Zachary Woolfe started attracting attention immediately when he came to The New York Times as a freelance classical-music reviewer in 2010, having written stylishly and persuasively already for numerous publications and outlets in New York City and elsewhere. In March 2015 the Times named Woolfe its classical music editor, even as the paper was undergoing one of the most penetrating periods of self-evaluation in its history: the so-called 2020 Group, tasked with re-imagining the way this venerable institution envisioned and engaged its mission during a time of seismic change and financial straits throughout the entire media industry.
Even before the group’s findings were made public in January 2017, Woolfe had already begun to imagine and institute changes in the classical music coverage at the Times, an effort that has accelerated noticeably since the start of the year. In a recent interview at The New York Times offices, Woolfe addressed those changes, large and small, during an exceedingly generous and wide-ranging conversation.
Culture coverage at the Times has been in a state of flux for a long time now, but some of the most recent changes seem so dramatic and different – it feels as though there’s been a real shift. What was it that prompted the change? Was it specifically the digital task force report?
The Times obviously has been dealing with the same pressures that everyone in journalism has been dealing with, which is basically the shift from print to digital technology and the differing economic models that are attendant on each of those: broadly construed, a shift from print advertising to a digital subscribership model. So the charge that has been placed on everyone at the Times – not just classical music, not just culture, not just in the newsroom, but the business side of things, every single person in the company – is the idea that key to the sustainability of the operation in the long term is a dramatic rise in digital subscribership.
There are many salient facts about the digital subscriber, but mostly, it may be that the person is in L.A., and may be in Minnesota, and may be in Toronto, and might be in Vienna, and might be in Melbourne. They all have the same Facebook. They all have the same Twitter. They’re all getting the same product, but it’s a product that is fundamentally different, in the sense that The New York Times was until very recently at core a local product – with amazing foreign coverage, amazing international coverage, but a local paper.
That is now the DNA that fundamentally shifts, and what is happening now is sort of negotiating, how does that happen? We are still based here. Everyone in the world is interested in New York, in all spheres but in the cultural sphere in particular. And yet we want to be creating a product, making journalism, that people in Melbourne and Minneapolis and Buenos Aires would be interested in reading frequently enough, and valuing enough, that they want to subscribe.
The experiments that are going on now, and the changes that have been happening over the last year that have instigated redesigns and more concrete rethinkings, have been a response to that: How can we change what we do so that we are bringing in more readers in more places to be more engaged. It’s not a question purely of page views, but more engaged: the term that encompasses both sheer numbers and the kind of readers they are, whether they are subscribers, how long they’re spending on the articles, where in the world they’re located. So what we want in classical music, and what everyone in the paper wants, is to be bringing our journalism to a substantive and engaged readership.
That’s not to say that there is any expectation that classical coverage is going to get the same sheer numbers as Beyoncé or as Trump. But on our own terms, we should be bringing in people worldwide who are interested in classical music. We’re experimenting with various ways to sort of open that door wider, and I think it’s certainly possible. For all of the amazing stuff that gets done here, and has been done for years, we could still be doing more in terms of bringing a lot of the people who love classical music coverage into the fold as Times readers and as – hopefully, eventually – subscribers.
In tangible terms, we’ve seen a marked decrease in the number of standard concert reviews running in the Times. That sets off alarms among a segment of the readership – not the entire classical-music world, but a significant portion of the existing readership. If covering quotidian events is no longer the mandate, then what is? In a digital ecosystem, there’s a couple of ways that things happen: They either are promoted on the Times homepage or on the section fronts; there’s Twitter, there’s Facebook, there are various social networks in which links are being shared; there’s Google search. So the emphasis is on the ability to promote things on the homepage, or the ability that in these never-ending feeds, people will want to share them, click on them, and then share them again. They sort of exist through social networks.
The print newspaper was an amazing technology for lots of small things. You get it in one package, and there is an amazing amount of serendipity: the way the layout works makes little pockets of things work really well. Super-urgent and just-keeping-up things coexisted, and are received in a single oomph. Whereas in an environment in which URL after URL is sort of flung out into the ether to rise and fall as it would, we see much more vividly what are the things that engage readers. And the idea of incremental coverage, which is not making a big statement of some kind, has trouble.
I’ll give you a politics example, because, again, this is a pressure that’s on everyone at the newspaper: A certain number of years ago, as a bill became a law, there would be piece after piece about that bill’s progress. When somebody brings it to the floor, it’s a little 400-word article. When there’s debate in committee, there’s a little thing about the hearing. Then there’s a little thing about the vote in subcommittee, then there’s a thing about who brings it to the full committee. You might have 10 tiny pieces before we get to the bill’s passage, and our expectation at that point was, we’ve covered that bill. When everything is packaged in the print newspaper and everyone’s getting that in one fell swoop, it’s O.K. But think about the way you’re operating on Facebook: When it’s “Hearing on the Farm Bill Takes Place” as the headline, there’s not going to be the desire to share that, or to click on it.
So if you have this hypothetical farm bill, and you don’t want to do these 10 or 15 incremental articles in this digital space, maybe I want to then do the 1,500- or 2,000-word enormous piece on this bill, its implications. I’m going out to Nebraska to talk to farmers; there’s graphs, there’s charts, there’s video. There’s an ability to sort of talk about the bill’s fate in Congress, but the stakes are higher and richer. You can give it the sort of “This Is the Farm Bill That’s Going to Kill 10 Thousand Nebraskans,” or “…That’s Going to Feed 10 Thousand Nebraskans.” The way in which you’re able to frame that, while talking about everything that you’ve talked about – and actually talking about more, in a certain way – makes that more than the sum of all those incremental parts.
So the charge now – and what’s happening in politics, in business, in sports, in all of the sections of the paper – is a transition to, how can we be making these statements, telling the stories and telling the stories in the form that will really engage people in the environment in which we are now playing? Can we tell the story of that bill in that big statement, in which the storytelling is both textual and visual and through video and through sound?
It’s an interesting opportunity, in that if you’re the person or the handful of people tasked with telling that story, and suddenly there’s a graph with some of the statistics and a video that adds detail, you don’t fall back on padding to add inches to your story. You have to really tell that story in a compelling way. And also, there’s no longer the need for strict word count. You’re freed from the constraints of “This is an 1,100-word story.” Print is still crucial, but the conceptualization in the newsroom now is what we call “digital-first.” The idea is that the print paper becomes a version of a digital report. So when you’re freed from all of these crutches of habit and the constraints that print put forward in terms of something needs to come in at this length or you’re scrambling to fill the page, what does that let you do? With that flexibility, what does that piece about the farm bill include?
And that brings us to the way that culture and classical music interpret these imperatives, which is, yes, a transition from the idea of being at everything. Our responsibility, in an environment in which we need to be thinking, how can we take all these incremental pieces and make bigger statements, has to be curatorial. What do people need to know about classical music? What are the performances they need to know about? How can we orient them in what even for classical-music lovers and aficionados – even for you and me – is an unbelievably daunting season and world. How can we educate people and contextualize this universe for them?
That takes the form of a large variety of things, and the digital sphere allows us to do different kinds of features, different kinds of story forms. So the question is just how, with the same number of resources, if not fewer – we’re talking about writers, editors, copy editors, photo editors, the whole apparatus – do more of different kinds of stuff? What do we have to pick and choose differently, and how can we frame the things that we want to review and the events that we want to review in a different way?
So yes, we are still robustly reviewing – in New York, outside New York. I’m going to be going to Munich. Michael [Cooper] has been in Toronto a couple of times. We’ve been in L.A. I was up in Buffalo. However, sometimes we are approaching these things in a slightly different way. For instance, Tony [Tommasini] had gone to a few debut recitals, and rather than the old system – which, as you know, would have been a 300-, 350-word review of each of those, which would have been in general positive – in talking with Tony about the performances and what had struck him, it kept being that rather than the sort of traditional idea that a pianist has to come in and if you didn’t play some kind of difficult technical feat, you hadn’t made your debut, Tony had noticed that more and more artists, especially the ones that he was admiring, had made New York debuts with quieter, more poetic stuff – the idea being that everyone can play everything now, so no one needs to prove their technical bona fides.
So he was covering these performances, but with a piece that had the feel of an essay. And the headline – “How Should a Musician make a Debut? Try Going Low-Key” – there’s a sense that, O.K., that is a piece that’s interesting to more people, and probably more people than all those individual reviews. So it’s covering the field in a way that’s actually more than the sum of its parts, in terms of being interesting and helping people understand, “Oh, this is the way classical music is now,” as opposed to 20, 30, even 10 years ago. That was a curatorial move, while also reflecting on these performances that had happened and passed, one-off performances that came and went, and artists that might have been very good, but were not necessarily the ones that you would want to make a big statement about.
What we’re trying to do now is be more responsive to what the event demands, and so to say, go to this performance and let’s decide afterward how we should cover it. If Tony had gone to one of those performances and really had something to say of urgency about one of those pianists, as I’ve said to him, you tell me and we’ll put that in the paper. We want to facilitate writers, and I’m including myself – and this a way in which I’m sort of different than some people at the Times in terms of the writer/editor thing: I certainly care about doing reviews and criticism, because I’m a critic. This is a personal thing for me; I love to write criticism, and I love to read criticism.
So the charge that I’ve given myself and the other writers is one of flexibility. I would love everyone to go to much more, and to curate for an intelligent readership, this Times subscriber in your mind: what about what you’re seeing will be interesting to that person? That’s a range of people in the readership who are both obviously in the field and who are just interested and maybe go to a concert every now and again. I would love to do coverage, and I think it’s very possible, that can really engage a wider spectrum of readers – obviously understanding that people in the field who are really incredibly passionate about music form an important core, but understanding too that the field benefits, as does the Times, if more people feel that the coverage is interesting to them.
The impetus for this creative, idiosyncratic envisioning of arts coverage is something with which you are tasking the writers themselves to do – to think outside the box, as it were? Oh, yeah, totally. This is really dependent on thinking. It’s much more difficult. It used to be: I see this performance, I know what I’m expected to do. I know the format, I know in advance the word count, I’ve done that a lot of times, and I can do that. And this is really asking for more. That’s the transition we’re going through at the moment, which is: I’ve seen this performance; how should we cover it? Or, I’m going to see it; how should we cover it? Looking at this performance, should we cover it in advance? Is the way to do it to review it? Is the way to have gone and keep that under your hat, and wait for more data points for a bigger piece about something?
What I’m hoping for the writers is to just be taking in an enormous amount, and then be thinking really creatively about how to tell the stories, and to kind of curate this classical-music world in such a way that they’re bringing in the performances that they’ve seen, but in a wide variety of means, not purely the single-performance, 400-word review. Which is not to say that we’re not doing them – there are single-performance reviews that are happening. There are events that should be recorded. That’s part of our journalistic responsibility.
We still have the same writers, they still have the same intelligence; it’s a question of, how can they be seeing and putting together what they’re seeing in new ways. And in a way, it’s interesting, because what I would love from them is more, bigger pieces. I think what succeeds in a digital environment, reviews and otherwise, are bigger statements – which is not to say that everything has to be “the best” or “the worst. But to kind of be curatorial is to say, “This is important,” and not just say, “This happened.” That’s to me not enough.
I have to ask about one specific feature that’s been the subject of real debate and skepticism, “The Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments.” What prompted that feature, and how have you viewed the feedback? The idea was, if we’re thinking about new ways in which we can cover our field, and considering that there were going to be some performances that we might not be able to cover in full reviews but that we wanted people to be at, to kind of be on the lookout – like, if I go to all these piano recitals, somehow those conclusions like the one that Tony came to in that debut piece would come up. But on the way to those bigger pieces, we might not be doing all of those incremental steps – the same thing with the farm bill that I spoke about. So what do I then do with those incremental steps? And the “Moments” thing I had conceived of as just a way of making a virtue out of that necessity – which is to say, we cannot do 400-word reviews for these x-number of performances, but I want to cover them in some way. Can I turn that into something that can be framed as something that will actually be interesting to promote on the homepage, or that will catch people’s eye when it pops up on their Facebook feed?
We all have this [experience] where you go to a performance and there’s a moment that jumps out. It happens to me, where it was like, that one chord in that piece – sometimes ones I know to look out for, and sometimes a surprise. It’s a snapshot, and it could be a minute, or it could be a second. It could be an aria. It’s broadly construed. And so the idea was, don’t think of this as a review; this is an impression of a particular moment that stood out for you. You do seven or eight of those and it’s frameable as “The Eight Moments of the Week.”
And I think that there was a sense – it proves the point, in a way, because I think people were disproportionately seeing this online rather than in print, where it was printed above a review – that this had somehow replaced the other reviewing activities. Which just proves, in the digital space, everything lives in a vacuum.
It’s an infinite flat horizon, and things don’t stand in relation because of type size or spacing or a big photo adjacent. Totally. In the original framing text it wasn’t properly explained that this is meant to be another thing that we do, not the thing that we do. This is not going to be the full brunt of our energies; this will be just another thing for people to find their way into. I got really supportive feedback, I’m not making that up, both from within the field and without, and then people who were super-critical. Which is awesome: that is great to see, that people care. Any idea reinforcing the idea that people care about our coverage is fantastic. And I am also open to doing things that are unpopular, but I want it to be for a reason.
So over the course of those next weeks, it was like, how can we do this a little bit better, and not make people have what I felt was an incorrect impression. So what it now has become is actually sort of different: Rather than this being a way to cover this performance that we wouldn’t otherwise cover, it becomes a way of further exploring something that we might have done a full review of, anyway. So if I go to Mitsuko Uchida’s recital, I did a full review of it, and my also putting it in “Moments” allows me to link to the full review. So the thing becomes more of a newsletter or digest of what we’ve been doing elsewhere for the past week. It’s kind of like a one-stop shop: look at the highlights of our week, and if you’re interested in reading more, we give you lots of ways to further explore the coverage. Or, I would be totally open to people whose full engagement with the Times classical coverage is to read the “Moments.”
The downside is that hypothetical piano recital I was hoping that this would be the way to cover, even if we weren’t otherwise covering it, the alternative isn’t then to review it; the alternative is that it continues to go under our chapeau, and we move on to hopefully or possibly thinking of larger things relating to it. That’s sort of the paradox, which is, again, we go back to x-number of resources and we want to do a certain number of things. We’ve never been able to do everything, and that’s still true.
I should also say that some of the concern when we were first doing this was, is this going to now overemphasize the big institutions? If we’re doing less, does that mean we’re going to just be doing the Met?
The idea that if you’ve eliminated one-off performance reviews, you’re never going to visit Le Poisson Rouge or Spectrum again, for example. And I think the opposite, in a way: When you’re thinking curatorially, especially, new performers, new composers, new voices – finding those is ever more important. Think of a museum curator: Part of the job is of course to curate the permanent collection, and to keep up with the Rembrandts. But a huge part is finding the new artists and bringing them before the public in a way in which people outside of an incredibly small, insular world will be able to listen to and understand their work in context. If there’s a composer who excites me, how can we present that in such a way that there’s a way in? If I’m passionate about it, I want a lot of people to be passionate about it. How can we do that in a digital environment?
There are so many tools at our disposal that weren’t there just in print, so the opportunity is great. For instance, there was a second cast of Aida opening at the Met, and I went; the review was on the schedule, and there were important singers. And it was, to me, such a bland performance that I killed my own review. There’s no reason to do things that we’re not passionate about. Which, again, is not to say it’s only the best and the worst, and everything is going to be this sort of super-heightened thing, but who am I serving by dutifully reporting something that I didn’t feel urgency to talk about?
There always used to be this sense of, we wrote about Andrew Norman five years ago, so we can’t write about him again. Or, we did the Arts & Leisure preview of that production, so we’ve checked that box.
“We’ve said our piece.” If we think Andrew Norman is important, as we do, we should write about him every year. We should write about him twice a year. We should write about him however much we do it. If that new production is really interesting, let’s do four features and a review. It’s the idea of taking the habit out of what we do, taking the sense of dutifulness out of what we do, and replacing it with really being able to follow what seems urgent to us.
When Beyoncé put out Lemonade and the Times famously ran seven different articles, so many people were saying, “Seven pieces on Lemonade?” But think about it: What if there are actually seven interesting stories to tell about Lemonade, because it is that good and that significant? Exactly. I want to do the review and do the “Moments,” because there are going to be people who didn’t catch one or the other. For the vast majority of our readers, something just drifts across their Facebook feed, so everything stands on its own. Most readers probably only saw, let alone read, maybe one of those Lemonade pieces. The people who noticed are people who are extremely vested in media.
Well, to be fair, if you came to the arts page on the website that week it was pretty hard not to notice them all clustered together there, or the related links plastered across the top of any given article. Yeah, but frankly, the vast majority of online readers never even come to the home page, let alone the arts section front or the music front. The way in which people are coming to Times content is from outside.
Via individual social-media links, exactly. The home page is still an importance source of promotion, and there’s a lot of interest that comes from that. But for most of the millions of people who are reading our stuff, that’s not where they’re coming from.
Finally, I’m going to assume for a moment the role of devil’s advocate: At a time when the fine arts and classical music occupy as small a role as they seem to in the quotidian lives of most average Americans, and when the values and priorities of our society seem to reside elsewhere, why shouldn’t there be less coverage in The New York Times? Because it is an integral part of cultural production in this country and in the world. These are big and small, important and vibrant institutions that we cover because we exist in New York and because we love this art form, because there are people who are thinking about this art form and how it can be relevant to our world, how it can stimulate and console and excite – all of these things. And I think in our current climate, and given the values – culturally, politically, socially – that prevail, classical music offers also craft and professionalism and the idea of rehearsal, the idea of rigor, and values that I think are less and less important in a society that more and more fetishizes amateurism and the myth of the outsider. I think the beauty of classical music, when we perceive it as we inevitably perceive it, and music broadly construed, when it is perceptible as it always is, is the antithesis of that.