Newspapers and the disappearing music critic: Where's the leadership?

Well, here we go again. You will remember recent discussion here and elsewhere about the almost-elimination of the position of music critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  A combination of local and national pressure reversed that decision. But now we have the situation all over again, this time in Kansas City and Miami. Here's a digest that appeared June 20 in In the News, the League of American Orchestras' daily newsletter to the orchestra field:

McClatchy, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country, is in the process of cutting 10 percent of its workforce. Today (6/20) on, Susan Elliott reports that the Kansas City Star, a McClatchy affiliate, "has eliminated the position of classical music critic, and with it Paul Horsley, who was given his walking papers on Monday after more that eight years in the job. Also gone from the culture department are the fashion editor and two of the three calendar editors. ... Last year Horsley's byline count--a common practice at newspapers these days--was a total of 250, about as many working days as there are in a year. Horsley, who holds a PhD in musicology from Cornell University, left his job as the Philadelphia Orchestra's program annotator and musicologist eight years ago to come to the Star. He did so, he says, because he thought the newspaper had 'one of the strongest arts staffs of any city any size.' ... The Kansas City symphony, opera and ballet are said to be organizing a formal protest."

And here's another one, from the June 26 edition of In the News:

"Last week it was the Kansas City Star; this week it's the Miami Herald. When will the blood-letting stop?" asks Susan Elliott today on "On Monday, Miami Herald Classical Music Critic Lawrence Johnson received an 'involuntary buyout' from his newspaper. Just to be clear, the word 'buyout' when preceded by 'involuntary' means laid off, in this case with eight weeks severance pay. Such is Johnson's paper parachute. ... Like the Kansas City Star, the Herald is owned by the McClatchy Company, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country. McClatchy is severely in debt from its 2006 purchase of Knight Ridder, and so is cutting ten percent of its workforce, company wide. At the Herald, it's actually 17 percent, or 190 of its 1,400 employees. ... The Herald's executive editor reported to Johnson that the hue and cry from the classical music community, which has grown during Johnson's watch, was 'massive.' 'The response has really been heartening,' said Johnson by phone yesterday, 'and it makes the situation easier to deal with. There's a lot more going on in South Florida than anyone would think. I'm going to do my best to make sure these groups continue to get coverage, even if it's on a different platform.' " Johnson has started a blog to continue his coverage,

It continues to amaze me that those who are in positions to shape the national agenda do not, in fact, give a damn about shaping anything. Instead of feeling a shred of responsibility to lead the country, to move national discussion beyond the realm of reality shows, sitcoms, and sound-bites, they exercise a stunning degree of follow-ship-putting their collective fingers in the air, sensing the current trends, and running to follow them. That the arts and culture do, in fact, represent among the most significant achievements of any society or civilization--and that for that reason alone they merit discussion in our national media--is irrelevant to those who shape those media. It is a sad commentary, and perhaps more than anything else it is indicative of why newspapers are being eaten up by the internet.

I hope that there are vocal protests in Kansas City and Miami. I hope that many join them, and I hope they will be successful. But it's beginning to feel as if once you plug one hole in the dike, another opens elsewhere.

June 27, 2008 3:03 PM | | Comments (12)



Thank you, these are hard times. Leadership, statesmanship, missing from so many areas of life here in America. Keep up the good topics.


I love to read interesting post that has knowledge to impart regarding current issues! Thank you for sharing your insights! I will avidly wait for your next blog entry.

Thank you for your kind words -- I will try not to disappoint.

Here's one from California:

L.A. Times lays off music critic Chris Pasles
Wednesday, July 16th, 2008 by Timothy Mangan, classical music critic
One more gone. Longtime Los Angeles Times classical music and dance critic Chris Pasles was laid off this week, as part of that paper’s ongoing freefall. Pasles is familiar to generations of readers here in the Southland — he’s been writing on the arts for close to 30 years in the Times Calendar section.

When I first started writing for the Times as a freelancer in 1989, there were five classical music critics on staff, including Pasles, Martin Bernheimer, John Henken, Daniel Cariaga, and Gregg Wager. And there was still plenty of work to go around for us stringers. Now, only Mark Swed is left on staff, and there’s just as much music, if not more, to cover.

Pasles was (and I hope will still be, in some capacity) a critic who took his job seriously, very good with opera, and a graceful writer. He was also a tremendous colleague and friend. He was always one of my favorite people to run into at concerts. Chris tells me via e-mail that he’s “pretty shaken,” and not sure what he’ll do next. A previously planned vacation is in his near future (his last day is Friday), then, he says, he’ll start thinking about what’s ahead. I wish him nothing but the best.

Newspapers are on their way to becoming leaflets consisting of bare bones news coverage the sports section with as many ads as possible.

I'm in Chicago based on what Sam Zell is doing to the Tribune Company how long will John Von Rhein still be at the Tribune despite his 30+ year tenure? The Sun Times already covers Classical only through free-lancers.

Protests, vocal or otherwise, won't help. Newspapers care only about the bottom line.

I know: I was music critic for The Arizona Republic from 1994 to 2005, when management decided it could do without my services in the classical music arena. (I also preceded Paul Horsley at the K.C. Star from 1987 to 1990.) Their reasoning is that people interested in classical music don't belong to the demographic that buys lots of stuff. Folks who go to rock concerts buy lots of stuff, but not classical folk. Classical folk, the newspapers believe, are well-off, certainly, but they already own a home and two or three cars and their disposable income is probably tied up in stocks. To sell advertising - which is how newspapers make money - management has to convince the stores in the shopping malls to take out huge ads that will sell stuff to mostly young people on their way up the ladder of success. That means devoting space to coverage of Paris and Britney, not the Paris Opera and Benjamin Britten.

In my experience of newspaper management, fewer than one in 100 newspaper executives give a rat's behind about serving the public; they care only about making sure next quarter's stock report shows an increase in returns. But they're getting what they deserve. Newspaper readership is down, and it will sink further as people wake up to the fact that, not only do papers neglect the arts, they don't even report the news accurately.

We need to think of using alternative media. I've started a radio show in Phoenix called Arts on the Town, which interviews people in classical music, theater, dance and visual arts. Some of our interviews are archived at

As a member of the professional music community in Kansas City, I am truly saddened by the departure of Paul Horsley, and, even more tragically, the music critic position at the Kansas City Star. I wish I could say I was shocked or even surprised. The unfortunate truth is, despite a thriving classical music scene in K.C., media coverage has been woefully lacking for many years.

A number of years ago we lost our long-time classical FM radio station when the owner decided to change to a more "profitable" format,thus relegating the classical offerings to its sister AM frequency. (Interestingly, that same station has changed formats two or three times since.)

We're not just losing a music critic; we're also losing valuable coverage of music and ballet. Ironically, this falls in a year in which a beautiful new performing arts center is under construction and the highly respected Kansas City Chorale has won a Grammy award.

I, too, hope to see the internet step in and fill the void. And I wish Mr. Horsley all the best in his new position, wherever it may be.

--Emily Smith, Co-Director
Kansas City Flute Choir

Why is it that when cuts are made, it's always the Arts that suffer? Did we lose many (any?) sports writers? Probably not.

As a retired public school teacher of music, I've watched the pendulum swing: When I began, in 1969, our school had 3 music teachers. A year or two later, we had the miraculous number of 5! All too soon, we were back to 3, and then, for the last ten years of my career, we had ONE music teacher left. (I might add: much the same pattern related to the Art department.)

As our schools diminish the importance of music in our daily lives, so the media continues the process. You remove our liassons, those who connect the public with the world of art. Larry Johnson is one such liasson. We, out here in the real world, depend upon the Larry Johnsons of the country to keep us connected with the up-and-coming artists. Yes, there are still those of us who DO want to see and hear fantastic performances of orchestra, chorus, opera, dance, and all we can grasp. South Florida has a terrible reputation for lack of culture, but some of us try to keep it going. Larry Johnson helped us do that!

Perhaps it's too late for Larry's position with your paper. But it's not too late to stop this terrible attrition in the world of the Arts.

It doesn't help when music criticism and writing is done by journalists who are not very knowledgable about music, or who lack expertise and taste, even when knowledgable. In other words, music criticism should be written by literate musicians, not journalists. I have not read such writing since Harold Schonberg retired. If the writing lacks essential thought, vitality, and insight, it is a weakened target people can live without. That said, Paul Horsley is one of the more knowledgable writers. But where are the writers like Virgil Thomson today? There is certainly a lack of leadership in newspaper ownership. Decline in content leads to further decline in readers.

Thank you, Henry Fogel,
These are sad times. Leadership, statesmanship, missing from so many arenas of American life. Critical commentary is nothing more or less than good thinking on good matters. Please keep speaking for us as we struggle to hold and keep and find what still is possible, to keep our heads and spirits high.
Lesley Valdes

Thank you for shedding light on this very current and yet timeless dilemna. Is money the root of the problem? No child left behind? Down with the elitist critics? If you wish to see where we may be going with our culture, please see Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron"(included in Welcome to the Monkey House). The dumbing down of our general culture leaves us poorer in the main and sucking for air at the top of the creative heap. I admit that without external criticism, we may still create. I am a visual artist myself and a composer. Without critics to examine and illuminate works for others to appreciate, will it fall to the artists themselves to get the word out and also to enlighten the viewing and listening public? Another big hat to wear. I do enjoy educating and bringing People into close proximity with my own work. Is that the ideal? I wonder. I think not.

As music critics continue to operate as hired goons of their respective symphony orchestras, failing to report important music news in their region, they will continue to become more and more irrelevant. For instance, OgreOgress productions has yet to be featured in any piece by the local music critic of the Grand Rapids Press and Grand Rapids Symphony.

I agree wholeheartedly and am amazed that newspapers have left a lot of arts criticism to bloggers and freelancers like me. I think that newspapers could easily establish an arts-criticism community on the web by letting qualified freelancers post their previews/reviews/features under the moniker of the main newspaper reviewer. Newspapers could easily remain a one-stop web place where reader can find all of the latest arts-related news, and it wouldn't cost all that much - since all of it would be online. Ad revenue would quickly follow and cover the cost of paying the freelancers a nominal fee.


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