Why we can’t let reviews exit stage left

There haven’t been too many times in my life when I’ve wanted the floor to swallow me up.

Perhaps the odd conference when my newslist has bombed or been ambushed, but that’s about it.

But an experience a few years ago on a theatre stage is up there with those moments.

The editor, the entertainment writer and I found ourselves sitting on some chairs staring out at an audience of people more used to being on that stage themselves.

We’d been called there to discuss the thorny subject of theatre reviews.

It had been decided to drop reviews of non-professional productions because of the need to save money on our freelance costs but also because of a lack of available reviewers. We also wanted to be convinced that such reviews had a value in a weekly paper when the productions were largely over by the time the verdicts appeared.

Now, I should say that some amateur thespians are among the nicest people I know. But others – and consultation with colleagues reveals this to be a national phenomenon – are not. They can be rude, arrogant and bullying.

There were glimpses of both ends of the spectrum at this meeting as our planned new policy was attacked by an audience of several dozen people.

It made for painful listening at times – and it would have been a relief to have done that being-swallowed-by-the-floor act.

But one thing was clear: our reviews were valued.

So, with some nifty footwork, we brokered a deal.

You find us some more reviewers prepared to write for free, and we’ll find space in print and online for their work.

We escaped intact, and I even managed to get the am dram audience to give our entertainment writer a hearty round of applause for his work over more than two decades.

My moment of stage fright came back to me the other day as I led a discussion on the 21st century digital newsroom as part of a management development programme.

We were talking about the idea that we should be prioritising quality over quantity in our content, and that we should concentrate our limited firepower away from writing that attracts only a few hundred pairs of eyeballs.

So where does that leave theatre reviews, a features journalist asked.

I’ve never seen one make the dizzy heights of an analytics leaderboard.

And yet, reviews offer a direct route to a highly dedicated, local media audience. The people involved tend to be indigenous locals, who by their very nature have sunk roots into their communities.

Those reviews offer the potential to tick the traditional goldmine box of plenty of names, as well as the potential for engaging, entertaining and incisive writing.

And they help us capitalise on the real demand for what’s on information.

Not only that, but these performances – even those in draughty village halls – can be attended by more people than turn up for plenty of the sports fixtures we cover.

We face some very difficult choices in our ongoing battle to find a new digital audience.

And it is right that we take a long, hard look at some of what my friend Peter Sands has called the ‘dull, filler material’ that is the mortar between too many of our story bricks.

But it would be a sad day indeed if we were to bring the curtain down on an aspect of our entertainment coverage that can provoke so much passion.

In the Spotlight

It’s always slightly frustrating to look across the Atlantic at the resources that journalism has traditionally commanded there.

There are investigative teams in the USA which work to a calendar rather than the clock or even stopwatch of most regional newsrooms.

But, as the superb film Spotlight shows, it is their investigations that can change the world for the better, and help us all raise our sights.

As usual, there were one or two accuracy distractions – principally a reporter who started a new interview halfway down a notebook page already full of shorthand.

But these were 128 minutes that passed very quickly indeed.





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