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Editor who sacked all arts critics submits her reasoning

Lisa Markwell, editor of the Independent on Sunday, has broken her holiday to give account on Slipped Disc of her new arts policy.

lisa markwell

Dear Norman Lebrecht

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to give a full context to the arts cuts.

You will be aware of the difficult economic state of all of Britain’s newspapers, and the Independent titles in particular. It has been reported that the management team of the titles is engaged in a broad-ranging sweep of cost-cutting exercises, and this includes a number of compulsory redundancies.

Many of these are staff members of the papers who have been with titles up to (in a couple of cases) 20 years. Some are younger journalists of terrific talent. It is distressing for those leaving and worrying for those left to try and bring out papers of quality and distinction without them.

Another facet of the cuts is to drive down contributor costs – this is where the arts critics come in.

There is no question that the critics who have given loyal service to The Independent on Sunday for years are brilliant. When I took over editing the paper a few months ago, it was a delight to read them – and I know my predecessor felt the same, protecting them as much as possible in earlier cost-cutting exercises.

This time, however, calculations proved that it was no longer possible to continue with reviews in the way they have appeared – and the challenge for me and the art critics’ main editor, Mike Higgins, is to find a way to cover arts in the Independent on Sunday that satisfies the readers and provides a showcase for terrific writing about the different disciplines.

We are working that out right now – and will launch a new section (clearly no longer called The Critics) in September. We hope that any of the writers who have appeared on the pages before will be able to in the future, should they want to. Having been made redundant from their reviewing contracts, they no doubt feel bruised and anxious, so I wouldn’t be so pushy as to demand they either do or don’t contribute.

(Because I am also involved with trying to maintain news, comment, business, politics, features, sport and a colour supplement in the face of cuts in all those areas too, I have – I admit – been too slow to write to the critics direct to thank them for their hard work and loyalty. I am doing that now.)

I can see that for lovers of the arts, a newspaper without critics is a puzzling and perhaps unwelcome development but I believe that it is still possible to write exciting essays, interviews, comment and so on that challenge and delight the reader and showcase talent with just as much space as before. I have no doubt that you and other commentators will let me know whether we have been successful or not.

The section will not be a collection of digested reviews from other papers (although we may alert readers to reviews from our sister paper, the daily Independent).

The reason I put out an alert to the media about the changes to the arts section were partly to counter the erroneous reports that there would no longer be any arts in The Independent on Sunday. I included the request that PRs afford the writers the same access and information as always was meant to be helpful to the critics whether or not they write for the IoS in the future. They probably don’t need any help in that direction, having established their own contacts with the arts world over many years, but it was a gesture of goodwill and to see it turned into some sort of blag for the paper was miserable.

I’ve been a journalist for 29 years (oof!) and have learned to take the rough with the smooth. I expect flak for these swingeing cuts happening on my watch but hope that I would always make myself available to answer criticism and give explanations where required, if asked.

Thank you for reading,


Lisa Markwell
The Independent on Sunday

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  1. I noticed she didn’t use the word “featurey” even once.

    And I love this line: “We hope that any of the writers who have appeared on the pages before will be able to in the future, should they want to”. In other words “If they’re willing to work for free”.

  2. As an occasional freelance contributor to the Indy (I’ll keep my anonymity here, thanks!) I don’t quite understand. Papers pay per word. Unless they’re changing their payment structure, 1 x 1,500-word feature costs them broadly the same as 3 x 500-word reviews (since they don’t pay for CDs, tickets, interval drinks etc).

    Moving from one model to another doesn’t “drive down contributor costs” – I don’t even think there’d be much difference in the amount of work done by in-house editors. There is the opportunity to rely more on free PR photos, and less on photo-libraries, which would drive down costs. They can also run the photos big to reduce the need for paid-for words.

    Unless there’s an idea to share copy. That could be with the half-sister paper The Evening Standard or buy-ins. Denying that the new model will be “a collection of digested reviews from other papers”, says nothing since it’s also going to be more “featurey”, that is there’ll be fewer reviews – whether digested from other sources or newly generated. It could well be “a collection of digested features from other papers” (which they already occasionally do).

    More broadly, space is always at a premium in the paper and cost is always a concern online. It’s easier to persuade them to take a short review than a 1,500 word feature. As well as keeping the old hands ticking over, that has been a way in for newer writers. This might lead to the dominance of a few established voices. Longer features also need more time to write and imply longer lead times, so there’s a danger of it being less agile and immediately responsive, except through snippet-y 100-word news items. A collection of big pieces with tiny pieces in between and nothing in the middle?

    But I’m sure all these questions have been thrashed out and we’ll hear more in due course.

    • Hi, Filmist,
      Isn’t this about reducing “on-staff” headcount? Sure, they still pay for reviews, and as you suggest, whether a review or a feature maybe the cost-per-word isn’ different, but my impression from the outside is that it’s more about achieving the flexibility to have X reviews or features at Y cost this week, and change that the next week, etc., rather than being stuck with the fixed costs of a staff critic.
      Or were there never employed staff critics, just regular / defined freelance contributors? In which case, isn’t this just an exercise in allowing in new blood where they want? Perhaps they feel some of their review writers aren’t such good feature writers, and want a clean break so they can commission what they want from the best journalists?

  3. Doomlord says:

    Insanity. Why not just close the paper down – as they surely will have done come Christmas? Along with the op-ed stuff, the critics are the heart and soul of a Sunday paper. Then again, when you’ve got more critics than readers…

  4. PK Miller says:

    The trend here in the States seems to be to go w/freelancers. Like temps, they are paid only for what they write however that works. They don’t have to be paid a salary w/benefits, no sick/personal time, vacation, no pension, 401K etc. Our major daily newspaper in upstate NY has many “stringers,” on its roster for reviews including restaurant reviews. Just as the entity I worked for x108 years has let go much of tis permanent f/t staff & uses temps as needed. Unlike f/t employee who must be paid a full 8 hrs if theyre sent home early due lack of work, or as is tradition, Christmas/New Year’s Eve, the temps are paid only whatever hours theyre on the clock. If that’s 4 hours, it’s 4 hours. They are call in only in an as-needed basis. I fear this is the future. I don’t know how things work in England. But this seems to be the trend here–freelancers, stringers, temps….

  5. Either it’s very carefully worded or very sloppily worded. The phrase is “contributor costs”. To me, that sounds like freelance writers, photographers, picture libraries etc as well as “staff”. I don’t know all the details of who has been let go and what their contractual relationship was (and wouldn’t say, even if I did!) but it does not sound like it’s limited to staff.

    If flexibility is what you want, that’s best achieved by being an aggregator: short, quickly knocked out links to other sites that give the full story. You can do dozens in a day and prioritise them how you like. However, that’s a rather tedious model and readers tend to want something meatier and, perhaps, exclusive. So, you employ writers etc.

    The worst flexibility comes from features. You get an interview with a performer – it’s quite long, so makes larger demands on the layout (and fact-checking, should you indulge such luxuries). In addition it’s tied to an event, so there’s a relatively small window of opportunity to run it sensibly. There’s a long lead time while you negotiate with PRs etc. If something “more interesting” crops up in the meantime, what do you do? And having had two pages set aside for the best part of a month, let’s hope the interviewee is interesting!

    Of course newspapers face these questions all the time and we’ve all had things held back or spiked for space or because it no longer seems relevant. But relying on features is making a rod for your own back (unless I have a misty-eyed perception of what constitutes a “feature” and shorter less in-depth pieces will also count).

    CD and DVD reviews are great for flexibility: as many words as you require that you can slot in anywhere you’ve got a space, any time in the month around the release date. If you’ve really got an empty space, you can get one written in a couple of hours.

    The writers they’re letting go have long proven themselves as equally adept at features as reviews.

    As I say, I’m confused and can’t really envisage what they have in mind. Apart from it being cheaper to produce.

  6. Rolf Erdahl says:

    I’m curious how many writers are kept on staff for the sports section. In the US, arts critics are becoming an endangered species. If there’s a football or baseball game, we frequently see a week’s worth of interviews with players, several different columnists weighing in on what might happen, a couple articles predicting outcomes on the game day, and several more presenting a post-mortem.

    For a stellar classical music event, freelancers can maybe write one calendar announcement, probably won’t have access to an interview with artists, then maybe post a review after the fact.

    The problem is not that great music isn’t happening or that people don’t want to partake in it. The problem is the media and presenter gatekeepers “THINK” there’s not interest in the stuff they don’t cover or present, and they get complacent confirmation of their views if few people attend events they weren’t told about. There’s also the tacit assumption foisted on the public that if an event is not covered by the media, it’s not important, or it’s only for a certain snobbish elite that enjoys such things.

    In place of any sort of service mentality to educate or uplift audiences, media and presenters increasingly shoot for what they “think” their readers want to see, and are in a mad scramble to hit their self-imposed, ever-sinking, lowest-common-denominator, self-fulfilling prophesies. Presenters are pressured by bottom-line-transfixed boards to hire more tribute acts – Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, etc., in place of any of a variety of high quality living and breathing musical presentations. One presenter I know thought it strange that there was a Neil Diamond tribute act he was being pressured to book, despite Mr. Diamonds continued existence and activities on this mortal plane.

    I attended the last St. Paul Chamber Orchestra concert of this season. It was brilliant music making concluding a devastating year of lock out and crippling musician concessions. I was greeted at the box office door by huge posters proclaiming one of next season’s big events at the Ordway Theater – The Buddy Holly Tribute Band.

    The problem is not with the performers, performances, or audiences. It’s with the gatekeepers who dictate what audiences are allowed to hear and see through what they present as something important enough to take up space in a newspaper.

    • Traditionalist says:

      Rolf Erdahl is so right to call attention to the vastly different amount of emphasis given to sports versus arts in the newspaper. Most papers in the US continue to maintain an entire sports section with multiple columnists and play-by-play reportage of dozens of games, right down to those of the local high schools. The players at every level easily become household names. Meanwhile, arts coverage is treated as superfluous.

      My pet peeve is the amount of television news time allocated to sports and weather, in particular the inane “interviews” with sports players, which are the same old mantra every time: ‘Yeah, well, we did our best out there but they just played better this time…” OR “Yeah, we’ve been playing great and everything just came together out there today…”–yet intellectuals who actually have something important to say rarely get an interview, and most of the time a reporter will be talking over them if any footage is shown!

      No wonder there is less understanding of the arts, and a constant struggle to increase audiences.

      I think Mr. Erdahl is also on the mark in stating that aiming for an imagined “lowest common denominator” is counter-productive. Newspapers may be shooting themselves in the foot by reducing content with substance. They should be presenting material which surprises and enlightens rather than affirms what people already know. Perhaps their readership would grow if they increased the arts content rather than decreased it.

  7. The Chief Sports Writer is one of those who is leaving, along with writers on current and foreign affairs. While this is a forum with a particular interest in the arts and clearly the changes in that area are the most far-reaching, the problems at the Indy run deeper and wider.

    In the medium term, the print contract is up for renewal in 2015. That is clearly the moment when the owners will decide whether to continue in print, go to web-only (the first UK national to do so) or simply to wrap it up altogether. So far they are saying they have ‘no plans’ to close it…

  8. Gestorben der Welt says:

    “I included the request that PRs afford the writers the same access and information as always was meant to be helpful to the critics whether or not they write for the IoS in the future”.

    Independent contractors do NOT obtain the same access and information as staff critics. Just ask around.

    The problem with this scenario is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arts coverage suffers; readers interested in the arts go elsewhere; the paper then says, “Ah, but arts readership is down. You see, we were right”.

    With articles in the Gramphone written by publicists (!!!), with articles in the New York Times written by factually-challenged innocents, what remains? TLS, of course, the New York Review of Books (not often enough), and Tory rags (the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal). Not a wholesome situation.

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