History was made last week with the downsizing of journalist Jenn McKee from her job at The Ann Arbor News. Part of the MLive media empire here in Michigan, Jenn was one of 29 content providers from across the state to lose their jobs - including, it's rumored, Jeffrey Kaczmarczak of The Grand Rapids Press. And that means - to the best of my knowledge - there are no longer any experienced staff journalists at a major city newspaper anywhere in the state covering live theater as their primary beat.
Think about that for minute.
If theater is to get any coverage at all from the state's daily newspapers (which, yes, is a misnomer these days due to publishing cutbacks, but you get the point), it will be by freelance writers. When space and budgets permit, of course.
And since theaters are not significant purchasers of advertising in these publications, guess what that means?
So why did Jenn get laid off, you might be wondering? Trust me: it's not because of the quality of her work.
In her time at the paper, Jenn grew into becoming a trusted voice and fearless arts advocate, whose work was appreciated - even by those who sometimes disagreed with her. (The sign of a good critic is one who says what she believes and doesn't back down for fear of a backlash from vocal opposition. And that certainly describes Jenn, who sometimes took a beating, but didn't allow it to intimidate her from doing her job to the best of her ability!)
The reason for her departure, then, can be summed up in one word - a word that dominates discussions throughout the media here and elsewhere: clicks.
Before we chat about clicks, however, let's step into the WABAC Machine to get some historical perspective on the situation.
(Remember, though: What I'm about to lay out is a very basic description of the newspaper/media business as it existed in the 20th and early 21st centuries. As such, there are exceptions to every rule, and the devil is always in the details!)
How we got to where we are today
Back in the good ol' days before many of my readers were born, pretty much every major city in America had at least two daily newspapers - often more. (Detroit had three when I was young, and in earlier times, a few more. But I digress.) These papers were - more often than not in the beginning - locally owned and managed, with the owners having deep business and/or political roots within the communities they served.
They were also a highly competitive bunch, always looking for ways to build their circulation - which meant they offered their readers a wide variety of content in order to appeal to the broadest range of interests as possible. (The business of signing up comic strips was especially cutthroat, for example!)
As a result, covering arts and culture were very important to their publishing plans. So much so, that many papers had staff journalists who specialized in music, opera, fine arts and theater - often with multiple critics covering the same discipline. And many spent decades in their position, honing their craft and building solid reputations for their work. (Lawrence DeVine, for example, spent 30 years as a theater critic for the Detroit Free Press; he retired in 1998.)
But times and technologies change.
Although radio and television nibbled away at their circulation and advertising dollars - thanks in part to the expansion of local and national TV newscasts from 15-minute shows to 30 and beyond - the three media co-existed side by side rather peacefully for many years. (One reason for that was the limited number of broadcast outlets in each market. Up until the mid to late '60s, most markets had only three TV stations to choose from - not including an "educational station," which in the pre-PBS days was often affiliated with a school district . We in Detroit had four, thanks to Windsor's CKLW, plus the non-commercial WTVS, which early on was programmed by the Detroit Public Schools and the Archdiocese of Detroit.)
As such, the advertising "pie" remained fairly consistent for many years. That is, until the expansion of UHF and FM stations caused a shift to where advertising dollars were allocated.
But the biggest changes were yet to come.
Beginning with the rise of radio in the late 1920s and early '30s, much public debate centered around the concept of "public interest" - that is, what is the role of the broadcaster (and the media in general) when it comes to serving the best interests of the public. After much debate and lobbying - nothing changes much, you see - the newly instituted Federal Communications Commission declared in 1934 that "it would not be in the public’s interest for a single entity to hold more than one broadcast license in the same community." Why? Because "(t)he view was that the public would benefit from a diverse array of owners because it would lead to a diverse array of program and service viewpoints."
In the ensuing decades, ownership rules were modified multiple times - eventually limiting the number of broadcast stations an entity could own. And newspapers were prohibited from owning a broadcast station in its market. (That 1975 law forced The Detroit News to divest itself of what was then WWJ-TV, for example.)
As such, robust competition was the rule of the day. And that meant that by limiting ownership in major markets, a multitude of voices would be heard.
That all changed, however, beginning in 1985 when fervor over media deregulation hit Capitol Hill and, later that decade, with the introduction of the World Wide Web, which helped expand our access to faraway media resources. Add to the already volatile mix the rise of commercial cable television (which began in 1950 and slowly morphed into the behemoth it is today), and what was once a fairly stable and profitable industry was primed for a major shakeup - which happened in 1996, when new FCC ownership rules blew the doors and windows wide open, ultimately allowing a handful of mega-companies to scoop up media outlets across the country.
Now, few voices are heard. And the economic model that served the industry - and us - rather well was forever shattered.
Media basics in the twenty teens
So what's all this have to do with Jenn's job disappearing, you're likely wondering? Keep reading.
With more and more media outlets and online publications fighting for a limited pool of advertising dollars - and a younger generation that avoids newspapers like the plague - times are tough for newspaper publishers all over the country, including here in Michigan.
Today, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News operate under a federally approved Joint Operating Agreement, and both have seen their circulations plunge to unimaginable levels. According to a story by journalist and educator Jack Lessenberry, who once was national editor of The Detroit News, daily circulation of each paper once topped 600,000. Today, the Free Press sells less than 200,000 copies, while The News has sunk below 100,000. Equally disastrous is the Sunday circulation.
Such is the story nationwide, as newspapers have gone out of business, merged with other publications, or cut the number of days they distribute to newsstands.
Equally disconcerting is the small number corporations that now own our media outlets.
The Free Press is now owned by Gannett, which also scooped up the Observer & Eccentric chain of local newspapers, along with the Lansing State Journal, the Battle Creek Enquirer, The Times Herald, and the Livingston Daily. (They also own USA Today.) The Detroit News is owned by Digital First Media, which also owns The Oakland Press, the Daily Tribune, The Macomb Daily and Heritage Newspapers, which publishes various weeklies in Metro Detroit.
Statewide, MLive has a presence in 10 cities throughout the state: The Ann Arbor News, The Bay City Times, The Flint Journal, The Grand Rapids Press, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Muskegon Chronicle, The Saginaw News, and online-only portals in Detroit and Lansing.
Detroit's TV network affiliates are owned by Fox, CBS, Scripps and Graham - all national entities. Ownership of our radio stations are dominated by Cumulus, Birach, Clear Channel and CBS.
Fewer owners, fewer voices, fewer choices.
The biggest change, however, is the industry's move to a digital world, as a greater emphasis is now placed on the web-based portals every media outlet maintains. That's especially true of the newspaper industry, which - after we dinosaurs become extinct - will one day cease publishing print editions and exist only in the online world.
One obstacle is in the way, however: Absolutely none of the publishers have figured out how to make money in this newfangled environment.
Why? With so much free content available to anyone with a computer, potential subscribers have been hesitant to pay for content behind a firewall - especially at prices they feel are too high for the quality and perceived value of the content. And readers are frustrated by poorly designed web portals, pop-up ads and other visual and content distractions that make the reading experience somewhat painful.
Plus - still - available advertising dollars remain limited. And advertisers are demanding high volumes of eyeballs on their ads before they'll commit to a contract.
And therein lies the problem - and the reason Jenn is now unemployed.
About those damn clicks
Clicks, you see, is the metric by which every story posted on a media website is judged.
In the pre-internet days, a financially successful newspaper was one in which the daily and Sunday circulations were high enough to turn a profit for the owner. All the number-crunchers knew were the total circulation figures; without any additional research, they had no clue what parts of their newspapers their patrons were actually reading. (Feedback is generally not helpful, as editors and publishers are more likely to hear complaints than compliments.) As such, it was deemed just as likely that theater reviews were as popular as anything else that appeared in print.
Plus - remember - in the old days, publishers wanted to be as all-encompassing as possible in their coverage to attract the broadest readership possible. So as long as they made a profit, there was no reason to discontinue coverage of any particular segment of the paper.
Unfortunately, that world doesn't exist any longer.
Today, technology has been both a boon and a curse. Now, editors and publishers can see with exact precision how many readers have "clicked" on a story. Or to put it another way, every single story now has its own circulation number.
No longer is there any guessing involved regarding which stories are of interest to the readers and which aren't. Now we know.
And it's apparently not good news for the theater industry. (The metrics include additional information about the readers that advertisers cherish, but we won't go into that for now.)
The realization that theater coverage was going the way of the dodo was becoming apparent these past several years, as newspapers throughout the state began downsizing their staffs and several noted critics accepted retirement offers or left via other options - and weren't replaced except by freelancers. (Martin F. Kohn and Sue Merrill are two examples.)
Ongoing discussions within the industry itself further revealed that metrics were becoming more and more important to editors and journalists alike, as number crunchers were having far more pull in the newsroom than ever before.
And what did we begin seeing less and less of as the current decade marched onward? You got it: theater coverage.
The importance of metrics became clear to me in my previous position as editorial director of EncoreMichigan.com, a web-based media company I co-created to fill the gap created by the ever-decreasing coverage of professional theater by the news media. (I tracked them faithfully as well!)
One day an idea occurred to me. One way to expose our brand to a wide range of potential readers, I thought, was to become a content provider to other publishers. Two signed on: CBS Detroit and MLive. (We also shared content with our then-owner, Pride Source Media Group.) As such, we'd provide them with our reviews and the occasional preview free of charge in exchange for links directing traffic back to our site.
The result was of benefit to all involved: CBS Detroit and MLive got free content (which meant they didn't have to pay staff or freelancers to do the work), we got some extra traffic, and readers of MLive and CBS Detroit were provided with stories they otherwise would have missed. And, of course, our theaters were also winners, as they obtained additional exposure that otherwise wouldn't have happened.
Our relationships were strong and cordial, and all of my contacts seemed pleased with our arrangement. We had, I thought, a win-win-win-win situation for all involved!
But highers-up in their food chains - the number crunchers - seemingly prevailed, and our services were no longer required.
So was I surprised when Jenn McKee was laid off last week? Nope; actually, I was surprised it took them so long to let her go.
With Jenn's departure from The Ann Arbor News, theater coverage from our mainstream media is at its lowest point in decades. What coverage there is will be primarily by freelance writers - and it will be at the whim of editors who are under the gun to generate the highest number of clicks possible.
In other words, unless they advertise with them or generate clicks above a certain threshold, theaters shouldn't count on getting much coverage for their shows. (I hope I'm wrong with this; but only time will tell.)
And Jenn? She'll bounce back quickly, I suspect. As one of her former editors, I can attest to the quality of her work. Plus, her reputation is strong, and she'll add immediate value to whichever employer is smart enough to sign her up.
In short, her future is bright.
But this discussion isn't over. Coming soon - once I finish up some unfinished business - we'll chat about the future of Michigan's professional theater industry. It's a subject that launched recently as an argument on Facebook, and it's one that merits some in-depth examination.
* * * * * * * * * *For more on the subject of clicks:
From The New York Times
From the BBC
From the Columbia Journalism Review
From the Royal Economic Society
From Wharton University of Pennsylvania