Article Published: 01 Apr 2017

The Great Grey Lady Retrenches

New York Times on smartphone

Readers of The New York Times – arguably the nation’s most-trusted source of classical-music coverage — got a small jolt when they opened the paper’s Saturday, February 11 arts section. Included was a column called “That Decisive Moment,” consisting of one-paragraph impressions of eight musical events from the previous week, like mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s Zankel Hall reading of Schubert’s Winterreise and the Mannes School of Music’s staging of Robert Ashley’s Dust. None had warranted a full review from the newspaper, although some had garnered other attention: Venice Baroque Orchestra’s presentation of Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans was mentioned in both a preview of Carnegie Hall’s “La Serenissima” festival and, later on, in a festival wrap-up. Still, it was hard to avoid the impression that the paper was cutting back on its classical- music coverage.

“Moments” is in fact a manifestation of a “newsroom- wide” effort to redefine the Times, according to Zachary Woolfe, the paper’s classical music editor. The newspaper, which has seen print revenues fall and digital subscriptions rise, is undergoing a multiyear process to reposition itself as a “digital-first environment,” he explains. In the process, its identity is inevitably shifting from “a local paper with excellent national and international coverage” to a globally aimed news source.

One outgrowth of the shift is a retreat from pro forma reviews of local events toward larger-scale considerations of trends in the field. To be sure, the Times continues to offer standard coverage of some events: all of the Met’s new productions this season and most of its revivals have gotten full-scale reviews. Moreover, the Times’ critics are still attending as many events as before. But their presence does not necessarily guarantee a day-after review. “We’re being curators instead of stenographers,” Woolfe says. “It’s no longer an automatic ‘see it; write 400 words,’ situation. If we go to something and discover a new, great singer, is a review necessarily the best way to cover that? Maybe there’s a more natural place for it.”

That “natural place” might take the form of a long-form “package” synthesizing a number of recent events: for instance, a planned examination of five treatments of religion in contemporary music. “Our imperative is to come up with big statements instead of incremental ones,” Woolfe says. “We want to make sure every piece we offer has intention and finds an engaged readership.”

This article was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Opera America Magazine.