Plugging the gaps

Three days ago, Lyn Gardner announced that The Guardian will cut her contract to write 150 theatre blog articles a year. Whilst the newspaper will continue to commission reviews and features, this will leave a huge gap. There have been a range of passionate responses (1, 2, 3, 4) amidst a wave of support for Lyn on social media and practical steps for protest.

Lyn’s blogs are irreplaceable and her writing is truly (inter)national and cross-disciplinary. When publications cut commentaries which are committed to challenging London-centricity and white privilege, they further enshrine London as the seat of class power. And when publications cut contracts due to lack of income, it makes paywalls seem all the more reasonable and sustainable a model to pay for arts journalism.

Living in Newcastle, I’m sad for emerging artists who tried to get Lyn to come to their debut show in the North East or their subsequent tour in Edinburgh, who tweeted her, emailed her, stood in the corner of the room whispering, “There’s Lyn, go and give her a flyer and a press release,” amidst a thousand other hopeful voices all desperate for an appearance in The Guardian. I’m sad for regional theatre more broadly, as its lack of editorial discussion in a mainstream publication could mean it becomes more parochial. It also makes it harder to disrupt the hierarchical nature of theatrical touring. I remain suspicious of The Guardian generally as it proliferates a combination of neoliberal thought and metropolitan bias, but its platform is still absolutely necessary for theatre.

Lyn’s articles decentralise the discussion of theatre, so it’s a reminder of how much power publications like The Guardian hold when they decide to cut coverage. It’s also a reminder of how much power Lyn actually holds, as a writer with the ability to make or break. Not that it would be Lyn’s intention to “break” an emerging company, just that this is an inevitable risk of being so widely read and respected. We come to rely on one voice because “the centre” is often considered satisfactory, fair and robust.

On finance, a snap poll taken by Theo Bosanquet illustrates how difficult it is to reach consensus. Do I think there should be models which enable writers to forge a career as an arts journalist? Yes. But I also think it’s an illusion that this career path has ever been available to more than a handful of individuals. The Internet has brought about the diversification of opinion and media, which sits opposed to the hierarchical, exclusive nature of print journalism. If we work with print and paywalls, that might solve the problem for newspapers, but it still preserves the ability to make a living from writing about theatre for a select group of writers.

For all print media may have had more reliable financial models, arts journalism in the twentieth century was complicit in centralisation: employing similar writers in similar locations led to both the homogenisation of tastes and the marginalisation of virtually all groups outside the white, male, educated class. The Internet hasn’t necessarily overturned this institutionalisation, though it has certainly allowed more people to occupy a platform. Whereas the issue in print was who got to write, now the issue is who gets heard. Online is therefore in the middle of solving a double dilemma: complicity in the same homogenisation and marginalisation, and trying to establish long-term financial models.

If there is no completely sustainable model, do we need ten partially-sustainable models? Patreon donations. A commitment from ACE to fund bloggers for years at a time. A commitment from companies to offer income-based or free theatre tickets for bloggers. A commitment from people in positions of authority to share the work of bloggers. Who has the time to organise this kind of cooperation? Who will enforce it? Will it help?

Reaching agreement is pointless if no-one is sharing and reading the work. Where are the platforms? Do we need Buzzfeed Theatre? Probably not. If we group writers together in one publication, we replicate the problems of exclusivity and power (i.e. everyone wants to write for that publication and what happens if that publication cuts its coverage like The Guardian?). Do we just continue to fight for coverage in mainstream publications, supplement that coverage with blogs and publications like Exeunt, and then grow smaller publications across the country? It feels like there are lots of smaller struggles which make up the whole of “fixing” online arts coverage.

Blogs can become valuable resources and signposts. But their periodicity makes blogging unreliable. There are also a range of ethical considerations which threaten the trustworthiness — for want of a better word — of blogs. Will blogs always be supplementary? Yes, probably, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I find the signpost metaphor quite useful; if blogs are constantly pointing to one another, the dots will join up more easily. But how do we get more people to blog regularly or spread out writers geographically? It’s not going to happen unless there’s a successful campaign to divest metropolitan centres of power and resource — and that in itself will hurt a lot of people.

Continuing to apply pressure via campaigns for greater devolution (lobbying local councils and authorities, MPs, Arts Council offices, taking part in consultations, petitions, protests, joining collectives and so on) is crucial to positioning the regions alongside London. It’s not easy to participate in such a range of action when everyone works full-time or has other responsibilities — to say nothing of trying to stay healthy — but coverage of the arts is connected to the wider struggle against economic imbalances nationally. The last three times I wrote to my local MP, I didn’t even get a reply, which made me think: what’s the point? Writing to your local MP is indeed a practical step, but I’ve often been guilty of assuming that government is where the most important changes happen. Quite often, the opposite is true.