ATCA responds to S.F. Bay Area critics’ concerns

ATCA responds to S.F. Bay Area critics’ concerns

Jay Handelman, excom chair, has written member John McMullen about the recent request from eight S.F. Bay Area theaters for page view stats for online reviewers (scroll down two items for the original letter). Handelman points out that no theater owes any critic a free ticket, but that all theaters, like ATCA, share the mission “to ensure that the debate and conversation about theater continues to grow through as many critical voices as possible to stimulate readers, theaters and audiences.”

For the full letter:

Dear John,
Thank you for bringing attention to the recent letter from press reps for some major San Francisco Bay area theaters, asking online critics to submit data about page views to help these theaters decide who should get complimentary reviewers’ tickets. The message raises some interesting issues and reinvigorates a debate that the American Theatre Critics Association has long had about its own membership, representing critics from across the United States.
As an organization, we know that no theater owes critics free tickets. Some newspapers, including my own, pay for all theater tickets to avoid any appearance of undue influence. However, it is common practice in many cities for theaters to offer free tickets and for print, broadcast and online critics to accept them without feeling beholden by it, other than to responsible criticism.
We hope that theaters that do provide free tickets for critics create press lists that offer them to all critics who qualify as a sign of respect for the role those writers play in covering and commenting on the theater being produced in the area.

That is the real issue raised in this letter. Who should qualify? Numbers do tell one story, but only part of a story in the ever-changing world of the news media and the growing number of online outlets covering the arts.
We encourage all theaters to have consistent criteria as to who should be on those press lists. ATCA has struggled with this issue in the last few years as the number of applicants writing solely for online publications has grown.

Measuring a critic’s value to a particular theater solely by circulation, listenership, viewership or page views, is an abdication of reasonable judgment, reducing this measurement to a simple number, without considering demographics or the critic’s experience and skill. Numbers alone are no substitute for an informed, case-by-case consideration of which critics or outlets deserve to be on a press list.
ATCA’s own criteria for membership have evolved in recent years. Our membership page now state

“Membership is open to all who review theatre professionally, regularly and with substance for print, electronic or digital media.
“ATCA understands ‘professional’ normally to mean you are paid for your reviews and there is some editorial or other supervision of your criticism – e.g., it is not disseminated only on a personal, unsupervised website. But even such websites may qualify you for membership upon further review by the membership committee, considering such measures as substance, reputation and track record. Normally, any applicant must have been a published critic for at least a year.”
But we also consider other aspects while evaluating membership applications:
Is the applicant paid for his/her reviews? Is the work subject to oversight by an assigning editor or copy editor? What is the applicant’s educational background in regards to theater? How long has the applicant been reviewing theater? What is the reputation of the applicant? How frequently does the applicant review? And are there any apparent conflicts of interest?
These distinctions may not be easy, but they are more important than numbers alone in making such judgments.

As stated above, no theater is obligated to offer free tickets to anyone, and we understand that is a financial burden, but one with a trade-off for the theaters that then get coverage in the form of feature stories and reviews.  One of ATCA’s main missions is to ensure that the debate and conversation about theater continues to grow through as many critical voices as possible to stimulate readers, theaters and audiences.

I would be happy to discuss these issues further with anyone interested.

Jay Handelman
Chairman, American Theatre Critics Association
Theater and TV Critic, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

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