The Buzz, 9-6: Phoenix Descending
Voice Gives the Raspberry to New York; Times Buries the Story
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider
This past weekend, while the chief dance critic of the New York Times was working his middle-brow in overtime to analyze the journalistically insignificant "merger" of two publishers of dance and cheerleading magazines (erudite conclusion: "Hard to tell cheerleaders and dancers apart"), the rest of us were worrying over the most recent and far more consequential fall-out from another publishing transaction, a story the Times relegated to its business pages: the firing by Phoenix-based New Times, the McWeekly chain that last fall bought the Village Voice (and renamed itself Village Voice Media) of longtime dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer, along with several other editors and other staff, most notably Robert Christgau, regarded by many as the dean of rock music critics. Revealing a stunning ignorance of the way good journalism is built, the suits in Phoenix say they're firing editors in New York to place more emphasis on writers. Predictably, none of the staff additions they cite are in the area of dance and, indeed, far from positioning the Voice "as an integral journalistic force in New York City," as the new owners explain their strategy, the firings of Zimmer and Christgau, together with the other departures since New Times bought the Voice, signify the opposite, as a once essential paper is rapidly making itself irrelevant to the cultural life of its own city.
Self-respect dictates that newspapers not be beat in covering their hometown (or state) industries. The San Jose Mercury News takes pride in its coverage of Silicon Valley; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer won't be scooped on Microsoft. Along with theater of course, dance is New York's hometown industry. That's why the New York Times -- to give it some credit -- has two full-time staff dance critics, while most other papers these days, to the degree they cover dance at all, rely entirely on freelancers.
While we all have the greatest respect for Deborah Jowitt, the Voice's longtime dance critic, the value of also having an in-house dance editor cannot be under-estimated. At the Voice, it's allowed the paper to cover not just dance performance, but dance news. And Zimmer, as that rare dance writer who's as journalistically astute as she is critically articulate, has been the ideal person to make sure (to the degree she's been allowed the space to do so) that the major news developments in dance are reported -- and that her publication is not embarrassed by missing them. She's made sure that dance is not just segregated to the dance criticism page (now actually half a page), to be read mostly only by dancers and other dance fans, but also gets play in the paper's feature 'well,' exposing it to a wider audience and establishing the Voice as a source not just of dance criticism, but dance features and news as well.
For dance coverage, the value of an in-house editor who knows the subject cannot be under-estimated. Indeed, I'd suggest it's the lack of one at the Times that has allowed John Rockwell to diminish the paper's reputation as a place for serious and informed dance criticism. (Yes, Jennifer Dunning is still there and still doing great work, but the Times has vested more authority in Rockwell by making him "chief dance critic.") There's no one to challenge the ignorance he so ostentatiously perpetrates. (When readers try to do so, it just makes management happy, because they like the controversy.) If the situation at the Voice is not the same because of the estimable Jowitt, in the long-term the lack of an in-house dance editor at the Voice will have serious consequences for dance coverage, beyond the likely reduction in dance features. Future freelancers will not have the clout that (one hopes) Jowitt does, and, like freelancers just about everywhere else, will have to try to sell their stories to editors who know little and often care less about dance.
Zimmer also played a valuable role (when she had the space) in introducing new voices (including this writer) to the field.
In simple terms -- and, again, meaning no disrespect to Jowitt -- over the last 14 years, her tenure at the Voice, Elizabeth Zimmer has been, by her perseverance, authority, acumen, dedication, engagement, and energy the most important and influential dance journalist in New York after Anna Kisselgoff, Rockwell's predecessor. It won't do any good to lobby the Voice's new corporate bosses for her restitution because really, her firing had less to do with her than with the usual corporate exigencies; like Dance Magazine, the Voice is now a shell of its former literate self. My (admittedly somewhat self-serving, as was that comment about Dance Magazine) advice to dance professionals interested in serious dance journalism would be to support independent, non-corporate publications -- write for us ('us' meaning not just us the Dance Insider), advertise with us and, if you still don't like what's out there, start one of your own.