News that the Evening Standard is cutting its highly respected theatre critics Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford has hit the industry hard. Although we have become all-too accustomed to papers cutting their arts critics in recent years, this one comes as a particular blow as the Standard has long been considered one of the 'big beast' critical outlets. The paper has huge reach across the capital - especially since becoming a freesheet - and its column inches have a very direct impact on ticket sales.
For those of us who aspire to one of these top critical jobs in the future, the news is also bitter, signalling as it does another death-knell for the idea that we will one day earn a living from criticism. When the pinnacle of one's chosen profession is being hacked to an ever-shrinking spike, the decision to continue climbing looks like folly. I have long tried to be positive about the prospects for theatre criticism in a digital landscape, but when a paper like the Standard makes a decision like this the message seems clear: the job of full-time critic is no longer a feasible one.
The Standard are apparently planning to "bring reviewing in house", which presumably means that staff will be doing it on top of their day jobs. This is hardly a replacement for dedicated critics. Many other publications, including the Guardian and Independent, now increasingly rely on a pool of freelancers to provide reviews. This is all well and good, but it inevitably means those freelancers earn less and won't be able to consider criticism their main source of income. And for those thinking you can make a living from juggling freelance writing gigs, think again. I have written for a number of UK publications and the most I have ever earned per review is £60. The average is more like £20. Even if I reviewed every night of the week, I'd be lucky to clear £100. Hardly what you'd call a living.
So I've reluctantly had to conclude that the ambition of writing criticism for a living is no longer a realistic one. Many will not mourn the passing of the days of a handful of career critics holding a monopoly on opinion; and I'd be the first to argue there are huge advantages to the democracy of views that the internet facilitates. But it seems a crying shame that the voices of professional arts critics may soon fall silent altogether.
This has huge ramifications for the theatre industry. In a few years, when the number of mainstream critics has been whittled to zero, it will be harder for new productions to make an instant impact. Social media buzz will compensate for some of that, but this kind of word of mouth takes longer to build than a raft of overnight rave reviews. The pressure will increase on producers themselves to generate hype; marketeers will no doubt go into overdrive, but objective opinion will be harder to source. And that opinion, by its nature, will tend more to the extremes. A nuanced view can struggle to stand out from the online noise.
And let's not forget that, when so many are calling for greater diversity among our critics (and rightly so), this will be much harder to achieve if there are no paying jobs. What's the point of training someone up for a career that soon will no longer exist? Instead, criticism will likely become the domain of the hobbyists; those who can afford to do it through private means, or do it as a passion around a day job. Neither of these tribes seems ideal - the first because they will inevitably be a very small pool of affluent individuals, the second because they will likely be speaking to a small number of fellow enthusiasts.
I still hope that sustainable funding models can be found for supporting quality criticism. But increasingly that hope is fraying in the face of a frankly brutal media landscape. Put simply, the economies of arts journalism have been broken, and it looks increasingly likely that they may never be fixed. That should give us all cause for alarm.
Theo Bosanquet is a freelance writer and editor who has written for publications including TIME, The Stage, Time Out, the Guardian and WhatsOnStage. He also works with arts organisations on content marketing @TheoBosanquet