Music Coverage Endangered as Writers From USA Today, Times-Picayune, New York Daily News Exit
Music coverage at metropolitan dailies has taken a major hit in recent weeks, with writers at several legacy city papers leaving their full-time positions.
Jim Farber announced on Sept. 17 that he had been let go from the New York Daily News, where he had been covering music since 1990, in a round of layoffs that hit the paper's highest-profile talent particularly hard. New Orleans’ Times-Picayune dissolved its music department in a 21 percent budget slice of the paper's content operation. The Advance Publications-owned title laid off music writer Alison Fensterstock and offered her colleague Keith Spera a metro reporting job that would, according to a Facebook post, allow him to "write the occasional music-related news story."
The 2.8-million circulation national daily USA Today, meanwhile, said goodbye to its longtime music writer Brian Mansfield. The Nashville-based 18-year veteran of the paper reveals his next move will take him out of traditional journalism into a new role as content director at public relations firm Shore Fire Media (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, St. Vincent).
"I wanted to make sure that I got out on my own terms," Mansfield tells Billboard. "I’ve seen people in other jobs that are just hanging on. I didn’t want to find myself down the road in a situation where I was waiting to see what somebody else was going to do."
"Brian is going to be in charge of creating and unifying all of our written materials and creating a stream of text, images and music for us," says Shore Fire founder Marilyn Laverty. "He’ll also be contributing media strategies for campaigns and mentoring our staff writers. And as someone who is so widely respected and so knowledgeable in the music business, he’ll be a great ambassador for us as well."
Although Mansfield adds that he's looking forward to stepping away from the 14-hour days he was putting in as USA Today, his exit also marks the first time in the newspaper’s 33-year history that it will not have a full-time writer devoted to music.
These cuts mark the latest acknowledgment that readers have shifted online (and, more recently) to the mobile space as ad revenue has fallen. And the new landscape affects not only those soon-to-be-out-of-work journalists, but also touring bands that rely on local coverage to boost ticket sales.
“There's something old-fashioned about it that kind of works," says Fruit Bats frontman Eric Johnson of previews placed in local newspapers that help spread word of an upcoming appearance. "For most indie bands, they rely on their following and also curiosity seekers to fill a room. The nod from the local press gives just a little bit of an edge." His band is currently warming up on the road ahead of a trek with My Morning Jacket and playing to the sort of predominantly male, adult audience that’s likely to pick up the local paper. "You can always tell the people that haven’t heard you [because] they’re not singing along," he adds. And that's a good thing as it signals discovery.
"What used to be the case, to a certain extent, was that rock critics occupied a version of the bourgeois public sphere in newspapers," offers Eric Weisbard, associate professor at the University of Alabama and author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams Of American Music. "They had staff positions; they were allowed to write column-length appreciations of music that told their community, 'Here's how to value this music.' … Now, it's a highly interactive space that's less [about] imagining and more [about] experiencing."
As another round of layoffs is expected at the Los Angeles Times, which is reportedly looking to eliminate more than 80 full-time positions, and the value of music coverage -- and the vitality of arts criticism in general -- is debated anew on social media and beyond, Farber points to his own experience via a Sept. 21 Facebook post: “Each critique, think piece, interview, and industry story provided an opportunity to explore how sound hits us, to work out why the creations of a great range of artists illuminates, or infuriates, us so.”
With reporting by Shirley Halperin and Chris Willman.
This article was originally published in the Oct. 3 issue of Billboard.