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Few local groups have been more loudly anxious about the recent staff cuts and reorganization at the Deseret News than arts leaders, who depend upon media coverage to promote their performances.
Complaints led to a meeting last week with Deseret News chief executive Clark Gilbert.
"A lot of people in the arts groups in town were really concerned," said Kevin Bentz, marketing vice president for the Utah Symphony/Utah Opera, of the mass layoff of the News' art critics. "We felt passionately that the movers and shakers at the Deseret News who were making this decision should hear from us."
Gilbert met with representatives of Pioneer Theatre, the Utah Symphony, Ballet West and other groups to put their fears to rest.
Bentz says that he was encouraged by Gilbert's plan for arts coverage.
"He told us that the coverage would not go down. It will stay where it is now and it might actually go up."
But Pioneer Theatre marketing director Kirsten Park, who also attended the meeting, said Gilbert mainly provided more detail on the newspaper's "new model," that included the layoff of all full-time arts writers.
"There was nothing new," Park said. "It's a change of their business model and we have to adapt to it. And we will."
Gilbert told the group the News would be turning to "citizen experts" for arts stories, including criticism. He asked the companies to suggest writers to cover their performances. The forum for this to happen would be by taking multiple contributors from various walks of life, so the voice for arts coverage would be multifaceted, Bentz said Gilbert explained.
Bentz says Gilbert offered this example: The symphony might be covered by a professor at the University of Utah or a conductor of an orchestra in Utah County.
Gilbert offered to let the arts groups write their own advance and preview stories, Park said. Pioneer Theatre hasn't yet decided how to approach what Park labeled a "problematic" arrangement.
Chris Rawson, chairman of the American Theater Critics Association and the senior drama critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, acknowledges the "appeal of different voices" that blogs and websites offer.
"But there is a difference between a trained journalist's objectivity and self-interested promotion," Rawson said. "We believe there is an important role for training, expertise and experience in arts coverage."
Jerry Rapier, producing director at Salt Lake City's Plan-B Theatre, wasn't invited to the News meeting. He wasn't surprised, due to the theater company's mission to produce works by Utah playwrights and socially conscious plays, including those with gay themes.
That might be in contrast to the News' new values goal statement, emphasizing "light and knowledge." "Our work isn't something they would be covering, considering the direction their coverage is moving," Rapier said.
Beyond selective coverage, Rapier suggests the new model for arts coverage could run into other hurdles. "Just because you're a theater historian doesn't mean you can write a review," he said. "We are talking about trained journalists [under the old model]. Criticism is a specialized, focused, and incredibly valuable aspect of the arts experience."
Rapier called the entire goal of Gilbert's meeting with arts groups into question.
"Is the Deseret News committed to the art form and looking at a new way of covering the arts or is this about saving money?" he said.
"It sounds like a big sales pitch to me. Someone has figured out a good way to spin it."
Tribune classical music critic Cathy Newton Reese also contributed to this story.