Amid the list of familiar names from the roster of people accepting the latest buyout offer from the Dallas Morning News — columnist Steve Blow, editorial writer Rodger Jones, et al — is Scott Cantrell, the paper’s classical music critic. Among the paper’s regular arts writers — Mark Lamster (architecture), Rick Brettell (visual arts), Nancy Churnin (theater), Hunter Hauk (pop music), Chris Vognar (film) — he has had one of the longest tenures, and is very much ‘old school’ in that he’s an actual, on-staff, full-time critic. That’s unlike Lamster and Brettell who are widely seen in journalism circles as a possible ‘new model’ for budget-strapped print outlets in that they are ‘double appointments,’ i.e., they’re also professors. Which means the paper doesn’t have to bear the full burden of salary and benefits.
Scott’s departure will be the most significant one for the future of North Texas culture organizations — because of whether the DMN will pursue another shared-academic appointment or keep classical music reviewing a full-time staff position.
Or find some other arrangement.
Major critics’ positions have died at the paper — when I left in 2006, the book columnist’s position went with me, as did the TV critic’s position with Ed Bark. If you haven’t figured it out from what’s been going on with print, it’s simple. Cultural journalism is no longer a career many people can pursue full-time. But then, that’s actually been the case historically in America, unlike Europe. The first serious American figure to try to make a living as a critic, editor, fiction writer, poet and essayist was Edgar Allen Poe. Even though his era is considered our first great age of periodicals, he almost starved.
It was only in the 20th century — with the rise of big-city newspapers — that cultural criticism spread beyond the coasts as an actual livelihood not beholden to teaching. But with the decline of those same papers at the end of the century — and with the web still not reliably offering a reasonably remunerative replacement — arts journalism has become a part-time occupation. Most of the big-name critics you encounter in print or online outlets (The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc.) are actually academics. Or they’re the journal’s editors, writing columns on the side. Or they’re simply doing it as an avocation; it’s not their day job, it’s their passion.
Which sounds perfectly admirable. But as FrontRow editor Peter Simek once argued on a panel about visual arts journalism, it’s important for a city’s cultural conversation to have someone with ‘skin in the game’ — in other words, it’s his or her job to keep the rest of us informed about what’s happening, not happening, needs to happen.
When Lawson Taitte retired as drama critic at the end of 2013, it was widely speculated whether the DMN would look for another double appointment with a local university. I eventually concluded it wouldn’t for this simple reason: The theater beat has much more going on, all the time, than architecture or visual arts. It demands a regular presence to keep up. And Nancy Churnin has doggedly made that case with her relentless productivity (most days, the paper’s CenterStage arts blog should be called The Churnin Blog, given her determined output of posts, reviews, features, videos and news items). If she’s still officially the ‘interim’ theater critic, she’s clearly trying to prove the necessity of keeping someone like her around.
The question for the paper’s management — and for North Texas classical music in general — is whether there’s enough classical music activity here to warrant such an investment in staffing. Traditionally, classical music has been something of a ‘prestige’ position in a newspaper’s arts coverage — if, for no other reason, than the significant social and cultural clout the Dallas Symphony and the Dallas Opera still wield, regardless of how such music sells in the pop-culture marketplace. It remains the case, in the global scheme of things, that fielding a top-tier classical orchestra performing in at least a halfway decent hall is akin to a city supporting the full range of professional sports-entertainment billionaire owners. It’s a sign the metro area is a major player. Or, to sink into the local vernacular, “a world-class city.”
And there’s this issue as well: With the drastic decline in cultural journalism in print the past decade — with that 2006 buyout, pretty much half the Arts/Guide staff left — how many experienced, full-time, classical-music journalists are still out there for hire? Ones who can regularly meet a tight deadline, write a smart review, interview or feature profile, analyze a music organization’s staff and programming and goals — and do all this for the web as well?
Yes, online, there’s an absolute tonnage of classical-music discussions and debates. But much of it, as is often the case, is written by devoted fans, former music students or professional musicians, picking apart favorite topics or performers. They’re often not writing for a general audience. A newspaper’s reviewer has to do that but with all the knowledge and insight of someone who’s spent years listening and thinking about the intricacies of live music and recordings and non-profit budgets, someone who has something to say about all that and can express those somethings in vivid, persuasive, cut-to-the-chase prose. And then do it the next day and the next and the next. With a blasted editor nitpicking over his shoulder in the bargain.
Given all that, I’m betting the DMN will find some arrangement that won’t leave the North Texas classical music scene in the hands of freelancers or newbies. But the possibilities are not exactly numerous.
Whatever you’ve thought about Scott’s judgments — and he was early and instrumental in recognizing the transformation Jaap van Zweden was bringing to the DSO — there are very few people who currently do this as intelligently and consistently — and with the occasional, tart wit — as Scott. The News will be fortunate to find someone nearly as good.
UPDATE: An email message from Cantrell, although providing some assurance for the immediate future, doesn’t curtail longer-term concerns:
For now, although I’m taking the buyout, I’m glad to say the editors want me to stay on through next season on a reduced freelance basis. I will write less, but will try to give fair and representative coverage. This will give me the transitional period I’d actually hoped for, and give editors time to consider how they want to go forward with classical-music coverage. With the distinguished legacy of John Rosenfield and John Ardoin [previous DMN classical music critics], I obviously hope it will remain a full-time staff position. There certainly IS enough going on to validate it. We shall see…
Here’s our Think TV interview with Scott from 2010.