The way cultural news and entertainment reporting took such a severe beating during the “Great Downsize” within the newspaper industry of this past historic recession, you might be wondering whatever became of all those wonderful classical music writers?
Justin Davidson, for one, former classical music writer for Newsday, and a 2002 Pulitzer recipient for distinguished criticism, I’m happy to report, is doing splendidly at New York Magazine [See article archive ] where he is the architecture critic in addition to reporting on classical music.
Davidson, who landed at Newsday in 1996, left in 2007 when a golden opportunity presented itself.
The timing couldn’t have been more on cue. Just as he was exiting Newsday, the newspaper industry was collapsing like a string of vacant homes during a Category 5 hurricane.
“Newsday was disintegrating around me”, Davidson told me of the final months at the daily newspaper. “Yes, there was less space for the arts, but what was more discouraging was that there was less space for everything else.” “ The last year I was there” [at Newsday], Davidson said, “they closed all their foreign bureaus, closed the Washington Bureau, closed the national desk, halved the sports staff, and closed down practically all of New York City coverage. This was a newspaper that was basically surrendering all its ambition beyond just the very narrow purview of covering Long Island; and I don’t think they were doing that so well either.”
Alongside the dismantling of departments, and the severe staff cuts, the spirit of the Newsday staff, Davidson asserts, was becoming shattered beyond repair. “People were either taking buyouts, or they were being shuttled out to jobs they weren’t happy with.” Davidson said the worst was yet to come and he was able to execute an exit strategy, when opportunity came knocking, before the downsizing reached a level of crisis. “I could see that I needed to move on.”
Despite those heartbreaking memories of his last days, witnessing such a massive breakup of a newspaper he loved so much, Davidson nevertheless is enormously grateful to Newsday and its management team in a number of ways. “In its best years”, Davidson explained, “they really allowed me to do a wide range of things that were not in my beat.” “It allowed me to pursue other interests; one of those was in architecture. I did it gradually and then over a period of several years, built it up to a regular beat. ” Most importantly, Davidson went on to explain, “it allowed me to develop myself as a writer in a completely different field.”
The way Newsday allowed him to pursue other interests while continuing to write on classical music, turned out to be a godsend, making him a great deal more marketable when he continued his journalism career with New York Magazine, where he’s now able to straddle two beats: architecture and classical music, where space restrictions, under normal circumstances, doesn’t require a full-time writer in each of those areas. So, when many of his contemporaries are finding it difficult to make a living, being able to write with such authority in two different specialized areas is a great boon to any publication.
When you think of classical music writers, just imagine it wasn’t that long ago, as recently as 25 years ago in fact; that the four major New York City dailies: The New York Times, The N.Y. Daily News, the New York Post and Newsday housed full-time classical music critics.
When asked about the lack of news space devoted to classical music in many major U.S. dailies, Davidson thinks more troubling than the lack of newspaper coverage has been the lack of specialty magazines devoted the classical music, such as Opus, High Fidelity, Stereo Review, Classical, Ovation, and Keynote, to name some of the more prominent magazines that have ceased publishing.
One of the most destructive undercurrents of the “Great Recession” has been the financial chaos that has impacted orchestras nationwide. According to news reports, at least five U.S. symphonies sought court protection resulting from the 2008 economic collapse, including the Philadelphia Orchestra.
On a broader scale, Davidson argues classical music has always been in crisis and probably it will always be that way.
“Orchestras are the most rigid kind of business you can imagine,” he explained. As Davidson sees it, all the costs of maintaining orchestras are fixed, making them vulnerable to fluctuation and improvising on the fly. In particular, Davidson emphasizes, “there is no wiggle room into cutting costs, other than cutting what you actually do. When the economy gets better, their financial situation will get better.”
In addition to the recession impacting the financial health of orchestras, Davidson believes there is a “systemic problem.”
The elaborate infrastructure the industry has developed makes it all the more difficult to support. “The most successful businesses are the ones that are most flexible” Davidson stresses. Going from part-time to full-time musicians, going to longer seasons, combined with the closed shops (employees required to join a union) have made it difficult to sustain. Orchestras are pretty much one niche operations, according to Davidson’s reasoning, in a much more multi-cultural entertainment world, which makes it exceedingly more difficult for the industry to adapt.
Even the radio market for classical music has suffered. According to Robert Conrad, president and co-founder of WCLV, a classical music radio station in Cleveland, Ohio, because of the re-writing of the Telecommunications Law in 1996, many commercial radio stations discovered they were worth more dead than alive; their stations, in other words, were worth more than previously thought, such as WNIB in Chicago (sold for $162,000); and WTMI in Miami (sold for $100,000.)
As a consequence, the number of commercial classical music stations has dropped from 90 or more in the early 1990’s to nine or 10 today. Mr. Conrad additionally attributes the decline of classical music stations to the crippling recession which affected the advertising business with classical music stations, like all other forms of media, taking a severe hit. “The result”, Conrad said, “was that at least four major stations were sold to public broadcasters who wanted preserved the format and who turned them into non-commercial operations: WQXR New York; WCRB Boston; KING Seattle; andKDFC San Francisco. WCLV, on the other hand, was donated to Ideastream, a non-profit parent organization of WCPNpublic radio and WVIZ public television, which has owned WCLV since May 2011.
Though fortunate enough to be employed by a weekly magazine like New York Magazine, which has been able to sustain a high level of excellence through the worst of times, Davidson sees nothing but trouble spots for the newspaper industry from coast-to-coast.
Asked about the gloomy pessimism emblematic in so many newsrooms with continued fears of more layoffs and more rumors of newspapers planning to scale back on the number of days they will publish print editions, Davidson says that he is “discouraged about the discouragement because it feeds on itself. ” ‘What happens” Davidson says, “is some of the more optimistic people get out and look for other things and those that are left feel like they are conducting a kind of mop up operation.”
Like so many others struggling to make sense of the financial hardships afflicting the newspaper industry, Davidson is torn with conflicting views on this massive shift from print to online. Davidson explains that he subscribes to The New York Times print edition and has it at his breakfast table, even though by the time the newspaper arrives, he’s already read most of what he wants to read. “It’s hard to argue for the continued relevance of print, Davidson reasoned, “when I’m not even reading it, even though it’s sitting right in front of me.”
One benefit of a daily newspaper at his doorstep, however, is that his 15 year-old son is making a daily habit of reading the Times, which gives Davidson a strong sense of encouragement that a teenager, who rarely reads news online (too busy doing other things online), is making a print newspaper part of his daily ritual.
But to be blunt; Davidson is not optimistic about any given newspaper. “Clearly,” Davidson says, “this shakeout within the industry is not going to be a two or a five year thing, it will take years.”
The former Newsday staffer’s heart especially bleeds for the older employees at many newspapers who don’t have as many options as the younger generation. “The more you have invested in the way things used to be, the more vulnerable you are” Davidson believes.
Batting down criticisms that the high quality of writing has suffered at many U.S. dailies, Davidson insists that “the issue is not the quality of writing, the issue is to find a business model that works, which doesn’t seem like an insoluble problem.”
And how has Davidson adjusted from going to the frantic pace of meeting a daily deadline to a more leisurely tempo of a weekly magazine?
“My instincts were a little bit off at first,” Davidson chuckled. “It took me a little while to get used to it. There aren’t many people that make that transition.” On the upside, though, Davidson has found that not many staffers at New York Magazinehave gone through the long haul of the daily journalism experience that he has, from print to online, meeting fast approaching deadlines, and being able to turn something around quickly. “I find that incredibly useful”, Davidson says.
“What’s harder now is you have all the time in the world to write and re-write.”
A native of Rome, Italy, Davidson was a stringer at The Associated Press’s Rome bureau, before coming to the United States to attend Harvard University to study classical guitar, later launching his career as a composer.
After spending a year on a music fellowship in Paris, he moved to New York to attend Columbia University in order to pursue a doctoral degree in music composition.
A number of his compositions were subsequently performed in the U.S., Italy, China and Eastern Europe. Davidson was additionally the recipient of a number grants and awards from the American Academy/Institute of Arts and Letters, the Mellon Foundation, Meet the Composer, Columbia University and the Foundtion des Etats-Unis in Paris.
Occasionally, Davidson devotes some time to teaching. He’s taught writing at the School of Visual Arts, Syracuse University and NEAs annual Arts Journalism Institutes.
In addition to his contributions on classical music and architecture for New York Magazine, Davidson freelances for a number of publications, including, The New Yorker, Salon, Slate, Los Angeles Times, Opera News, Icon, ART and Travel & Leisure, among others.
He has appeared on WNYC’s “Soundcheck” and “Brian Lehrer Show” and contributes a monthly music column to the subscription-based Web site, E-music.
Davidson lives in New York City with his wife, art historian Ariella Budick, Newsday’s former Arts Critic, who is now writing for the Financial Times as a New York-based art critic. They have a son, Milo.
Cross-posted from NewspaperAlum.