COMMENTARY: Paying the cost of real news

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

How much can — or should — a reader afford to pay to access real news? That is becoming an increasing — and serious — question in an era of “fake news” for those of us who like to read traditional newspapers from out of their area and other quality publications online.

Tim Page, former music critic at the Washington Post and now Professor of Journalism and Music at University of Southern California, and I had an interesting exchange on Facebook awhile back. He posted a review from the New York Review of Books regarding two books about pianist Van Cliburn. Before Tim changed links, halfway through the review readers got a notice that said if we wanted to continue reading we would have to pay $4.99 (Tim subsequently posted a different link that took the story from behind what’s known in the media business as a paywall).

Many papers (probably including mine — I’m not sure because I subscribe to the Pasadena Star-News) — use this policy. A few offer you a small number of “free” reads and then ask you to pay. Some don’t even do that.

For years, to cite one example, I used to enjoy Martin Bernheimer’s reviews in the Financial Times of London but it’s the only reason I read the FT. The FT used to allow a small number of free reads each month. However, about a year ago I learned that if I wanted to click on any of the reviews of Bernheimer (a former Pulitzer Prize-winning former music critic of the Los Angeles Times, for those who don’t know the name), I would have to pay $4.79 per week for the privilege (the FT does offer an “introductory of $1.00 per week but it’s only good for four weeks).

Likewise the Washington Post: In this case I read E.J. Dionne, who posts twice a week, and Anne Midgette, the Post’s classical music critic, who also posts a couple of times a week. After a history of being allowed to read those folks for free, the Post now wants me to pay $99 per year for the privilege, along with anything else in the Post I find interesting and/or important.

The problem is one of economics — mine. My wife and I subscribe to three daily newspapers — the L.A. Times, Pasadena Star-News and New York Times — two monthly magazines and one weekly. We pay about $30 per month for all six publications (the NYY is an electronic subscription). That’s at the limit of our budget; we may, in fact, begin to cut back as rising costs of living invade our senior income. Is it worth it to add the Post for $8.50 a month for what amounts to 30 posts a month? I finally deciced — reluctantly — yes, but I’m going to keep track of my posts during the year.

Neither type of media policy — totally free or significant monthly subscriptions allowing me to read one person’s columns (which in the case of Martin Bernheimer averages about three per week, max) — makes any logical sense. Yes, there are expenses involved with newspapers maintaining Web sites, although papers assiduously track what are known as “clicks” or “hits” to persuade advertisers but for which readers receive no remuneration.

All of this got me thinking about a series of Blog posts I wrote in 2010 on this subject. The suggestion I made is just as logical to me today as it was back in 2010.

A major problem for many online readers is that they don’t want the entire newspaper, especially ones that are from out of town. That’s a blessing and a curse. As I noted, my wife and I subscribe to the print editions of the Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. Reading through these two papers give us a breadth of local knowledge that we can’t get easily through the online edition. That lack of overall knowledge is one of the downsides of getting all your news online or solely by other electronic means. However, it’s less of an issue for out-of-town publications.

On the other hand, most of the Blogs/columns/reviews that I read are written for two specific purposes: classical music and golf. For example, I used to log onto Jeremy Eichler, music critic of the Boston Globe, but I have no interest in reading the rest of the Globe. The Globe’s paywall policy means I no longer read Jeremy’s writings.

There are some exceptions and a few publications are doing an excellent job of melding the two media. I read dozens of columns in the online edition of Sports Illustrated but wouldn’t think of cancelling the print edition (the online version is part of my print subscription). For one thing, there are different stories in both, although that difference is narrowing. For another, SI’s still photography is reason enough to subscribe.

Few print newspapers that I read do a good job of referring people to their online editions (and vice-versa), which is odd when you consider that there are many items can be run online for which there is no space in the printed paper.

I think we need to find ways for readers to get online content while, at the same time, providing income to the media sites and, equally important, to the people who actually create the posts themselves.

The sheer scale of hits on the internet (several billion a day, according to one study) makes economies of scale possible, but should also provide a financial incentive for one of the national newspaper associations to get involved by setting up a financial clearinghouse (this seems like a great use for dues the media outlets pay to the association). Here’s how it might work:

A reader logs onto an online site for free and sees a headline and one- or two-sentence blur/description of the article (this is typical of media Web sites today). If you subscribe to the paper (either to its print or online edition), there’s no additional cost to read the articles.

If you don’t subscribe and want to read the entire article, you pay a nickel. Two cents goes to the publishers’ association (a portion of that will be used to offset the charges from the reader’s credit card company, Apple Pay or someplace like that to bill the customer). One cent goes to the publication or other entity hosting the Web site. Two cents goes for the article’s author.

For the reader who reads 10 posts every day (a large number in my opinion — I look at more sites than that but don’t actually read that many stories each day) the total adds up to about $15 a month. For the reader who wants to read quality news, that’s a doable figure. Multiply that number by several billion and everyone gets a piece of a large pie. Moreover, if I decide that I’m reading a site regularly and for more than classical music that “teaser” might encourage me to become a subscriber to the publication.

The most important thing is that publications would gain a monetary incentive to take online readers more seriously, even those in supposedly marginal genres such as classical music. That’s a bottom line to which we can all subscribe.

Your suggestions for alternate concept are encouraged; use the comment box below.

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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NEWS: Call it “the Soraya”

Following a $17 million donation from Younes and Soraya Nazarian to the Valley Performing Arts Center on the Cal State Northridge campus, the center — which hosts a number of concerts annually including classical music — will be renamed the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts or “the Soraya” for short.

Wonder if they’re going to change its Web site URL.

Read Jeffrey Fleischman’s article in the Los Angeles Times HERE.

Read Dana Bartholomew’s story in the Daily News HERE.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Midtown Men shine with Pasadena Pops at Los Angeles County Arboretum

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

The Midtown Men, who performed more than 1,000 times in the original Broadway run of “Jersey Boys,” appeared with the Pasadena Pops at the Los Angeles County Arboretum last night.

Since Michael Feinstein took over as Principal Conductor of the Pasadena Pops five years ago, the pattern for the summer schedule has settled into a familiar — and comfortable — pattern. Feinstein conducts three of the shows and appears as singer in the fourth.

Then there is the fifth show, which usually falls in the No. 2 slot on the schedule. This year Pops management found a great “outlier” when it imported The Midtown Men — four members of the original Broadway cast of the long-running the hit Jersey Boys — to the Los Angeles County Arboretum Saturday night. In addition to a highly pleasing performance, the Midtown Men raised an intriguing question, as well.

It undoubtedly helped the quartet, and certainly helped the large audience, that Pops Resident Conductor Larry Blank and the orchestra provided backup. Blank, who has undoubtedly conducted thousands of a widely varied number of concerts, allowed the orchestra to open by playing a lengthy medley of songs from Grease, which they did superbly. He also provided a steady, sure hand throughout the balance of the evening and the orchestra played with solid assurance.

That brought on The Midtown Men — Christian Hoff, Michael Longoria, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer — who look a bit like the Rat Pack and delivered a high-energy performance that belied the fact that they have performed this show in more than 700 venues across the U.S. and around the world.

During first-half introductions, the audience learned how each member got into the original Broadway run of Jersey Boys, where they played more than 1,000 performances before creating their own show and heading out on the road.

The intros assumed that the audience had either seen the original Broadway show, which has spawned several nationwide tours and a long-running Las Vegas version, or at least knew the story: the formation, success and eventual break-up of the 1960s rock ‘n roll group The Four Seasons.

In addition to a couple of songs from Jersey Boys, Saturday night’s first-half performance featured music by The Beatles and other rock groups from the 1960s (illness sent me home at intermission, which included a larger Jersey Boys set).

Honed by years on the road, the program was polished and certainly played to the Baby Boomers in the audience who grew up on this music during their teens. Moreover, the group’s diction was unusually precise.

However, early in the program one of the “Men” opined that the 1960s was history’s greatest era for rock and roll. My wife and I discussed this on the ride home and both of us (who predate the Baby Boomer era by a couple of years) felt that the 1950s were better than its succeeding decade, at least in part because the 1950s saw the rise of Elvis Presley.

On the other hand, as Michael Feinstein said about Broadway’s “Golden Age” during the Pops season’s opening concert in June, what you think about Broadway and rock and roll “golden” era depends on the age of the person giving the opinion. Whatever the answer, Saturday proved to be a satisfying argument for the 1960s era of that iconic music.

• Feinstein returns to the Arboretum stage on July 29 as he sings music from the Swing era(s): Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and others. Blank will be on hand again to lead the orchestra. INFO
• Feinstein will appear next Sunday at the Oxnard Performing Arts Center playing the piano, telling stories and singing songs from “The Great American Songbook,” the collection of music that he has continued to espouse with almost religious fervor. INFO

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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OVERNIGHT REVIEW: Some thoughts on last night’s Hollywood Bowl concert

By Robert D. Thomas
Music Critic
Southern California News Group

Los Angeles Philharmonic: Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Thursday night at Hollywood Bowl
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (with soloists and the Los Angeles Master Chorale).
Copland: Fanfare for the Common Man; Lincoln Portrait (Vin Scully, narrator)
Next performance: Tuesday at 8 p.m.

My review of last night’s concert will be in our papers and online next week, but I wanted to add a few notes that didn’t make the review due to lack of space:

• The brass section, which stood in place for the performance, delivered a particularly burnished performance in Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, which opened the concert. Kudos, especially, to Principal Trumpet Thomas Hooten, who was striking not only in this work but also in Copland Portrait, which followed the fanfare.

• Since Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is always a big seller, it’s hard to estimate how many people in the audience came to hear Vin Scully narrate Lincoln Portrait, but the large crowd gave Scully a standing ovation as he came onstage slowly with L.A. Phil Music and Artistic Director Gustavo Dudamel.

Scully stood quietly as Dudamel led the first half of the piece with appropriate grandeur. Scully then intoned Lincoln’s words — some familiar (e.g., Gettysburg Address) and others less so (words from the Lincoln-Douglas debate) — with his familiar easy baritone voice that always sounds like he’s delivering a story to a doting grandchild. What was amazing was that he delivered the texts from memory. I’ve heard this piece dozens of times and I don’t ever recall anyone not using a score, not only to know where to come in but also for the words (I’m sure it’s happened; I just don’t recall it).

Not that I should have been surprised. In 1999 when I was preparing a half-hour documentary on the history of the Southern California Golf Association, Scully agreed to narrate the video. We recorded it in the press box at Dodger Stadium and Scully used just one take to record the entire script — having not seen it ahead of time. He was — and is — amazing!

• If you’re planning on attending next week’s concert, you might want to consider arriving a bit earlier than usual. The crowds at Tuesday’s and Thursday’s concerts were quite large — not sellout, so tickets are available, but close — and with the new metal detectors at the entrance, getting into the Bowl takes a bit longer. Also, if you already have your tickets, use the new “Mid-Gate” entrance to avoid the lines.

• Tuesday’s concert is a repeat of last night’s performance — INFO. On Thursday night, Dudamel conducts overtures and choruses from Wagner operas (Tannhauser, Die Fleglende Hollander and Die Meistersinger)INFO. On Sunday evening, Dudamel leads the Phil, Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA) and a large case in a performance of Sondheim on Sondheim, a tribute to the great Broadway lyricist and composer, who turned age 87 last March. INFO

(c) Copyright 2017, Robert D. Thomas. All rights reserved. Portions may be quoted with attribution.

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