Newsapers phasing out veteran critics

In the 1980s, TV critics such as Howard Rosenberg and Tom Shales won Pulitzer Prizes for their efforts. Two decades later, many smallscreen reviewers consider it a victory just to have a job.

Sure, there are still plenty of pale-skinned, tube-obsessed scribes filling the ballrooms of the BevHilton for the summer edition of the Television Critics Assn. press tour. And thanks to the Internet, every morsel of information from the myriad press conferences will find its way onto somebody’s blog or podcast.

But the wave of cutbacks and consolidation that has hit newspapers across the country has, all too predictably, had an impact on those who pass judgment on TV for a living.

About a year ago, one of the nation’s most-respected crix — Ed Bark of the Dallas Morning News — left his longtime home after accepting a buyout offer. The Belo-owned paper has said it wants more local coverage — just not of the local TV market, where Belo also owns a major TV outlet.

Over at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jonathan Storm is still TV critic, but after a quarter-century of columnizing, colleague Gail Shister is being bumped to the metro beat as of Aug. 1. And Denver’s Rocky Mountain News hasn’t replaced legendary critic Dusty Saunders, who retired May 31 after more than 50 years at the paper.

More recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — the paper of record for the nation’s ninth-largest TV market — decided to take critic Jill Vejnoska off the daily TV beat. “Now I know how the cast of ‘Yes, Dear’ must’ve felt,” she wrote in her cancellation notice.

Other papers shaking up TV coverage include the Albany Times Union (critic Mark McGuire now writes about sports), the Virginian-Pilot (Larry Bonko took a buyout after 17 years on the beat), the Arizona Republic (Bill Goodykoontz is now a pop culture editor-writer) and the Wichita Eagle (former TCA prexy Bob Curtright was bought out as part of a larger round of cuts). Over at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, nothing’s official, but the local blogosphere has been rife with reports that critic Neal Justin could soon have his beat radically restructured.

While McGuire considers himself “very fortunate to have landed (another) job here that I truly love,” he realizes many of his former TV critic peers haven’t been so lucky.

“I fear that TV columnist positions could be a dying breed,” McGuire says. “And the unfortunate reality of that is that these voices brought distinct viewpoints to their papers, and being distinct is how newspapers are going to survive.”

Shister says she’s equally perplexed by the trend.

“We’re seeing it in all the popular arts, (with) papers cutting back on movie and rock music critics,” she says. “It’s mind-boggling. In my experience, readers have a virtually insatiable appetite for any news about television. If there’s one beat that’s sacrosanct, it should be TV.”

Many newspaper owners don’t see it that way, however. In cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis, management has begun stressing the importance of local coverage. Much better to devote limited resources to covering the local news team than Brian Williams or the newest series from Aaron Sorkin.

The result is more and more papers are replacing homegrown TV writers with AP and Tribune Media Services copy. One critic jokes that Frazier Moore and David Bauder of the Associated Press are now “America’s critics,” thanks to so many papers’ reliance on their work.

TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush says the push for localism is logical, but silencing TV crix in the process is anything but.

“It seems to me a newspaper with the resources to nurture local voices and personalities can’t afford to be without someone who is interpreting both the local and national TV scene,” he says. “The idea you can have the same impact just by picking up wire copy and replacing your local columnist with those stories diminishes the role of the local newspaper in my eyes.”

Still, outgoing TV Critics Assn. prexy Rob Owen, who writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, thinks hand-wringing over the future of TV crix may be a bit premature.

“I disagree that TV critics are dropping everywhere,” he says. “Many of the newspapers that have dropped a longtime TV critic have turned around and had someone new apply for TCA membership within a few months.”

Indeed, while the rank of newspaper critics may be shrinking, online criticism of the media remains vibrant. Many papers now have some sort of TV blog (even if it’s not staffed by a critic), while sites from E! Online and Zap2It to AllYourTV.com also dissect the medium. Even stalwarts such as Bark, reinventing himself as a blogger via UncleBarky.com, have found new life.

Many of those critics who still have newspaper jobs are also trying to reinvent themselves as multiplatform personalities who offer more than just two or three columns per week pontificating on the state of the smallscreen. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Tim Goodman has a blog and podcast. USA Today’s Robert Bianco has started a regular vodcast.

Personal relationships with readers can be key to survival, Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray believes.

“I’ve always thought we were there to start the conversation,” she says. “And if we want to stay relevant, then we’d better be there to continue it when people get in touch.”

Outside observers, like CBS senior VP of communications Chris Ender, believe critics can remain relevant — if newspaper publishers stay committed.

“Television is still the most influential medium in our culture,” he says. “But if those on the beat are constantly relegated to the back pages and five clicks away from the home page, it’s hard to create a presence or make an impact.”

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