Critical thinking at the Bee

There was a time when being the movie critic at a major urban daily newspaper was a big deal. And The Sacramento Bee’s Carla Meyer was, apparently, one of the last of the hotshots.

She was hired away from the San Francisco Chronicle in March of 2005 after what Bee editors described as “an exhaustive, nationwide search” of hundreds of applicants. The paper ran full-page house ads trumpeting her arrival. The Bee marketed Meyer, and rightly so, the way sports teams hype their star acquisitions.

But just four years later: “Readers increasingly could care less what a critic thinks.” That’s according to Tom Negrete, managing editor of the Bee’s online operations. He also oversees the features department.

So what changed? “The mindset of the paper was different then,” Negrete explained. “Since the time when Carla was hired, the staff has gotten smaller and the region has gotten bigger.”

Let’s back up. It turns out that Meyer’s last day as the Bee’s movie critic was sometime around June 19. That’s when the Bee ran her review of The Proposal; she gave it two-and-a-half stars.

After a short vacation, she returned as the Bee’s not-movie-critic, writing arts and music features for the paper. “They’re looking for content that is unique to the Bee, and movie reviews aren’t really unique content,” Meyer told Bites. So she’ll do stories like her recent feature on the local Trash Film Orgy, while the Bee buys reviews from the wire service, written by the dwindling pool of Meyer’s peers at other daily papers, like Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times, or Roger Moore at the Orlando Sentinel.

In fact, daily papers and big weeklies around the country (like the Village Voice) are ditching their film critics and going to the wires or to freelancers. New York Times media critic David Carr recently called the print movie critic an endangered species, “deemed expendable at a time when revenues at print publications are declining, under pressure from Web alternatives and a growing recession in media spending.”

And the Web site Movie City News is even holding an online deathwatch, entitled “The Last 126 Film Critics in America.” Last Bites checked, only 121 film critics were still listed as employed full time, and Meyer was among them. So make that 120.

The plan is for Meyer to launch a new column, most likely by the end of July. Presumably, that’s when the Bee will break the news to readers that their subscription no longer covers the cost of a local movie reviewer. You realize, of course, that this all means Mark S. Allen will now be the most influential film critic in the region. Something to think about.

It was Negrete who pushed the idea of dropping local movie coverage. “My two cents was, ‘Why have a movie critic when we have all these other needs?’” he explained. “I don’t think there’s much of a future there for us.”

The same thinking led to the exit of Rick Kushman’s TV column a few months back—and the creation of his Good Life column in its place. Which was sad for Bites, since Bites really likes TV and really couldn’t care less about wine. Speaking of which, just how many people does the Bee need to write about wine?

Sure, some of us will miss the relationship between the readers and the film and TV critics at their local papers—even when it’s an antagonistic one. And sure, some of us are old-fashioned and think that local reviewers are part of the personality of the city and can’t really be replaced by multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns and the faceless metacriticism of the Web.

But, that’s just some of us. Hell, maybe it’s even just Bites. “It’s a big deal for the newsroom, and for other journalists,” said Negrete. “But I don’t think it’s a big deal for readers.”