A response to ‘Ethics for theater critics’

Does an analysis by a privileged journalist have value?

Wendy Rosenfield has written another entry into one of my favorite genres of unintentionally hilarious editorial thought pieces: the establishment critic bemoaning the death of criticism as evidenced by reviewers who write for the (spit on ground) “Internet” without the remuneration supplied by a paper of record. Rosenfield’s piece is titled “Ethics for theater critics: Does a review that no one paid for have value?” If Betteridge’s law of headlines is any guide, she thinks the answer is no. Who’s to say her opinion is wrong?

Is everybody a critic? Statler and Waldrof. (Photo via muppet.wikia.com)

I am. I’ve worked for 15 years as a writer and editor; I can understand wishing publishers paid more for writing. But I’ve also dedicated years of my life to songwriting, to skiing, to publishing the work of local fiction writers, to enriching the lives of kids and special needs adults — pursuits for which I expect no monetary payment (though I sometimes welcome it). I can understand wanting to do something without pay, and wanting to do it well, ethically, and seriously. I feel sorry for those who can’t.

Rosenfield frames her editorial with the story of the “Craigslist critic,” a Seattle writer who posted “Men Seeking Women” ads offering to sell his “plus-ones” for plays he was reviewing. To Rosenfield, this is emblematic of a widespread moral turpitude among her lesser-compensated colleagues. The very fact that he was not paid for his writing demonstrates a loss of credibility and inherent “ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing.”

According to Rosenfield, by reviewing for no compensation, writers “contribute to the idea that critics have no ethics, that ethics no longer matter, and that therefore arts criticism can’t be taken seriously.” She claims “newspaper employees” are more ethical because they know “their jobs [are] at stake” if they violate a code of conduct and an unpaid critic “has nothing tangible to lose.” This argument reeks of the religious admonition to do right or you’ll go to hell, as if our moral compasses are only moved by the threat of punishment.

A changing landscape

It’s also a galling argument for Rosenfield to make. Critical coverage of theater in Philadelphia is at a nadir, part of a shriveling of arts journalism and professional media in general. She is paid by the Inquirer, the only print publication in the city running frequent theater reviews. Online sites have filled some of the void, but cast-offs from the shrinking print media take most of the paid posts.

Rosenfield’s assertion that pay for criticism “has been reduced because [unpaid reviewers are] giving it away for free” does not hold water: A decline in advertising revenue precipitated by the death of the urban department store and the migration of classified postings to online sites shattered the economics of newspapers and stripped the number of paid reviewing opportunities. It’s no comment on Rosenfield’s talent to say she’s lucky to have one. For her to question the ethics and output of those who don’t is akin to Donald Trump criticizing people who deign to work for minimum wage.

Independent critics may have to be self-policing in their ethics, but there’s no reason to assume those ethics are diminished. An antithetical argument could be made: Paid journalism requests conformity to a code of conduct, but it also puts pressure on the writer to consider his or her publisher’s financial situation and/or relationship to advertisers. The writer might also self-censor in consideration of the editor’s politics, artistic taste, or desire for clicks and subscribers. He or she might be tempted to detract from the critical analysis with an oh-so-clever, mean-spirited pun, or make ill-considered judgments in the rush to make deadline.

In contrast, a critic who writes only for the love of the theater and the desire to hold practitioners to a high standard might approach reviews from a more ethical grounding. I wouldn’t advertise on Craigslist for my extra ticket, certainly not on a dating page. It’s crass and embarrassing, and I feel bad for someone who would do that. But I can think of bigger threats to the art of criticism — like an aging critical establishment that shuns newcomers who write on different forums, for different motivations, adhering to different ethical codes.

Another model

My first introduction to theater criticism was as a paid writer, but I am now the editor of Phindie, the website that publishes more reviews of local theater than any other venue in Philadelphia. Phindie generally does not pay its writers, providing only a small payment to a few contributors at certain times (the Fringe Festival, for example). I don’t ask critics to write for free; they ask if they can write for Phindie and I tell them it usually doesn’t pay beyond the value of free tickets (sometimes worth $100+ for two). Most still want to write; some don’t.

Phindie has its own guidelines for reviewers (my favorite is “don’t be a dick”), but as befits a site that boasts “independent coverage”, they instruct writers to “Let your personal ethics guide your writing” and conclude by saying “Ignore any guidelines you wish. Trust your opinion and find your own voice as a critic.” I wouldn’t presume to tell someone that my ethical code is the only one that’s valid, and I wouldn’t want a writer who was only ethical because he or she feared punishment.

What’s at stake?

In preparing to write this response, I compared Rosenfield’s last 10 reviews to Phindie’s reviews of the same productions. At the risk of offending Phindie reviewers, I’ll acknowledge that Rosenfield’s writing often has better organization, better supported arguments, and more varied sentence structure and vocabulary. My problems with Rosenfield’s piece should not be taken as an attack on her criticism.

But for all I admire the quality of Rosenfield’s writing, I often disagree with her opinions. The pieces on Phindie were penned by seven different writers of varied gender, age, nationality, and sexual orientation. As criticism is an inherently subjective enterprise, more — and more diverse — viewpoints benefit the field as a whole. The concentration of critical opinion in a few hands is bad for criticism and bad for the field it covers.

I also compared my own most recent sample of 10 reviews to those published on Philly.com. Four of the last 10 works I reviewed got no consideration on that site. Three of them were not reviewed by any paid critic, and the fourth only by the now-defunct City Paper. All four were independent productions of fairly high quality and artistic integrity. In many cases, if I don’t review a play or find a volunteer reviewer for it, it won’t get any coverage. That’s a true death of criticism.

What’s the answer?

I’m not suggesting publishers stop paying their theater critics. Broad Street Review raises over $90,000 a year from grants and gifts (how about you?) to pay for criticism. Perhaps other financial models exist — Academia? Crowdsourcing? Foundation support? A better administrator could certainly monetize Phindie more successfully and better compensate writers, though these would be token payments, insufficient to squash a reprobate reviewer into fearful morality.

Theater criticism is an art, and artists have a right to ask for and receive payment for their work. I’d love to provide every writer with adequate reward for his or her valuable work. But to say unpaid or poorly compensated work has no value, and to denigrate the ethics of those writers, is insulting.

For theater criticism to survive it must adapt to new economic realities. The future will not be inked on broadsheets in every commuter’s hands, but perhaps there will remain a place for an independent-minded critic like me. Maybe you want to hire me or donate to my site? Or perhaps you’d like to write for me. Maybe I can even pay you a little. I’m a good guy, honestly.

Now — does anyone know some pretty ladies who want to buy my plus-ones? Hell, I might even give them away for free.

 

Editor’s notes:

Mr. Munden is being paid for this essay at the same rate that Ms. Rosenfield is being paid for hers ($100).

Broad Street Review’s guidelines for writers are published on the website: Scroll down to read the sections on ethics and compensation.

For Dan Rottenberg's commentary on this debate, click here.

Our readers respond

Wendy Rosenfield

of Meadowbrook, PA on December 01, 2015

First, thank you for your kind words about my writing. I truly appreciate it, and am thrilled to hear you often disagree. That's the whole point, right? Good criticism allows you to appreciate a reviewer's (hopefully) well-reasoned perspective, even if you disagree, and use it as a jumping-off point for further discussion of the work. So, right on brother, and long live art. I'll also add that I didn't write the headline. If you work for professional editors, you know they usually come up with those, but either way, I'm okay with it.

If you work for professional editors, you also know that professional journalists are, if not disdainful (though sometimes), at least unconcerned with their publication's publisher/advertiser side. Editorial usually goes to great lengths to keep them separate, and at least in my case, I couldn't even begin to tell you my non-Broad Street Review editor's politics or personal taste. Same goes for most of my other editors, previous and present. I also think you misread my premise; I'm not opposed to writing for online publications. I do it myself as often as I can. I'm just opposed to their taking advantage of my colleagues and me. My reviews have lost at least one advertiser for the Inquirer, maybe more. I'm guessing Phindie can't afford to take that risk, which could mean you and your writers are at even more risk of pulling punches, though I know your heart is in the right place with this, and that's probably not an issue... For you.

I can't speak for all your writers who make nothing and only receive free tickets in return, which might be revoked if they turn in too many negative reviews. If my comp privileges are revoked, my publication has a policy of paying for the ticket and sending me anyway, which has occasionally gotten weird, but it's their policy, which again means they have a policy, which again means they believe my work matters and are willing to stand behind it (at least for now). I do, however, find it the height of hypocrisy for you (and Leonard Jacobs, who commented on my original piece, and who I also respect as someone who's really trying to figure out a good model for this) to call me out for my "privileged position" as a paid critic. Volunteer writers absolutely devalue my work. I've been at this for 20 years and am now making a third less than I once did. It's true that some of this is due to lost advertising, but also, publishers can't compete with free, and many theaters, who want the broadest coverage they can get, offer comps to nearly anyone with a website, so paying media outlets compete where they still can and toss their money at sports, news, politics.

The real "privileged position" is the one that assumes a writer has free time, transportation costs, access to research materials, and the two to three hours of screen time it takes to write a review. The privileged are the ONLY people who can do this, and when that is the case, it's not only theater criticism that suffers, it's theater in general. I used to make enough per review to cover parking, gas, and a babysitter and keep a little extra. I don't need a babysitter anymore, but that's good, because if I did, my present pay wouldn't cover it. Luckily, I am privileged in that I'm not my family's sole breadwinner, and believe me when I say that when the Inquirer cut its only full-time theater writer, when Philly media said, in effect, "local theater coverage isn't a career," comprehensive professional coverage of our regional theater scene for a major regional audience suffered and continues to suffer, which in turn affects our arts economy.

It's telling that the two major rebuttals to my piece come from editors who don't pay their writers, though they do accept financial support and advertising. The caveat to my "don't give it away for free" motto is the one I tell my students: when you're starting out, write for yourself for free. Start your own blog, get your own advertising, establish your own name. Know that what you're doing is worth something and don't write for anyone who doesn't also know that. Aside from advocating for an effective freelance writer's union, I can only ask that you consider paying your writers something that shows you value their efforts. It will allow them to continue to do what they're doing and you won't have to keep cycling new writers in and out, which shows that you value what theaters are also doing, that ongoing knowledge of their production history, cast and crew matters. Maybe you'll have to use fewer writers. Maybe not. My guess is that if you pay writers well, before long you'll get better writers and more readers.

And maybe consider joining ATCA so you can get a better sense of why that code of ethics matters. If your reviewers don't know that they shouldn't photograph the actors, or guzzle up and chow down at the cast party, or whatever, it will reflect poorly on you and your publication, and, whether you like it or not, on the profession as a whole. I, for one, don't like that at all. But look at me, writing this whole response for free. If it convinces you to toss a few more bucks your writers' way, I guess it will have been worth it.

Julius Ferraro

of Philadelphia, on December 02, 2015

I'm really glad this conversation is happening. Wendy, as a person who writes reviews for free (and for pay, when I can get it), I personally found your article offensive. Though your response to Chris's article seems to put the brunt of your argument on the editors, your article speaks mainly to writers, and makes an implied connection between the Craigslist reviewer's creepy conduct and all reviewers who work for free. If this was not your intention, I understand that — but it's what your article says, and I think you should own it.

I have problems with this argument that writing for free directly damages paid writers. It's often made but I've never seen the research. It's an easy argument to make, but I suspect that the problem is much wider than some people's willingness to do a thing for free. We can say that it’s because writers are willing to write for free, but I’d argue that the problem is much more complicated. I’d say that the actual demand is low, that there’s a dwindling readership, that fewer people are seeing theater and even fewer are reading reviews. I'd say that online publications actually change the way that people access content, and that people don't pay for the written word or cultural content in general they way they once did. Should we abandon the industry altogether, and should editors not create opportunities by giving tons of their time to running a site?

When actors perform for free — or when a theater company asks them to — are they damaging all actors? Or are they giving an opportunity to everyone involved to create something together? Probably a little of both. But some of the very best theater work I've seen in Philadelphia is by people who are taking a loss on it. Of course, I've read articles and heard the admonitions that claim that people shouldn't start new theater companies because there are too many already. Can we make the claim that people shouldn’t do the work for free? That a publication shouldn’t offer the opportunity for writers to comment on the work they’ve seen? I think the response to this is more nuanced than "Yep," though ATCA's ethics may claim otherwise.

It’s an easy claim to make that your ethics would be better understood if we only stood in your shoes (the claim you make in your response to Chris’s article, that we’d understand the ethics if we were part of ATCA for a while). I’d say the same thing: walk a mile in our shoes and you’ll understand our ethics better. I also just have to say: you claim that Chris is making money and not sharing it. I doubt he’s making much; all he has is Google ads, right? What is it, pennies a month? Chris, are you raking in huge paychecks and not sharing them with us, your writers? Or are you, as I believe is more likely, losing money on the site?

Full disclosure: I’m another editor not paying writers. I am co-founder of curatethisphilly.com, an online publication that provides artists with the ability to define and drive the conversation about arts in Philadelphia. Our contributors vary every week, and include writers but also actors, directors, painters, yarnbombers, composers, administrators, CEOs, filmmakers, etc. We don’t pay them either, because we have no funding — yet. Are we hurting the professional writers, or are we jumping into action where we see a problem and trying to fix it by giving opportunity? Are we doing a little of both? We’re probably doing a little bit of both, which says something about the complexity of the situation. I lose money on Curate This.

Wendy Rosenfield

of Meadowbrook, PA on December 02, 2015

Julius, I think my position is simply that labor has value and laborers should be paid for their work. It doesn't seem to me a revolutionary position to take, and it is really depressing to see all this scrapping over a crappy $100/review paycheck, but that's where we are. You mention actors working for free, but you don't mention Equity, the union that was created specifically to protect acting professionals from having to work for free, and for the most part, even performers who "work for free" charge admission at the door.

I know nobody's getting rich on this, but I stand by my opinion that if you expect someone to work for you, they should expect to be paid. If Chris's favorite reviewers' guideline is "Don't be a dick," I believe he (and you) should take it to heart and not be dicks to your content providers.

As for the suggestion that anyone in this business join a professional organization such as ATCA, I believe it makes a difference in terms of professionalism and knowledge of the field. We are all freelancers now, and when I speak of ignorance and the far-flung nature of freelancing, I'm speaking from experience. You miss a lot when you don't have career guidance or staff meetings, and my point about the Craigslist critic is that he's still working. No one's paying him, so why should they fire him?

If you believe theater is important, you must believe theater criticism is important as -- at the very least — the historical record of an ephemeral art form and its present-day reception, and if you believe all that, you must believe professional standards matter.

Benjamin Lloyd

of Elkins Park, PA on December 02, 2015

I admire this conversation and the people having it — which, if you are familiar with my (now long-past) dust-ups with critics and criticism, is perhaps a sign of growth for me.

I admire Wendy Rosenfield. I have met her and we have spoken about theater, theater-making, and criticism. She has been tough and incisive in her reviews but never mean. She is a champion for our beloved art form and we are better for her work. I am also not a fan of any organization that operates on a work for free model, especially when the workers are usually young artists, be they performers, writers or of any other genre. One of the most debilitating tendencies in our culture is this one: artists will (sometimes replaced with "should") work for free, since they love what they do and need the exposure. I like Wendy's admonition to her students. Sure, write for free, but do it on your own terms, through your blog, on your stage, using the platform you design. There is an entrepreneurial spirit in this advice that is the spirit we need to endow our young artists with: go forth and make your own way.

I believe Christopher and Julius also have the best of intentions. But the problem with the work for free model is that someone, or something, is always making some money somewhere. In this model a decision was made early on that that money — as meager as it may be — should not be used to pay the artists. This decision then forms the foundation for an economic model that exploits artists. My company, White Pines Productions, has benefitted from the attention Phindie has paid to it, and we are and remain grateful for the attention. Indeed, we court it — through press releases etc. Does that make us complicit in the exploitative structure I just described? Perhaps.

But this is an old story, and it's where I part ways with Wendy and her claim that professional critics are somehow above the incestuous relationship that exists between producing organizations and professional critics. We have been in bed together for a long a time. And it may shock you to read this, but I believe that is how it should be. This notion of the "objectivity" of the critic is utter nonsense and it always has been. When we write about art, let's be honest about our biases, relationships and tastes first. Then the piece can be read in the proper frame: as the (hopefully) well-written subjective opinion of one person.

Here's what I like about Chris and Julius's enterprises: they eschew any claim to privileged opinion through academic or professional pedigree. What Wendy objects to is what I admire: these are the opinions of average people who love theater. I agree that Wendy is caught in an economic and demographic transformation that is making her work in print less valuable, from a publishing standpoint (not from an aesthetic standpoint). I want her her to succeed and continue writing, and I want her to be supported.

White Pines is working on this problem from the actors' point of view. We acknowledge that our ensemble will never make much money by performing in shows for us (although we do promise to pay for travel, so no one ever takes a loss for rehearsing or performing). What we do is create programs in which the creative work of the improvisational actor has an economic value that is easier to identify: education, residencies, private parties, corporate training. If making money is a priority for a member of our ensemble, we work on placing them in one of these programs. Perhaps Chris and Julius could create a similar model through their platforms: opportunities for young writers to make money through more frankly commercial work, like ad copy, professional grant writing, or other more lucrative forms of journalism. And then leave the art writing to the amateurs. After all, amateur means "one who does it for love".

J.C. Todd

of Philadelphia, PA on December 02, 2015

To equate value with money is common in casino capitalism, where only the big bankrolls continue to win, and the casino wins most. What does this have to do with the value of art and writing about art? That's the question Rosenfield doesn't ask or answer. Instead she defaults to buying "better" writers. The value of art is that it expands and intensifies the experience of being human, and in so doing, opens the possibility for the expansion of empathy. That's both before and beyond money.

As I see it, Phindie opens media space to a wide variety of critics, thereby offering a broader spectrum of sensibilities and subjectivities and, to my mind, a richer, more diverse conversation about theater or any art, a conversation that has the possibility of attracting a broader, more diverse audience.

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on December 02, 2015

Why not just make theater tickets free for everyone?

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on December 02, 2015

At Penn's 250th anniversary celebration, Nicholas Negroponte, who ran MIT's media lab, and Paul Fussell, a literature professor at Penn, discussed the new age of technology. Negroponte touted the virtues of all the doors and windows that technology opens. Fussell mourned that something is lost with everyone doing their own thing — the joint experiences that bind people together. There are 200-plus TV stations today — something for everyone. But I miss the old days when half the nation would watch the last episode of MASH. Doesn't opening up all these avenues mean that people will only inquire into views that already support their views? Isn't that why politics has become so polarized? Are today's movies better than the ones made in the studios of the 1930s and 1940s?

Common views were too often homogenized views. But I think Fussell is right too. We are gaining multiple new viewpoints. Technology creates all these wonderful outlets like Broad Street Review — that's a wonderful and invigorating thing — but it does seem to mean losing any common consensus. Is the purpose of a theater review, theater, art, or life itself, to show unique we are — or how alike? Ah, the conundrum.

Jon Marquis

of Lakewood, CO on December 02, 2015

As much as I love watching pseuds argue, I think we should take a step back and ask what the actual monetary worth of theater criticism is. In the red corner you have a paid critic whose dismissal from her paper wouldn't change subscription numbers at all, and in the blue corner you have people who can't get paid to write but want us to listen to their opinions. Has it occurred to anyone that shit theater produces shit reviews? Has it occurred to anyone that shit writers don't get paid?

Christopher Munden

of Philadelphia, PA on December 02, 2015

Wendy is eager to reframe this debate into one on the ethics of editors who don't pay for content. In doing so she has a point: I thought of myself as an unpaid writer and editor (for Phindie, that is), and didn't think about my role as a publisher who generally doesn't pay writers, even though I mention it. But Wendy's piece was directed not at editors, who may well be dicks, but at writers. The tititular implication, which she is "OK with," is that a review that is done for free — on Phindie, on HuffPo, on a blog — has no value. Furthermore, she asserts that it devalues her own writing and brings the ethics of the entire field of criticism into question. She blames the the writers, not the editors. Like Julius says, she needs to own that.

It's understandable to question the motives of those who call her out for the lazy correlation between the poor guy in Seattle and all unpaid reviewers, but that does not make the points any less true. I might be a dick, but she's still wrong. Wendy tells her own students to start their own blog and write there (although her original piece disparages the ethics of that and the potential value of work on that venue). I was only slightly more ambitious with Phindie. I took a look around Philadelphia and realized I was not going to be able to get paid to review theater. I toyed with just giving up, but decided instead to create my own forum. I began to post my own writing. Very quickly, lots of people began asking if they could write.

Does a review no one pays for have value? Yes. Sometimes it has more value than one that was paid for. There are Phindie writers who consistently produce quality work I'd put up against anything on Philly.com. These writers get something out of it. And not just free tickets (for which there's apparently a great secondary market!). Since it began, I've been able to refer several young writers to paid jobs and give others references for paid work. Wendy's students would be better off writing for Phindie than on their own personal blog: more readers, an editor who can sometimes be bothered to copy edit (for free!), connections, a CV boost.

Julius is right: I mostly lose money on Phindie. Like him, I don't see how it makes me a dick if I don't pay out of pocket. Should I fold the site if I can't pay writers? Only publish what I write? I just don't see how that is good for anyone. If all the Phindie reviewers gave up reviewing or moved to their own blogs, it wouldn't be better for criticism or for theater. And Wendy needs to understand this: It would not encourage Philly.com to pay for her parking. Loss of advertising is not "some of" the reason they don't. It is wholly responsible.

Wendy's position and the profession as she knew it are threatened, but not by Phindie, and even if it were, it's insulting to blame the writers for that. I invite comparisons between my reviews and Julius's and those on Philly.com (when they actually review the work). It may be a hobby, but we're not knitting any three-armed sweaters. We create work and facilitate work of value. We have ethics— maybe not the same as the ATCA, which was OK with sharing an article which implied the work of many critics have no value and which seems primarily interested in preserving the privileges of its members, not with any allegiance to the craft or the art it considers.

Bob Levin

of Berkeley, CA on December 02, 2015

How come Mr. Munden and Ms. Rosenfield get paid twice as much as I do? Are their ethics twice as good — or twice as challenged?

Editor's Response

We pay $50 for reviews, which is what you usually write, and $100 for longer essays like these. / Judy Weightman

Michael R. Fisher

of Haddonfield, NJ on December 02, 2015

Ms. Rosenfield, your ire is misdirected. It is not independent web critics who are driving your income downward; it's a market that can no longer support professional criticism to the degree it once did. You could say that writers who work for free have flooded the market, but all that means is that the market isn't strong enough to bounce back from a hit. Your income, as well as the income earned (or not earned) by theater practitioners, is tied to audiences: if the audiences aren't showing up for live theater, then they certainly aren't bothering to read reviews. As home entertainment and new technologies discourage theatergoing, everybody's pay goes down. This isn't the '30s.

If critics are to make money, they need to make their value known in a transformed marketplace, and that hasn't happened yet. But of course, as is evidenced by your continued work and my years writing for Phindie, folks still want to write reviews. What you so disdainfully call a "hobby" some might call a passion. I started writing for Phindie because I care about theater and writing and writing about theater. Contrary to the wrongheaded assumptions forwarded by yourself and Mr. Lloyd, nothing is "expected" of writers on sites like Phindie. The offer to write is just that: an offer. It can be taken or turned down. When I've had to take breaks from writing because I was busy with graduate school, Mr. Munden never tried to lure me back with promises of "exposure" or whatever. He knew there were many more sets of fingers out there itching to write for the love of it.

Is our work offensive because it doesn't operate by the same code as yours? Maybe you see it that way. I prefer to trust the market. As Mr. Ferraro already pointed out, your use of that idiot in Seattle to categorize all independent critics is beyond ridiculous, but the very fact that Seattle guy was found out likely means that he'll lose readers. If HuffPost doesn't discharge him, your beef should be with HuffPost, and the market should react to their loose standards by refusing their traffic. As for the rest of the theater blogosphere, if independent critics are writing "error-filled, mean-spirited, and unethical" reviews (though it's worth mentioning that you provided no examples of this, so I'm not sure it's exactly an epidemic), it's likely no one will want to read them in the first place, which makes it unlikely that these jerks are affecting your salary.

So really, your beef is with indie critics whose work holds as much integrity as yours does. Maybe we don't have a written constitution, maybe we use curse words every now and then, but that doesn't mean we aren't taking pride in our writing, taking the theater seriously, and trying to make the best piece of writing we can. And this, I'm sorry to say, is where the market rears its ugly head. It's not our duty to stop writing so that you can make more money; it's your job to figure out how to prove you're worth more than someone who writes for the love of the game. Is it the code of standards that makes you better? Is it seniority? Subjective quality? Whatever it is, you have to make the market agree. Have you changed anything about your approach since the demand for arts criticism has gone down? Have you worked to combat the new model in any way other than writing screeds against blogger-critics?

Merilyn Jackson

of Philadelphia, PA on December 02, 2015

No writer, actor, artist, musician, singer, editor, nor ANY professional in their field should EVER be asked to work for free. I find Munden's remarks that people ask him to write for free extremely cavalier. No professional editor should accept such a request. And no professional editor should ever publish work that is unreadable. I do not know which is more demeaning to a would be writer, allowing her to work for nothing or allowing his unedited bad writing to be exposed to the public. No professional editor would ever let a respected writer in their stable fall on their face.

Christopher Munden

of Philadelphia, PA on December 03, 2015

Did you read Mike's comment, Merilyn? Why would I say no when he asked to write for me for free? How is it unethical to provide a forum for his (high quality) writing? Why is his writing less valuable because no one paid for it? When reviewers are starting out, I will often edit and work with their piece a bunch. Sometimes, I don't have the time or I'm reposting from another site and some errors come with the content, but that is a criticism I respect and I will endeavor to be more protective and thorough in editing up and coming writers.

Wendy Rosenfield

of Meadowbrook, PA on December 03, 2015

I've said most of what I needed to say here and elsewhere, but I have to clarify a few things.

First, I am not reframing anything. With your rebuttal, Chris, you put yourself and your position as editor/publisher of a site that doesn't pay its writers front and center. That makes you fair game.

Second, enough with the focus on headlines. Yours places you on the side of indentured servitude, but I'm pretty sure you're not in favor of that, though your continued defense of not paying writers and somehow claiming that opens the field to diversity (while refusing to write for free yourself) shows a real lack of understanding of the meaning of privilege.

Third, the drop in advertising built professional theater criticism's coffin, but make no mistake, you and your writers are fashioning the nails. For a while, Philly.com was directly competing with the Inquirer's reviewers by posting reviews written for free by students, and occasionally, Julius, duplicating my work, reviewing the same shows but hiding my reviews and promoting the free ones (that stopped during Philly.com's latest transition). Yes, my profession is threatened, but not because my competition is equally qualified (though, of course, some writers are); it's because they're willing to write for free. I admit the Craigslist guy is an extreme example, and listen, I've made more than a few errors during my career, but money tends to make people accountable, and I stand by my assertion that when nothing's at stake for a publisher, professional standards don't really matter.

Fourth, I handle ATCA's social media and post anything on Twitter that relates to theater criticism. I posted my article as well as yours. While I believe you have little at stake, I also believe reviewers have only their credibility, and that is very much at stake, whether they write for free or for pay. I can't understand why you are so quick to denigrate ATCA, one of the only organizations (since the death of USC's theater criticism fellowship) that offer professional development and support for U.S. regional theater critics, who need that support now more than ever. Perhaps your writers' networking, and increased knowledge of the profession, its ethics, history and practice threaten your model. I suggest you join, attend the upcoming Philly conference, and speak to some of our members — several former journalists among them — who don't operate at a loss, and even pay other writers. The registration fee is waived for new members.

Karl Middleman

of Merion Station, PA on December 03, 2015

Ethics? What do ethics have to do with supply and demand in the arts marketplace?

Make no mistake, marketplace "ethics" are at the core here. When we look at a forest, do we pause to think about trees jousting for sunlight? Maybe we should. Some of the trees will be crowded out and will die, having been outmaneuvered by others. That’s just nature, and nature’s been around a lot longer than ethics. When we witness so many major newspapers in the big cities cutting back their arts coverage, it hardly seems possible to reach a different conclusion but that the supply of arts critics exceeds the demand for their services.

If only cutbacks were not necessary. Would that more people read good literature. And pay for it. But until demand increases, we will continue to be struck with many casualties in the arts marketplace. Will the situation really be helped by more writers joining unions? C’mon, get real.

The good news is that messrs Munden and Ferraro are providing writers with forums, paid or not. No one is twisting the arms of their writers to donate services. They are not undercutting anyone’s livelihood. The profession is not endangered by their efforts. Who knows? Maybe they will generate greater demand for arts criticism.

Of course professional, high quality arts criticism is imperative. We should support it wherever possible. But until the cultural climate shifts away from the marketplace, we  might as well enjoy the extraordinary profusion of arts conversations and the outlets that supply them.

Editor's note: The writer is the artistic director of the Philadelphia Classical Symphony.

Christopher Munden

of Philadelphia, PA on December 03, 2015

It has been hugely rewarding for me to witness Wendy's transition from a lazy journalist who could dismiss the output and ethics of all unpaid writers into their biggest supporter, fighting for them against the exploitative scoundrels who steal their work. I'm sure they will thank her as they organize their boycott of Phindie, or would do if she hadn't attacked them just a few days before. It's also comforting to know that I'm still the unethical dick here.

Wendy is justified in questioning my motivation as a publisher who doesn't pay, just as it was justified for me to point out the blindness to her privilege which she demonstrated as an Inquirer writer. But I was writing as an unpaid writer, because that's what I am too, and defending the work of unpaid writers. It's satisfying to see her redirect her aim to me as a publisher and fail to defend her original theses or attempt to deconstruct my points on their merits. Let's be clear: I have been paid for my writing and I write unpaid.

The heart of this conversation is that my ethics and the value of that work are not diminished by the absence of compensation. If anything the reverse is true. Wendy thinks otherwise; Wendy is wrong. My rebuttal of her piece would be no less logically sound if it had appeared on Julius's site. I thought it honorable to offer it first to BSR. Not because they paid. But if we are going to talk about my ethics as a publisher, Wendy is just plain wrong to claim I do not refuse to write for free yet ask my writers to. Like them, I only do it when I think it's worthwhile and when I understand the financial background of the request. It's not like I'm raking big bucks on Phindie and refusing to hand them over. I write and edit because I love theater and I think criticism is valuable whether or not the writer is paid or the site makes money. I am fortunate that I am not the only person who feels this way, but if I was I would still feel that way and still write for free.

Writers for Phindie agree with my analysis of Wendy's piece and do not think I am exploitative or that I am being a dick. They direct that judgement elsewhere. I feel sorry for Wendy and those around her that she still doesn't understand why someone would want to do something seriously, ethically, and well without money as a motivator or reward. Working without pay does not mean indentured servitude. When I was given the opportunity to teach adaptive skiing to people with autism, blindness, or other disabilities I did not feel like a slave or think I was devaluing the work of my professional colleagues (I also got paid to teach skiing). When people volunteer their time and expertise to coach soccer or work the education tables of the soccer organization I help run in Kensington, I am not depriving them of their freedom and dignity or insulting paid soccer coaches (I am one sometimes too). When professional editors volunteered their time to select short stories by local writers with me for the Philly Fiction collections, I was not causing the demise of the American novel or devaluing the work of paid editors (I have been one).

None of these are hobbies. Was I privileged to have these opportunities and be able to make them or take them? Yes, but people with a lot more time and money and social capital would not do so. Some of them have strong views about this article. A community of people who want to make this world a little less awful, whether in theater or elsewhere, can do so without needing to be paid to do it. If they choose to do so, don't devalue their work because they are not paid for it. Wendy and I have different values; I respect hers and understand that she must feel threatened and want to cling to her existing privileges and perceived status, but I won't be requiring any ethical instruction from her anytime soon.

I might join ACTA, though.

Julius Ferraro

of Philadelphia, on December 03, 2015

Ben, I appreciate your response, but it really is true, my co-founder Amanda V. Wagner and I have made not a dime on Curate This, and in fact have lost money. I think it's problematic to call a structure "exploitative" when the gains aren't so clear cut. In fact, that's been my problem from the beginning. If you look at one aspect of the issue - that Phindie doesn't pay writers - you can call out "exploitation." But when you notice that there is no income, and no one is getting paid except maybe the people managing the website (artists?), then who is doing the exploitation? Who benefits? Does Chris Munden benefit more, or the writers, or the companies who suddenly get coverage when the Inquirer would never touch 'em before? Wendy, it sounds like it's actually unethical practices by a previous administration of Philly.com that did that to you. The writers not fashioning the nails, they're the iron that's being forged. I understand that people who write for free are one of many things which have reduced the dollar value of a piece of theater criticism, but I believe that there's a lot else going on, and I think it's too simple to say it's wrong to write for free. Also, sorry if it has sounded like I was attacking ATCA at any point. I was simply rebutting its use as a criticism of me - ATCA can go on being what it is, and if I decide to join at some point then I can be a part of it. I don't see not joining as problematic. Anyway, I'm one of those critic practitioners and I probably couldn't. Like Alfred Jarry, Harold Clurman, Eric Bentley, and many others throughout time, I'm violating its ethics. I don't like online debates in general, they often get nasty on accident and they make me anxious. I appreciate that no one has said anything super inflammatory (except the dude who called us pseuds and then said something incomprehensible about shit). Thanks to everyone for voicing their opinions.

Wendy Rosenfield

of Meadowbrook, PA on December 03, 2015

Chris, that you would equate volunteering for a nonprofit service organization to writing for your site for free, is further evidence of the wrongness of your position. Perhaps you missed that my original piece advocates for volunteer writers to learn their craft, to take reviewing as seriously as those of us who have made a career of it, to make an effort to learn about ethics and practices in the field, and to join a professional organization. I don't like that people are willing to write for you or for others for free, but, as my piece states, if they do, if they care about theater and care about the work they're doing, it's important for them to know they're not doing it in a vacuum. Spare your pity for me; I feel sorry you don't understand why someone should make a living wage doing something they (and others value) and doing it well.

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on December 03, 2015

The great Wil Wheaton said it best. "Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period." (Click here.)

Christopher Munden

of Philadelphia, PA on December 04, 2015

Thanks for the exchange. I think there's enough written already for people to make their own judgments. I just ask that writing and writers be judged on the merits of the writing and analysis, not on the compensation for their work. And if you are adamant that Phindie writers be paid, the solution is in your hands: Donate to the site at phindie.com/support, or even ask me for a writer's address so you can send them a check. Don't they deserve it?

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadephia, PA on December 04, 2015

Throughout this exchange, has anyone else noticed, as I have, the frequency of the word should? We live in a free country, for goodness' sake. There's no single way to seek the truth or deliver criticism. I say: Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Sandi Kurtz

of Seattle, WA on December 06, 2015

Speaking from the other side of the map: Most of the positions argued here are familiar to all of us working as writers in a rapidly changing time. For myself, and my own sense of ethics, I'm walking in the middle. I've written for pay and I've written for free. And in that, my experience is very similar to the artists whose work we cover, who themselves are often not compensated. I would prefer to write more for my current paying gig, but they don't have the space or the budget to cover even a fraction of the dance community here. And so I also write for free, for outlets that create a space for more discussion and commentary.

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