I'm going to spill a dirty little secret: I like to read the Orlando Sentinel.
I know, I know; all us edgy alt-weekly employees are supposed to point and laugh at the old media as it lumbers toward its inevitable extinction. I've filled more than a few column inches over the years with my Nelson-esque "ha ha"-ing at the missteps of Orlando's "paper of record." Heck, I even sent the Sentinel a "Dear John" letter (Live Active Cultures, July 3, 2008) swearing off my subscription in retaliation for their sin of adding advertisements on the front page.
But I've never really wanted our town's daily newspaper to fail or fade away. For one, reading the paper has been part of my daily ritual for almost 30 years: first the underrated Newark Star-Ledger, then later in college the Washington Post (before publisher Katharine Graham died and the place went to pot). Upon moving to Orlando I discovered the Sentinel and deemed it, if not superior, at least sufficient. Sure, the national and international news consisted of barely masticated wire reports, and the editorial opinions ran to the right of Ronnie Reagan; at least it had some clever columnists, decent local coverage and most of my favorite comic strips.
But the one thing that made a Sentinel subscription indispensable to me was its arts reporting, spearheaded by theater critic Elizabeth Maupin. Her writing was my first, best guide to what was showing (and what was worth spending money for) on Orlando's stages. Our tastes didn't always align, but even the reviews I disagreed with were reasonable and well-written. When I began presenting my own productions, I was always grateful for her opinion, even when it was unfavorable. The best poster I ever printed prominently featured her quote: "I am not the target audience … gruesome, unpleasant, revolting." No matter how much we might deny it, every member of our community gives a lot of weight to her words. When I began writing myself, her work informed my model of responsible arts journalism.
In recent years, Maupin's role in the print edition has shrunk, along with the size and depth of the paper itself. She compensated brilliantly with her Attention Must Be Paid blog, creating a virtual town square where the theater community has connected in a supportive, civil way (the opposite of OW's often obscene commenters, thanks largely to the Sentinel's "no anonymous posting" policy). But while digital bits are beautiful, the physical paper has been increasingly bare of theater reviews, and pasting a blog post in your clipping portfolio just ain't the same.
So when we learned last week that, after more than 26 years at the Sentinel, Elizabeth is stepping away from her post at the end of this month, the news brought sadness but little surprise. Her online statement says she's leaving to pursue "other goals" ("books to read, places to see, clay to throw"), but I'm going to interpret that as her gracious and diplomatic way of saying she's getting the hell out before the paper's Chicago-based corporate taskmasters can finish sucking all the blood and dignity from her jugular through their silver-plated Slurpee straws.
There are some vague intimations that Maupin might continue to contribute to the Sentinel on a freelance basis; even if that fails to materialize I know we haven't heard the last of her. Unless she's moving to Timbuktu, she'll always be an important element of our arts ecosystem. But I do fear that this is the death knell for sustained, comprehensive arts coverage in the Orlando Sentinel. I'd love to think that the management will recognize the essential importance of in-depth arts analysis and conduct a commensurate nationwide search for a suitably literate replacement. More likely, you're going to see sporadic reviews that read more like book reports churned out by second-string staffers and low-paid interns; if we're lucky, we'll get the occasional lifestyle puff piece on a local production that manages to only get a few important facts completely wrong. And inevitably the last aesthetically inclined subscriber still shelling out to the Sentinel will discover that they can get by just fine with their free website and a Sunday New York Times.
In the meantime, I'm going to try hard to freeze this moment in my memory: Once upon a time, when our little burg was big-city enough provide employment to a single full-time professional arts critic … because if I'm all we've got left, Orlando is in bigger trouble than I firstname.lastname@example.org