Is Paying for Reviews the New Journalism? Time Out's David Cote Weighs In | Playbill

News Is Paying for Reviews the New Journalism? Time Out's David Cote Weighs In Bitter Lemons, a theatre website based in Los Angeles, has announced a new business model in which productions pay writers to review their productions.

Theatre productions will be charged $150 per review, with $125 going to the critic and the remaining $25 going towards the administrative costs of the website. The critics are members of the "Review Brigade," and all members are listed on the Bitter Lemons site.

While the review will be published on the Bitter Lemons website first, the payment does not guarantee a good review, and the purchaser is not able to select the person writing the review.

Additionally, if the theatres disagree with the content or quality of the review, which Bitter Lemons assures will be written by "an experienced critic," they can purchase a second one for another payment of $150.

Bitter Lemons explained the process on their website: "Well unless you've been living under a rock for the past decade, you know that we are smack dab in the middle of a crisis in theater coverage. It's not just a local problem, it's a world-wide problem. The reasons for this dwindling coverage are varied: the transition of traditional media from print to online, the rise of the social media networks, the prevalence of the Yelp-like review, these and other elements have not only caused coverage to dwindle, they've served to erode the quality and standard of theater criticism and forced the professional and serious critic to scramble to find a way to maintain their vocation while making a living.

"So over the last year and half, we here at Bitter Lemons have been working on a new business model, one that raises the standard of theater criticism, offers more opportunity for quality coverage to the artistic community and creates a market for those truly outstanding critics who should be making some money for their contribution to Los Angeles Theater. We call it: The Bitter Lemons Imperative (BLI)." The $150 fee can be paid by anyone associated with the show, including producers, artistic directors, writers, directors and actors.

Read the entire statement on the Bitter Lemons website here.

David Cote
David Cote

The announcement has inspired a strong reaction, with many citing the possibility of a conflict of interest between the writer and the theatre. The American Theatre Critics' Association released the following statement in response to the announcement:

"The American Theatre Critics' Association, the only national organization of professional theater critics, is concerned with the model started by Bitter Lemons. While it does not guarantee a favorable review or allow theater companies to choose the reviewer, this pay-for-play arrangement creates a clear appearance of a conflict of interest. That appearance, even if spurious, undermines the crucial credibility of not only Bitter Lemons' critics, but all critics.

"Our profession has fought for decades to preserve the image of independence. When our work is put out for sale to those we cover, we are concerned not just for the criticism itself but for the bypassing of editorial judgment in deciding what to cover and what not to cover."

Ben Brantley, the New York Times chief theatre critic, recently spoke with about his work. Read the interview here.

Bitter Lemons' decision reflects many ongoing issues with theatre criticism, said David Cote, the theatre editor of Time Out New York and contributing critic on NY1's On Stage, who commented on the struggle to make a living that freelance critics often face. "On the one hand, on the Bitter Lemons site they make a case," Cote said in an interview with "There's money allocated for advertising and marketing. Why not eliminate the middle man and go straight to the critic? But that just sets up an unhealthy relationship between the critics and the theatres... not because they're going to get positive reviews or the critic will feel pressured to write positive reviews. If they're a terrible critic or desperate for the money, that might just naturally happen... It's unhealthy for the audience [and] for the reader ultimately. They're getting a product that isn't as pure as could be.

"Most critics should be judged on the basis of their thought, their writing and their taste," he continued. "And sometimes they have great writing and terrible taste or they think really interestingly but like really terrible shows."

Cote recalled when he directed a play Off-Broadway and his own reaction to whether publications reviewed his show and emphasized the need for a response to the work a theatre does. He also stressed the necessity of high-quality reviewing in preserving the history of art, saying, "The decline of journalistic reviewing, the decline of general reader reviewing that's intelligent, informed and not just a consumer report, that is a little more in depth but is not quite a piece of academic criticism… [is] sad. You can document things on video or, of course, publish plays. You can put things online. You can put things in archives. But I think a really apt and vivid piece of writing about a live event is crucial to its memory."

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