Every time it happens, it seems, at least one of the jobs cut is the movie critic's.
On Monday, the Long Island tabloid Newsday announced that 36 newsroom employees took a buyout offer, enough to forestall layoffs. The Web site Defamer.com called it "The St. Patrick's Day Massacre," because three of those leaving Newsday were the paper's movie editor, Pat Wiedenkeller, and movie critics Jan Stuart and Gene Seymour.
The previous week brought news that the Bay Area Newspaper Group's papers east of San Francisco had 107 employees take the buyout, including longtime movie critic Mary F. Pols. Another paper in Northern California, the San Jose Mercury News, reassigned its movie critic Bruce Newman to a general-features beat. (The Mercury News and the Bay Area Newspaper Group are owned by Media News Group, the parent company of The Salt Lake Tribune.)
I have pontificated in this space and on the Movie Cricket blog about the many papers around the country - in Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other cities - whose movie critics have taken buyouts, retired or been laid off. Some of those critics were replaced, but many weren't.
And I have explained many times why this is a problem for moviegoers. Fewer critics mean fewer voices championing good movies, and fewer regional critics mean the louder voices are those from national papers and wire services - in other words, folks from New York and Los Angeles, not from the heartland. (The exception, of course, is Roger Ebert from his perch in Chicago. But Ebert's recent health woes have decreased his output.)
And as Chris Lloyd, a former critic in Florida, commented on my blog: "By forcing a generic product onto your readers, you're giving them a push to go elsewhere. And you've given them one less reason to see your paper as indispensable."
Coupled with staff cuts is the reduction in news space. The "newshole" - that part of the page that isn't filled with advertising - is shrinking every year. Editors tell writers to write shorter, and sometimes editors have to cut stories altogether.
In Thursday's Hollywood Reporter, the movie-industry trade paper, reporter Gregg Goldstein wrote about the lack of space for movie reviews in major newspapers - and how independent films are suffering for it.
Goldstein cited the example of "Taxi to the Dark Side," Alex Gibney's Oscar-winning documentary about the Bush administration's policies allowing torture of detainees in the name of the War on Terror. When the movie opened in New York on Jan. 18 (before the Oscar nominations were announced), neither of that city's tabloid papers, the New York Daily News and The New York Post, ran even a brief review in print.
The New York Daily News also didn't print reviews of two acclaimed movies about abortion, the documentary "Lake of Fire" and the Romanian drama (and Palme D'Or winner at Cannes) "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (though it ran online reviews). The New York Post also skipped the well-received Brazilian documentary "Ghosts of Cite Soleil" and others, Goldstein reported.
The consequences for independent films are high. Without reviews in the New York papers, indie films don't get the critics' quotes or buzz they need to get sold to theaters in the rest of the country. That cuts back on box-office returns that are already meager, and reduces the chances of a good home-video deal - which is where most films make back their production costs.
Goldstein quotes some who believe part of the problem is that there are too many independent films and that the marketplace is imposing its Darwinian order on things. Others believe the rise of quality criticism on the Internet ultimately will balance the reduced coverage in the dead-tree media.
Either way, it's a sad state of affairs if fewer voices in print are leading to fewer voices on film.
* SEAN P. MEANS writes a daily blog, "The Movie Cricket," at blogs.sltrib.com/movies. Send questions or comments to Sean P. Means, movie critic, The Salt Lake Tribune, 90 S. 400 West, Suite 700, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, or e-mail email@example.com.