometown critics say they add value to their papers by reflecting their communities' sensibilities. A big-city critic's "perspective doesn't always match that of the people where I live," wrote Sean Means, film critic for the Salt Lake Tribune, in a May column.

In Salt Lake City, "family films are a big deal," Means said in an interview. "That doesn't change how I review films, but it does mean that I'm paying attention to those family films. My list might highlight the family film higher than the R-rated gorefest."

Roger Ebert has a few ground rules. To deal with the hundreds of e-mails America's best-known movie critic receives daily, his Web site lists ten guidelines for those who would correspond with him. Among them: "Despite its perhaps misleading title, the 'Answer Man' is not a service to answer all movie questions." "I cannot take the time to explain why I did not see or write a review of a given movie." "I do not supply the answers to trivia questions." "I do not do homework."

With local critics, it's a different story. "If they send an e-mail [to a national critic], I don't know how much accessibility they are going to have," Copley says. "But if someone sends us an e-mail here, we will in all likelihood respond."

In an interactive age, a responsive critic is important, says Ross, the laid-off Tampa Tribune reviewer. "Our readers want an individual voice. When people called with a movie question, I was there. It was a personalized thing. It meant something to them to have a local guide that they could talk to." (Ross and Copley were the sources of the reader quotes that open this piece.)

What's more, Ross believes, a writer who is well-known in the community can be a key part of a paper's brand. He says his was a recognizable face in Tampa because of his role as a "convergence poster child. I was on television every week. I was a major presence on the Web site. I was giving reviews on two of the top three radio stations in the market."

A former Georgia resident, Copley was a fan of the AJC's Gillespie. "She was one of the most popular writers in the paper. People followed what she said even if they disagreed with her," he says. "If you are trying to keep up in a digital age, and to reinvent your product, why are you cutting one of your most popular voices?"

New York magazine's Edelstein says the same of the Sun-Sentinel's Flowers. "She cut a figure in the community," he says. "When I have a columnist with personality, maybe someone who is flamboyant, that's what I identify with as a reader."

Keeping that local touch and personality, no matter how appealing, would only be important in certain cases, says Newspaper Next's Gray. "It's a numbers question. How many of those people in your daily readership are in fact loyal fans of that movie critic? If there is a large and extremely devoted group who would stop reading the paper [if the critic were gone], then eliminating the position could have a net negative impact."

Although a few readers have been vocal about the cuts, none of the editors of the papers that eliminated their critic positions says the decision has adversely affected their circulations. "The vast majority of our readers haven't noticed," Dallas' Mong says. "It's hard to say, but it's true."

Gray agrees that moral values "might play differently in Salt Lake City as opposed to New York City. But typically, the critic would be telling you what the movie is about, and you could tell from that whether you're going to want to see it or not."

"There might be a few films, like [Michael Moore's 1989 film] 'Roger and Me' where it's about General Motors, and where maybe I'd want a Detroit take on it," he says. But in general, "a good critic anywhere is good enough."

Like many avid moviegoers, Gray relies on his favorite movie site when it comes to choosing films. His, the aggregator site Metacritic, assigns a numeric rating to each of dozens of critics' reviews and then averages them. "I click 'sort by score.' I want to see something that got an 80 or higher" out of 100, he says. "You can average out the difference that you get from personal taste, whereas if you were relying on one critic from one city, you'd have to try to figure out who you agreed with and who you didn't."

For those who use movie reviews not simply to make viewing decisions but to consider film as an art form, such averages miss the point, says Phillip Lopate, editor of last year's "American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now."

"Part of the pleasure [of reading a critic] is watching someone whose mind interests you work around and over a problem," he says. "It's not the rating that counts; it's the pleasure of the journey."

Critics say this journey matters because of the importance that movies have in our culture. "It's easy to write off movies as fluff," Lexington's Copley notes. "But some of our major national conversations were sparked by movies. Look at 'Fahrenheit 911,' 'The Passion of the Christ,' 'Good Night and Good Luck.' Movies have this great cultural relevance that sometimes people miss."

"Movies and popular culture in general seem to be the one thing people have in common in this country," Salt Lake's Means says. "Our politics are different. Our values are different. But movies are one of the few areas where we speak the same language."

A vigorous culture needs back-and-forth over such a potent force, says ArtsJournal's McLennan, a former arts columnist and reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Weekly. "And newspapers should be leading the way."

But it isn't just watercooler or dinner-table chats that papers should seek to provoke, he says. It is discussion on the newspapers' sites. Instead of using what he calls the outdated model of "critique of the week," whether in print or blog form, he says, papers should make their sites the home for the local film-loving community.

Newspapers must take a page from the MySpace playbook, he believes. "You let people who are interested in the same thing find each other," he says. "This is how you go from having average traffic to being an 800-pound gorilla."

After Bob Ross' April 11 layoff from the Tampa Tribune, he was unemployed for exactly two days. "I was prepared to spend a couple of years on the couch drinking and feeling sorry for myself, but I haven't had the chance," he says.

Instead, he got a call from Tampa Digital Studios, a production company that was itching to start up a movie site. Less than two weeks later, the company launched BobRossMovies.com.

The site is video-heavy, featuring Ross' in-depth critiques, movie trailers and short reviews from moviegoers around Tampa. (A video of kids reviewing "Shrek 3" is bound to draw traffic as their grandparents send the clip to all their friends.)

The site reflects a growing trend in arts commentary and possibly a glimpse of a brighter future for critics. "The better critics are peeling off and going their own way," McLennan says. "Four years ago there were very few arts blogs. Today there is an explosion of them, and some have enormous audiences. They're not going to just go away."

McLennan's own site was born in 1999 when he read an absorbing, two-week-old Philadelphia Inquirer story about the Barnes Foundation, a museum in suburban Philadelphia featuring Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings, and thought to himself, "How did I miss this?" He launched the site as an aggregator of arts coverage before adding original content in 2003.

Today, the site offers original arts commentary from correspondents around the country. In June, he sent four reporters to Nashville to do a weeklong blog on the American Symphony Orchestra League's national conference.

Thanks to advertising, supplying news feeds to other Web sites, subscriptions and special projects, "ArtsJournal is fairly profitable, so I can afford to expand it," McLennan says. "The laughable thing is this ought to have been the terrain of traditional media companies. They totally mismanaged and squandered these opportunities online."

"But I don't believe the sky is falling," says McLennan, who is acting director of the National Arts Journalism Program, a newly revived organization of arts journalists. "I feel like we're standing on the verge of a golden age of criticism. At times of the greatest change in a culture, that's when critics have their biggest role to play."

However, these critics probably won't be writing in local newspapers, he says. Whether they lament or praise the newspapers' decisions to cut back on locally written criticism, nearly everyone interviewed for this article believes the trend is likely to continue. Readers will keep substituting online sources for what they once found in newspapers, and papers will continue to trim that which can be found elsewhere.

"In a perfect world, I absolutely believe that a critic with an ear attuned to a particular community is ideal," the AJC's Roughton says. "But the world isn't ideal for newspapers anymore, and we must make some difficult decisions in order to survive."

Jennifer Dorroh (jdorroh@gmail.com) has written for AJR about managing newsroom crises, local news Web sites and news media ombudsmen.

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