The voice of informed and experienced arts criticism in this city is about to get a whole lot softer. As of Dec. 31, the Austin American-Statesman is eliminating the position of full-time arts writer, meaning that Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, who has been employed there since 1999, will be out of a job.
In an email exchange this week, Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott confirmed that, beginning in 2017, the local daily will no longer "have a dedicated reporter covering only the visual and performing arts." She attributed the move to a familiar culprit: the long, steady drop-off of advertising income that's had mainstream newspapers across the country cutting back staff and coverage until they're practically on life support.
"Unfortunately, we have had to make tough decisions about how we use our newsroom resources at a time when newspapers across the country are dealing with declining ad revenue and what that means for expenses," Hiott wrote. "That has hit different areas of coverage over time."
And that's been apparent to anyone who's been following the Statesman over the past decade. The Great Staff Buyouts of 2009 and 2011 saw the departure of many senior staffers in the editorial department (among them, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Ben Sargent). Staff critics covering television and film – once among the most heavily promoted writers at the Statesman – had their space cut back and/or positions eliminated. Sports still boasts a rather robust section, but the relocation of the paper's printing to Houston and San Antonio last year has stripped it of the ability to report on any night games in the next day's edition, radically reducing the print edition's relevance – a move that also hobbled the entire paper's reportage of breaking news. And the editorial page has been cut to half its former size, with almost no op-ed contributions from the Statesman editorial board.
Hiott said that the decision-making process for reducing staff includes various factors, such as "availability of coverage from other sources, what readers have said they consider priority areas of coverage in periodic readership surveys, and also what readers are responding to in consumption of coverage online." Since coverage of Austin-based visual and performing arts work can't be easily sourced from other outlets the way, say, reviews of books and movies can (witness the Statesman's expanded use of Kirkus Reviews and wire-service film reviews of late), it leaves one to wonder if today's readers of the daily print edition are just less interested in the arts than those of years past. (By the way, the Statesman subscriber base has shrunk by a third over the past 16 years, down from 187,000 in 2000 to about 125,000 now.)
Hiott insists that that isn't the case. "We are committed to continuing coverage of the arts because we know it is important in Austin," she wrote, and noted that future coverage will be provided by some of the nine feature writers still on staff, their editors, and local freelancers, with members of the Statesman's metro, business, and digital staff covering arts-related issues from time to time as well.[inset-1-right]
Hiott's assurance that arts coverage will continue at the Statesman doesn't address the kind of arts coverage it will be, however. In dismissing van Ryzin, the paper is letting go of a wealth of knowledge about Austin's cultural scene, its development over the past 17 years, and its place in both this community and the arts world beyond it. As Lana Lesley of the Rude Mechs theatre collective eloquently phrased it in a Facebook post on Monday: "When it comes to reviewing our work at Rude Mechs, the difference between Jeanne Claire and a freelancer who's seen few to none of our productions – well, the difference is significant. Freelancers can't bring her 17 years of context, experience, skill, and knowledge to their words. We artists are losing a great deal when we lose her."
Lesley went on to relate the move to the larger crisis being faced by the city's creatives as Austin's growth has mushroomed and its affordability diminished: "This decision to no longer employ professional staff writers for the arts lines up nicely with the loss of arts spaces and does nothing to make me feel like Austin hasn't totally lost its soul to the almighty dollar."
As someone who has known Jeanne Claire since she started at the Statesman and been a colleague of hers on the Austin Critics Table, I find her dismissal by the Statesman very disheartening and a sad end to a long career of valuable service, to both her readership and the creative community. She's chronicled the development of the arts in Austin over a most important period in the city's life. It's work that mattered, and Austin was better for it. Thanks for all your time on the arts watch, Jeanne Claire.
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