Update: Carnage at the Times culture department

Update: Carnage at the Times culture department


norman lebrecht

December 18, 2014

We’re getting further details of who’s in, who’s out, at the shrinking culture section of the New York Times.

In all, around 15 staff have gone. They include both the pop editor (Fletcher Roberts) and the classical editor (Myra Forsberg); four or five people on the copy desk; the culture reporters Felicia Lee and Larry Rohter; and several photographers on mostly culture assignments.

The distinction between who jumped and who was pushed is being blurred as a seasonal courtesy, but the culture section is (we hear) shrouded in gloom, despondency and thinly suppressed rage.

new york times


  • WetToast says:

    Sadly, the NY Times is becoming a reflection of what the city is more and more these days: soulless.

  • JAMA11 says:

    I totally get all the anger being directed at the Times, but I hate to say it: The New York Times is a business. A business in a dying industry, loaded with debt, in desperate need to reduce its headcount and payroll.

    I know people in the arts feel (quite rightly) that the NY Times is a vital part of the ecosystem in NYC; but they are in an impossible situation. One could (and should) argue that the Times has a greater responsibility to maintain coverage on its other beats.

    Everyone in the arts loves to talk about how horrible the Times’s arts writers and critics are, almost invariably because a critic once panned a friend of theirs, or loved a show they hated. The fact remains that the Times drives a lot of the cultural conversation in NYC, in a way that blogs with axes to grind (like this one) can’t, at least not yet.

    But in San Francisco, where the Chronicle can hardly keep up with all the arts activities even though SF isn’t a quarter as busy as NYC, I can at least point to one excellent resource – San Francisco Classical Voice – that has more than picked up the slack.

    So, let’s not blame the Times (at least, not entirely) for this situation, or get outraged imagining that they somehow wanted to cut their arts coverage so drastically. Let’s instead see this as an opportunity for some kind of publication/s to step into the gap and provide what will now be lacking.

  • Milka says:

    Jama11 misses the point entirely.

  • Greg Hlatky says:

    Never eat at any place called Mom’s.

    Never play cards with anyone called Doc.

    Never own newspapers with anyone named Slim.

  • william osborne says:

    Perhaps this isn’t so much about the NY Times as about larger trends of history. Traditional arts criticism as we know it today is in many respects anachronistic. This form of criticism appeared in the 19th century and was closely associated with the rise of the bourgeoisie and cultural nationalism. The principle effect of most arts journalism was to celebrate the artist-hero as a symbol of the nation-state’s creative virility. The prototype of this type of journalist in classical music was Robert Schumann writing in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

    After WWII, this sort of nationalism and its representative artist-heroes went into a gradual remission and were replaced by the aesthetics of global capitalism. We thus saw a corresponding decrease in the status of arts journalists, since their function as spokesmen for the nation-state’s creative virility became irrelevant.

    Global capitalism requires a new kind of feullitonist, a generalist gadfly who is part of a marketing apparatus focusing largely on international celebrity like jet-set conductors, pop stars, famous movie actors, and best-selling authors. Since original thought and social commentary seldom fit with the corporate media’s financial interests, publications like the NYT and much of The New Yorker are already a kind of People magazine for yuppies. We generally see cultural gossip with a touch of niveau couched in these publications’ self-consciously affected, apolitical urbanity.

    This defines the character of chatty and congenial journalists like Alex Ross, Anne Midgette, Anthony Tommasini, and Mark Swed. People like Steve Smith and Allan Kozin are the technocrats who dealt with the smaller stories and kept the machinery running. The arts are to be a well-behaved and innocuous affirmation of what might be vaguely termed the aesthetics of corporatocracy – a system to confirm the power of a borderless, relatively unmitigated plutocracy. There are no journalists in mainstream papers who provide honest thought that genuinely challenges the status quo. For all practical purposes, it is forbidden. Intelligent people do not read these publications for news, but rather to see what the establishment wants us to believe.

  • Frankster says:

    While Osborne has put his finger on declining classical music reporting and exactly the role of the press in modern American society – a voice for the establishment – we note that Paris, for example, still has all their major newspapers, their several news magazines, three magazines dedicated to classical music and also an increasing number of internet sites for classical music. Classical reviews have been reduced in the press but you might read at least four or five in the days after an important performance. Whether this reflects the sustained interest in classical music by the French or some other force I do not know but the media for classical music is a private enterprise without government support. The situation in London and the several newspapers who review seems similiar.

    • william osborne says:

      The social democracies of Europe attempt to mitigate the totalizing effects of capitalism. We thus see France and Germany attempting to protect their publishing industries from Amazon. And we see the EU attempting to dismantle the monopolies like Microsoft and Google. Europe is also resisting pressure from the USA to dismantle their public funding systems for the arts and their state radios and television companies. These efforts have left the continental European media in better health than in the USA. But for how long?

  • John Borstlap says:

    A neo-marxist view of a cultural profession, and a load of nonsense. Art criticism is bound-up with the development of the media, and meant to inform the public about cultural events and developments. That it can be misused, and not only by ‘capitalism’ but by art journalists themselves (as history shows, by ventilating their incompetence), does not mean it does not have a perfectly legitimate professional function in the cultural field, independent from mr Marx.

    • John Borstlap says:

      (This comment refers to mr Osborne’s comment.)

    • william osborne says:

      The arts media is “meant to inform the public about cultural events and developments.” And as always, the process of high culture is often to reaffirm the status power. From the crown of Charlemagne to the Versailles Palace of the Sun King to the literature glorifying British colonialism, the purpose of art has often been to celebrate and strengthen power.

      Nothing has changed. The arts in the USA are based in a few financial centers where they are funded by and for the wealthy. This establishes a form of plutocratic, cultural supremacy and reduces other regions of the country to a form of cultural vassalage. With the suppression of local culture, local businesses are destroyed and corporate businesses are thus allowed to dominate.

      And by the way, this view isn’t Marxist. It’s tenants could be used to criticize Marxism as well, since its practices had the same totalizing effects as an unmitigated capitalism. In both, high culture asserts and reaffirms the power of the status quo. Journalism inevitably becomes a part of this apparatus.

      • Greg Hlatky says:

        The arts have never been more accessible and less expensive than they are now.

        • william osborne says:

          Documentation please. Average Met ticket price is about $170, or $340 per couple. The USA ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per captia, behind every European country and just ahead of Costa Rica in position 40. Many Americans couldn’t attend a live opera even if they wanted. Opera reflects patterns found in other genre’s as well. So show us your numbers.

          • David says:

            And who says that the average opera goer is obligated to sit in the median-priced seat?

            $80 seats in the balcony are perfectly fine, as are the $25-$30 ones in the Family Circle, which is where I and many hundreds of others sit.
            A bargain.

  • Helen Kamioner says:

    Oy veh. There go the last of my PR contacts at The Times. My press list is full of emptiness, as well as my business and heart. But my curiosity about who the replacements will be is peaked. Thanks and Bye Bye old friends.

  • The Gray Lady is Dead. God Save the Gray Lady. God Save Us. says:

    The crying on this board is pathetic. There was a time when The New York Times didn’t exist and there will likely be a time when it is dead and gone. The wallowing here is reminiscent of “Who Killed Classical Music” and the timeless storyline about the decline and death of classical music. Let’s face it – things change and instead of crying about it go do something about it. There are enough editors and writers out there – just former NYT people – to create a new website dedicated to cultural coverage. They need to take a risk and do something like the original founders of The Gray Lady, and, yes, Norman, Slippedisc. The fact is ladies and gentleman, you can blame reading this page for the decline of eyeballs on The Gray Lady’s website and peanut gallery prognostication as part of the problem. Or, get off your couches and build something new like Slippedisc or The Arts Desk or some other entrepreneurial publication. This is the era of the disruptor…so go disrupt. Don’t cry for The New York Times and definitely don’t complain for a lack of coverage. Anyone with an ounce of knowledge knows that The New York Times still churns out more copy on culture than any other American newspaper and will continue to do so even after this round of cuts. They have more freelancers than ever and are doing more video than ever. Things change and it’s time to become more entrepreneurial in this “industry” instead of wallowing, grieving and crying. Go start another Slippedisc and give Norman some competition. Otherwise, there will be a monopoly on this and you know what happens when you’re too dependent on a monopoly and it begins to decline….you sit around a cry. Go do something!

    • William Safford says:

      We are seeing more and more freelancers in various magazines, newspapers, etc., just as we are seeing more and more instructors taking the place of tenured college professors, as well as the attempts to shrink orchestras and replace them with freelancers (FWIW, I am one).

      We also see more and more retracted articles, errata sheets, etc.

      Cause and effect?

  • JJC says:

    It would appear that the Times’ habit of harping upon the irrelevance of European and ‘elitist’ culture in our modern age has had some effect…

  • Tom Moore says:

    While the NYT may be viewed as a “national newspaper of record”, the fact is that NYC is just as provincial in many ways as most American cities, and more so in the sense that it doesn’t realize that it IS provincial. I will never forget having performed in the American premiere of Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (by a major ensemble in Boston, featuring Sanford Sylvan, and reviewed in the Boston Globe), only to read a few years later in the NYT after I had moved to NJ that a NY ensemble was doing the American premiere of this rare work. In Boston, we read the NYT, but in NY they did NOT read the news from Boston.

  • Donatella Verum says:

    This is just my opinion, but it seems to me, after reading the writings of a number of journalists at the Times (and those who have jumped to better opportunities (e.g. Nate Silver, Brian Stetler), the environment is pretty toxic, and probably takes its toll on the writers. I look at Zachary Woolfe’s writing from 2 years as being insightful, unique, and showing real promise. I look at his writing (and tweets) now as being as catty and tired. Lets hope that the writers who left in this last purge end up reviving themselves in new and exciting endeavors, because the grey lady seems to be making a lot of talent writers… well, grey.

  • Marshall says:

    This childish anger at the NYT just fails to acknowledge the state of America’s, and the world’s, regarding “classical” music. The Times didn’t create this reality With its liabilities, it is still one of the great papers in the world. The proof of that is the fact that people of the right refuse to even look at it because it’s too liberal-that’s a joke-but the left won’t read it because it’s too corporate. It must, then be doing its job.

    The irrational attitude that rules this blog in refusing to use anything from the NYT- makes it disregard an article like this below-in favor of the endless stories about sex scandals and pop awards. Here, is a piece that offers a constructive idea, that could justify to anti-art American school boards a reason to bring music education and joy to American school systems.

    At Voice Charter School in Queens, Students Have Outperformed Their Peers Academically


  • Milka says:

    The point is, to imagine that for the vast majority of people arts coverage
    is a necessity. It is only a necessity
    to the smallest minority that sadly think it so ,and to imagine some journal replacing whatever the Times did or did not do
    is wishful thinking .One agrees it is a business but it in this day and age has
    no responsibility to anything except survival by catering to the type of readers it now has. Does anyone
    remember the Saturday Review of Literature ?So much for a replacement journal …
    What happens in San Francisco is well and good for a major provincial
    city and there may be some wonderful
    goings on but it ain’t New York and the Chronicle ain’t the NYTimes (good or bad ) to the public eye.

  • Saul Davis says:

    The real problem here is the typical New Yorker’s over-dependency on the Times to tell them what is what, what is not, what is hot, and what to think. What’s needed is a publication dedicated to coverage of entertainment and the arts (besides Time Out), and more coverage at the Daily News. It is terrible, but the Times is NOT the newspaper of record. It is not the only thing that counts. This narrow-mindedness creates a kind of blindness in Manhattan that is very destructive. And the decline in coverage of the arts generally can be laid at the doorstep of the Times because, again, too many people think too much of it and follow its lead. When they stopped reviewing most recitals, so did everyone else. And that was the beginning of the end of classical music. If people can’t give recitals and get coverage, it is all hopeless. So begin at the foundation and rebuild. All the infrastructure in the country needs repair and rebuilding, and the arts are no exception.

    • Warrior says:

      Which is exactly why the Times music critics are so dangerous and weild far too much authority.
      They continuously dismiss performances of masterworks that bring about an enthusiastic response from 2000-3000 people, and heap praise upon performances of any new music which caters to a small crowd of intellectuals. This creates pressure on major arts organizations to cave in to the demands of these critics.
      I am tired of reading their entries and their lack of respect for what audiences like. I cancelled my subscription after several years, but would consider returning if they sacked Anthony Tommasini.