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St. Petersburg Times changes its own ticket policy

in The Bay and the 'Burg by
From John Fleming, Performing Arts critic for the St. Petersburg Times: Last weekend, for the first time as performing arts critic of the St. Petersburg Times, I took complimentary press tickets to productions that I planned to review, La Traviata at St. Petersburg Opera and Tuesdays With Morrie at American Stage. In the past, the newspaper always paid for the tickets.

This is a big change for the Times, but one that was probably overdue, since most newspapers and other news organizations have long accepted free tickets to performances that they cover. Our new policy was spelled out by Anne Glover, the arts and entertainment editor:

Times critics (or those engaged by the Times or tbt* for the purpose of reviewing a show) should inquire with each venue to see if press credentials are offered, and if so, accept them when it makes sense to do so.

The idea behind paying for our tickets was, of course, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, and I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about the change. There’s no question about your independence when you’ve bought a ticket. But no professional critic would ever be influenced by a free ticket. For the record, I gave La Traviata a positive review, Tuesdays With Morrie, a pan.

The old policy was inconsistent, since many Times critics, including me, review works that are sent to newspapers for free, such as books, CDs and DVDs. Press screenings of movies and TV shows are free. Our photographers don’t pay admission to document shows that we review.

By accepting comp tickets, the Times is simply acknowledging that we are covering plays, concerts and other performances as newsworthy events. For example, our sportswriters don’t buy tickets to report on Rays, Bucs and Lightning games. When our business reporters cover a speech at a trade show, they don’t pay to attend. Our political reporters write about candidate fundraisers without making donations.

There can be a downside to not accepting comps in that it prevents some performances from being seen by a critic, either for background or for a possible review. Attending multiple performances of a production — say, to see if it gets better or worse as the run goes on, or what the impact of a cast change might be — is less likely if you have to purchase a ticket. In some cases, by not accepting press tickets, we had worse seats than we might have gotten by taking them.

Is the Times doing this just to save money? No. I probably spent the most of any critic on tickets, and my expenses have rarely run more than several hundred dollars a month for Tampa Bay area performances. That amount isn’t going to break the paper.

So far, the arts organizations from which I have requested press tickets have been happy to provide them. One company, Jobsite Theater, said it would prefer to have us continue to pay for tickets, which is fine. Last weekend when our critic, Marty Clear, went to Jobsite’s Rabbit Hole to write a review, the Times paid for his ticket.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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