As original coverage is increasingly replaced with U.S. wire copy, gaps in local cultural reporting belie a worrying trend
Without much fanfare, the arts and culture section of Canada’s highest-circulation newspaper — the paper of record for its most populous city — has all but disappeared.
Over the past two months, the Toronto Star has quietly reassigned the bulk of its entertainment reporters and editors, while some have taken buyouts. In a roundup for classical music publication Ludwig-Van, editor-in-chief Michael Vincent tracked the departures and observed that three journalists remain on the arts beat: theatre critics Carly Maga and Karen Fricker, and classical music contributor John Terauds.
(Terauds’ position is funded by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation; he also serves as editor-emeritus for Ludwig-Van.)
The depth and breadth of the latest cuts were shocking, but not without warning. Rob Salem, the Star’s former longtime film and television critic, was reassigned from entertainment to the city desk in 2014. After working on that desk for six months, he accepted a buyout in 2015.
“They decided they didn’t need a TV critic,” says Salem. He describes this month’s cuts as the culmination of “a gradual chipping away, which I was a part of.” Like many media workers on the arts and culture beat, Salem and his former Star entertainment colleagues feel that their work is viewed as frivolous and less important than other desks.
The cuts, which so far have gone unaddressed by Star brass and its publisher TorStar Corp., are part of a coldly familiar pattern in media over the past decade. As publications across Canada struggle to adapt to a hollowed-out advertising market and sharp declines in subscription numbers, their parent companies have slashed budgets and staff.
An unfortunately predictable first casualty is the arts and culture desk. This trend is mirrored in Ontario by the Ford Conservatives’ cuts to arts councils and education budgets, scaling back provincial funding that has supported independent magazines and forcing a reduction in arts programming in schools.
As far back as 2001, the National Post scaled back its arts section after readers indicated that national, foreign, and business reporting were higher on their list of priorities. The Globe And Mail cut its weekday arts section in 2017, to shift focus to news and business.
Both papers have supplemented coverage with syndicated entertainment wire copy from U.S. media, leaving a gap in local and national Canadian arts coverage. Now, the Star’s once-prestigious entertainment section is filled with reports from the likes of the Associated Press, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle.
In the months preceding, the media company has made a slew of high profile cost-cutting maneuvers, eliminating its commuter dailies in late 2019 and shuttering the Hamilton Spectator’s copy editing centre. Its shares have depreciated by 94 per cent over the last five years, reports the Financial Post.
Torstar’s fourth quarter report released on Feb. 26 indicated that further cutbacks were imminent. On a conference call announcing the results, Torstar president and CEO John Boynton said, “Ongoing efforts to reduce costs are anticipated to help mitigate continued pressures on print advertising revenues.”
In late capitalist North America, arts and culture are first on the chopping block. Arts journalists across Canada are familiar with this truth, and most acknowledge the financial realities of arts coverage: save for high-profile stories and celebrity pieces, arts stories rarely draw as much ad revenue as news reporting.
Editor and culture critic Lara Zarum says that when she worked as a production editor placing ads, the arts section was usually underserviced compared to other sections. Zarum suspects that the arts industry businesses that would traditionally advertise with those stories are, like arts in media, suffering.
As a result of this relatively unimpressive ad revenue draw, arts and culture sections are “treated as a little more disposable” than other desks. “It’s not seen as something that in and of itself is worthy of serious consideration,” Zarum says. “At least, not when you’re having to do triage and figure out what [to] keep and what needs to go.”
Salem agrees. “[Owners] are responding with a very corporate set of priorities as opposed to a journalistic position,” he says.
But this profit-driven decision-making ignores cultural realities — and increases tension in culture scenes in Canada’s dispersed creative industries.
Now Magazine music editor Richard Trapunski cites Toronto’s Music City strategy to highlight the popular desire for stimulating and sustaining creative communities. But Trapunski says that without local, or even national, resources committed to coverage of these creatives, it makes things more challenging.
“The city has looked at [music] as an important part of its cultural fabric,” says Trapunski. “Part of that cultural fabric is documentation. If you’re a smaller artist doing a show at the Tranzac, without local arts sections, is anyone going to know about it?
“Historically, [the Star] has been the record for the local music scene, and if we lose that local beat, I think we’re losing a lot.”
As long as media are operated by owners motivated by profit rather than public interest, Zarum, Trapunski, and Salem agree that arts coverage and their subjects will continue to suffer.
“It impoverishes the culture of the city to not have a robust system of people paying attention and drawing attention to what local artists are doing,” says Zarum. “Arts and culture does affect how we move through the world. It has a huge impact on our lives. If we don’t have people who are talking about that as opposed to talking about the business angle or the real estate angle, a lot is lost. There are days when I open the Globe and Mail and it feels like it’s written for old white guys who are looking for how to invest their money.
“What do we want our society to look like? Condos and business and the tech industry?”
Luke Ottenhof is a freelance writer based in Toronto.