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Michael Shmith has resigned from his role as opera critic for The Age in protest at the shrinking space for arts coverage. His abrupt depature was prompted by the newspaper’s refusal to find space in the paper or online for a review of the Lyric Opera of Melbourne’s recent production of The Coronation of Poppea (reviewed here by Limelight).
In an article published by Australian Book Review Arts entitled Why I quit as opera critic of The Age, he explained his decision. Shmith has been the paper’s opera critic since 2010, a role he continued after retiring from full-time journalism three years ago. From 1985 to 1993 he was Arts Editor of The Age. “I left because of the sad but inevitable realisation that The Age’s arts page no longer truly represented or upheld the critical standards that were once imperative to its existence and whose values remain of vital concern to me. And when I say ‘me’, I mean, by default, the artform I had the privilege to review,” he wrote.
“Opera is but one of the many artforms under review in The Age (that proud title long ago consumed in the swirling smog of something called Fairfax Media). But arts space has shrunk to the point where there is often just the one page Monday to Friday, with no page on Saturday, and an inordinate amount of copy to run. If you equate the exponential with the extant – the ever-increasing number of performances, exhibitions, and other cultural events in this city juxtaposed with the dwindling budgets (particularly for freelance writers) and forever-shrinking space available in which to publish reviews – it is easy to see how the arts editor’s role has metamorphosed from being able to exercise reasonable judgement in what to run to more drastic, slash-and-burn decision-making.”
His particular gripe was the decision by the paper’s new Arts Editor, Hannah Francis, not to run a review of a new production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea by the Lyric Opera of Melbourne. Though Francis told Shmith there was no room for a review as the arts pages were full early in the week, he wrote one anyway hoping for space later in the week. According to Shmith, Francis told him that there was still no room and that in future she would be “less likely to want reviews of smaller companies”.
Shmith said that he was “dismayed” by what he described as her “cavalier attitude to those smaller opera companies who are just as deserving of the right to a review, favourable or hostile, as larger companies. Does she intend to ignore them? Also, does she intend to apply this rationale across the board, say to low-budget films or small dance or theatre companies? Or is it exclusive to opera? Either way, it creates a wretched omen for arts companies in this city.”
However, not all arts commentators were sympathetic to Shmith's position. Writer and critic Alison Croggon responded to Shmith’s article with a series of tweets beginning with: “There are so many things wrong here. No 1: blaming the editor for the Age’s drastic cut of its arts pages. She isn’t responsible for that.”
There are so many things wrong here. No 1: blaming the editor for the Age's drastic cuts of its arts pages. She isn't responsible for that. https://t.co/VYLfsr4OCy— Alison Croggon (@alisoncroggon) August 15, 2017
In subsequent tweets Croggon questioned Shmith's "notion that the Age was 'the paper of record' on arts commentary when it was only a monopoly (pre-web) and too often mediocre", adding "here's your white male privilege in spades. Did the man miss all the headlines last year about what was happening to the arts in HIS OWN NEWSPAPER? (And this year too). Or did he just notice now that there isn't space and decided to blame the young woman who now has his former job?"
Arts writer Anne-Marie Peard also sprang to Francis’s defense in a tweet saying: “Not enough grrs. @AustBookReview, what about chatting to some other @TheAgeCritics before publishing? I’ve worked with her; she’s great”
In May, there was an outcry from the arts community when Fairfax boss Grey Hywood announced plans to cut around 125 editorial jobs – approximately a quarter of its newsroom – as part of a $30 million cost cutting restructure. Journalists at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald went on strike in protest. As reported in Limelight, 11 former Fairfax arts editors (including Shmith) wrote an open letter protesting the planned cuts, as did arts organisations including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Musica Viva. Actors, musicians and opera singers including Richard Roxburgh, Mitchell Butel, Jacqueline Dark and Taryn Fiebig also joined the Fair Go Fairfax campaign.
Clive Paget added his voice to the protests saying: “As Editor of Limelight, we fully support the action of Fairfax journalists against these short-sighted management decisions. A media sector losing a major player like Fairfax is a media sector forever diminished. With arts coverage under threat left, right and centre, we need to focus on building audiences, not letting them dwindle and die for want of sufficient online clicks. It’s time for consolidation and creative thinking, not cuts.”
As a result of the cuts, most of the dedicated arts writers at both The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have since been made redundant. Fewer smaller companies are now being reviewed by both mastheads, while a column that freelance arts writer Elissa Blake used to write each week about independent theatre companies in the SMH’s Friday Shortlist lift-out has also been axed.
Meanwhile, SAMAG (Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group) is organising a seminar called Is Arts Journalism Dying? in Sydney on Monday August 28 at which Elissa Blake, who writes extensively for Fairfax, Cultural Editor for Guardian Australia Steph Harmon, and Kate Edwards, the CEO and Executive Producer of creative, content and strategy company KONTENTED among other positions, will discuss the issue and how the industry might prepare for the future.