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At times over the past decade and a half, Phebus has booked the Coach House, Galaxy and Sun theaters, the Doheny Days and other festivals, and this year's OC Fair. "The killer for me was that our main stage was called the LATimes.com stage, with their name splashed all over it, and the paper couldn't be bothered giving the acts even a fraction of the editorial coverage they used to devote to shows in the county. It's still incredibly expensive to buy an ad in the Sunday Calendar section, and why should anyone bother if they're not going to cover or support the local scene? They've abandoned us."
In better days, he said, the Coach House had to bring in extra staff on Thursdays to handle the spike in ticket sales resulting from articles in the OC Live section. It isn't a newspaper's job to help a venue hawk tickets, but those tickets sales were an indicator that the paper was doing its job: informing the public, critiquing and nurturing the scene, and helping to link the arts and the public in something that might be considered a community.
You never knew where the Times OC's efforts would take root. The now long-gone art critic Cathy Curtis, we were surprised to learn, had a small but avid fan base of firemen, who would post her more acidic reviews on the stationhouse wall.
"The Times previously seemed to recognize that the 3 million people living here deserve coverage," Phebus said. "They really nurtured the local scene, and I think that's part of the reason why local bands eventually made it onto the national charts. Pulling the plug on that has hurt the scene. And I'm not just talking about their positive reviews. At points, I was buying something like 1,000 shows per year and scarcely had the opportunity to listen to all of it. I counted on the Times telling me if I was booking crap. That perspective is just gone now."
According to one local arts personage, a Times figure has let it drop "unofficially" that county arts groups henceforth shouldn't expect any features coverage unless a performance is of "national" importance. The summer is the off-season for the arts, so the organizations won't see how dire this might be until the fall.
Not that it can get much worse.
The Times OC's dearth of support "is something that comes up a lot with all the arts marketing people I know," said Karen Drews, director of communications for the Irvine Barclay Theatre. "It has put us in a real bind because the Times did such a great job of selling the Calendar section as the place to go for arts coverage, that when people look there now and don't see our events covered, they assume the events are not happening. I know that will effect the smaller arts organizations, some of whom do very fine work."
Sandy Robertson, associate director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, takes a more Nietzschean "that which doesn't kill me makes me stronger" slant.
"Because of the changes [in the Times' coverage] we have to see ourselves as players in a larger picture now. We need to understand that people—whether it's a critic or a concertgoer—make choices about the art that interests them in a larger area. It used to be that the Times OC would cover something just because it was in OC. Now the decisions on what gets covered are determined in LA. The burden is on us now to make it a story for them. If you're doing the nth production of the Phantom, you're not going to get coverage."
One Timescritic acknowledges, "Some of the things we wrote about before were honestly marginal. We had the space and the obligation to fill the space."
For Randy Lewis, one of few Calendar writers remaining in OC, "The changes make sense, in that for a long time, we tried to be everything to everybody down to the microscopic level, and we realistically can't be everything. What is sad to me, though, is to see us disconnect from the grassroots level. The loss there is that we won't necessarily be aware of things—bands or whatever—until they break out, as opposed to maybe being there to help them break."
If one must err when it comes to news, it would seem that too much is better than virtually none.
"The emphasis used to be on giving the readers the best paper we could," said former editor Page. "I understand shrinking budgets, but you can't half-heartedly cover the arts. When you're covering something that's all about passion and taking chances and giving your best, that's what you also need to cover it. Otherwise, why bother?"
Page left the Times in 1997, before things soured, and she has nothing but fond memories of the place. She's now in Boston, working on a novel and doing film reviews for the Boston Globe, where former Times OC editor Marty Baron is now head honcho and where, even while at the forefront of covering Sept. 11 and the priest-molestation scandals, the paper has recently given a dramatic boost to its arts and entertainment coverage.