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The day the music died

In lockstep with one of the more questionable national newspaper trends, both local dailies have almost completely given up on arts criticism.

Aside from Kathleen Allen, who maintains a busy schedule as theater critic at the Arizona Daily Star, and Chuck Graham, who works in a few theater reviews between movie screenings and other assignments at the Tucson Citizen, nobody at either paper is paying any critical attention to the fine arts--classical music, dance, visual art and architecture.

Both papers devote substantial space to what's classified as "entertainment"--popular music, movies, TV and such. But there's a paucity of commentary and analysis in the nonprofit entertainment realm.

The Star let visual-art reviews start drifting away in 1999, with dance not far behind. Classical music criticism became a low priority with the departure not long thereafter of Ken Keuffel Jr., and a complete non-priority when free-lancer Jennifer Lee Carrell left to write her smallpox book. The Citizen gave up on visual arts when Charlotte Lowe-Bailey left in the late 1990s, and Graham has made only a token effort to keep up with the dance beat.

And now Dan Buckley, the last surviving classical-music critic at a Tucson daily, is locking his poison pen in some jammed drawer in the Citizen newsroom, and will devote all his attention to the paper's online multimedia projects. He'll be replaced, but not with another music critic.

Buckley drastically cut back his criticism two years ago, when he first shifted into the Citizen's Web division. He's tended to cover only concerts with new music or high-profile guests, and even that minimal attention is now a thing of the past. Buckley says he'll continue to review the Tucson Symphony's concerts through the end of this season, but that's it.

Buckley isn't complaining. In fact, he figures classical-music criticism is a waste of Citizen space.

Three years ago, during a pre-concert talk at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival--a gathering of the city's hard-core classical audience--Buckley informed the 400 people assembled that the Citizen was about to get a new publisher named Mike Chihak, who was not guaranteed to be an arts lover like his predecessor, Don Hatfield. "So I said, 'If you have an interest in maintaining classical coverage in the Citizen, now would be a good time to voice your opinion,'" Buckley recalls.

"How many responses do you think we got? Zero. I thought, 'OK, these people don't care.' This job is a thankless grind; I can't compose and perform, because it's a conflict of interest, and nobody cares about the coverage, so there's no reason to continue with this.

"I felt it was more important to ensure the Citizen's future by throwing myself full-time into the multimedia work--which, to his credit, Mike Chihak wanted to move ahead with--than to maintain something of marginal interest to our readers."

Newspaper people around the country are assuming that the classical-music audience is dying and that reviewing classical concerts is as useless as printing Braille for deaf people. But it's not true; last year, audience studies by the Knight Foundation and the Performing Arts Research Coalition showed that there's still a strong classical audience, and even if its members prefer to get their music from the radio and CDs, they believe performing-arts events are important.

Yet newspapers are doing their best to make their arts critics irrelevant. Examples abound; last fall, the Orange County Register (a major California paper) restricted its classical-music and theater columnists to one appearance per month. And Louisiana's little Shreveport Times announced Feb. 8 that it would "no longer do reviews of plays, symphonies, ballets and art shows." But it will "expand" its arts coverage by running more event previews--things that any general-assignment reporter can crank out by re-writing a press release and maybe calling somebody for a couple of quotes.

Meanwhile, Buckley is having a blast as the Citizen's Mr. Multimedia, working on news, features and sports items.

He sheds no tears for the loss of concert reviewing. "It's foolish to waste resources on it," he asserts. "The Star hasn't done it for three years, and nobody's made a peep. If the people who should care most don't, why beat ourselves up over it?"


Payback

The Arizona Newspapers Association is all aflutter over a bill that just passed committee in the state House of Representatives. HB 2357 would allow the government to charge a fee to redact public records. A Gilbert schools lobbyist and Gilbert Rep. Andy Biggs were ticked off two weeks ago when a Phoenix TV news department requested copies of school-bus incident reports; the lobbyist says that it took a district employee three days to redact the records, and the district should be reimbursed for those costs.

The ANA maintains that taxpayers already pay government agencies to maintain records and make them available, and paying for copies amounts to double taxation. Furthermore, reporters' "fishing trips" through public records often uncover juicy stories.

Let's make a deal: The Legislature should kill the bill if editors agree never again to run huge packages detailing how consortiums of newsrooms tested the accessibility of public records and found it inadequate. That sort of thing is important to insiders, but readers just don't care.

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