Podcast Episode 81 Transcript – Michael Paulson
Ken: Hello, everybody out there in podcast land! Ken Davenport here. You’re listening to the Producer’s Perspective Podcast and a very special podcast here today because we are turning the microphone around and asking questions to someone who usually asks the questions. I’m very thankful that he has agreed to join us and also thankful there’s no breaking news today so the New York Times could let him out of his little box. Please welcome to the podcast the New York Times reporter in charge of the theatre beat, Mr. Michael Paulson. Welcome, Michael.
Ken: So for those of you who don’t know Michael’s history or didn’t see the movie Spotlight where his name was thrown around all the time – it was awesome – before Michael started covering Broadway he covered religion and was actually part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for covering the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church for the Boston Globe. So before we talk about how you went from religion to Broadway let’s actually go back even further – how did you get started as a reporter? Where did this journalism thing start for you?
Michael: I think it started with Mrs. O’Brian in seventh grade. I grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, which is just outside Boston, and I went to a junior high school that had all these electives, had a notion that kids that age would be better off if they had some voice in what they were thinking about, and I took a newspaper class and kind of loved it. I loved getting to ask people questions, getting to share their stories, constantly learning, and I stayed with newspapers from then on. I was the features editor of my high school newspaper and I was the editor of my college newspaper and I’ve worked in daily newspapers my entire career.
Ken: Lots of Red Sox articles, being a Mass native, I’m sure.
Ken: The ’86 World Series you covered?
Michael: Exactly. I was never a sports reporter, always either politics or religion, but I’ve worked all over the place. I started at a suburban newspaper outside of Boston and then worked in south Texas for a while and in Seattle and in Washington DC and back to Boston and now here in New York.
Ken: So you’re working at the Globe, you’re literally shaking the foundation of the Catholic church with your work there and then, all of a sudden, you’re like “Eh, I think I’ll go write for Broadway.” How did that transition happen?
Michael: It wasn’t quite that direct but I covered religion for a long time at the Globe and then became an editor there and in 2011 an editor at the Times called and asked if I would come edit here and so I came here as an editor, overseeing coverage of local politics – New York City Hall and New York state government in Albany – and so I oversaw a group of reporters in those two places through the race for mayor in New York in 2013 and then I went back to writing, first covering religion nationally for the Times and I’ve been on the theatre beat for about 14 months now.
Ken: How’s that going for you?
Michael: You tell me. It’s fun. I just finished my second Tony’s and I’m catching my breath and there’s lots to reflect on, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, but it’s been a hoot.
Ken: Your story is not unique in that reporters do jump from beat to beat, but Campbell Robertson, who was the first New York Times reporter I know went off to Iraq – he emailed me one day – and Patrick Healy now writing on the campaign. Were you a theatre fan before? How did you make this transition? Do you have to immerse yourself? Do you read a lot of books? How do you go from beat to beat like this?
Michael: So I think you’re right that newspapers think of journalists as experts on journalism and think of beats as learnable, with some exceptions – our science reporters mostly have a greater academic background in the disciplines they cover – but other than that I would say most people move around and one of the really appealing things about the New York Times is, because it’s a large organization that covers a lot of different things, there’s a lot of opportunity for variety over the course of a career. I think the fact that I covered religion sort of freaks people out because it seems, especially to New Yorkers, sort of exotic and weird. I don’t think that would be universally true across the country but it is here and so I get a lot of jokes about how religion and theatre are or are not similar, but I was certainly a heavy theatre-goer my whole life and was seeing a lot of theatre here and the culture department knew that so when my predecessor, Patrick Healy, moved on to the presidential campaign they came and asked if I would think about it. The Times is an unusual organization – it has separation between critics and news reporters in the arts world so we have critics who write about theatre and art museums and classical music and popular music and television and film and so on and in each of those disciplines there’s also a news reporter and, most of those reporters, we cover the industries, we cover the artists and most of those reporters, like me, came out of a traditional news background. The critics mostly have more of a quasi-academic relationship to the disciplines they cover and the reporters are mostly just steeped in how to write a news story.
Ken: So you get tossed into our strange little ecosystem here. What was the first thing you noticed that shocked you the most? That was like “Alright, I didn’t expect this!”
Michael: I think one thing that really has been startling and sort of pleasant and sort of odd is that, at a time when the importance of newspapers and the cultural, broadly, has declined significantly, the importance of the New York Times to the theatre industry appears to be incredibly high and it was startling to suddenly step into a world where people still cared so intensely about what my newspaper was doing. Just before this I was writing mostly about evangelicalism and writing mostly about evangelicals outside of this region, elsewhere in the United States, and that’s a world in which the New York Times is an alien presence. Most of the people I was covering do not read my newspaper, think of my newspaper as sort of hostile to the worlds that they live in and believe in, and to go from there to a world in which every office I enter has a print copy of the paper hanging around, people know who the editors are and know what the deadlines are, it’s a world that’s very connected to and believes in newspapers generally and in the New York Times in particular and that was startling because it hadn’t felt that way for a while in other subjects.
Ken: Do you find that press agents or that the general industry was welcoming to you? Did you find them very tight lipped at first?
Michael: You know, there were press agents calling me before it was announced that I was taking this job. Press agents are paid to get attention for the shows that they are promoting from lots of outlets but mine is a significant target for their entreaties so I would say generally they’ve been very welcoming. There were a lot of people who very quickly wanted to say hello, wanted to tell me about what they were working on, wanted to talk about the shows that they have coming up, their relationships with the Times, their relationships with the industry. I would say it was quite a generous welcome.
Ken: So all of these people talking about their shows, and I can’t even imagine how many press releases you get every single day in your inbox, what makes something jump out at you and go “Oh, I want to write about this! This is something that needs to be in this paper of record?”
Michael: It’s an excellent question and one that I think we’re grappling with and reconsidering all the time as our audience changes and the way they read us changes and also as, like you, we have more and more hard data about who they are and who they do and don’t consume but I would say that, as a general practice, we have a de facto commitment to writing about every Broadway show. Usually that means some kind of featured story that tells our readings “Here’s what’s coming and here’s what’s interesting about it, somebody involved in the creation or the performance that you might find interesting that might help you think about whether this is something you would want to think about seeing,” and we review all Broadway shows. When it gets beyond Broadway it becomes much more discretionary and the Times is making judgments all the time about “Is there something going on that makes this project worthy of the attention of our readers who have these incredibly busy lives?” Is it worth their attention either because they might see it or, because most of our readers don’t live in New York, is it worth their attention because they’re interested in the arts and want to know what is happening in the field of theatre, want to know that there is an artist who is emerging who is worthy of their knowing about, there is some kind of trend in the issues that writers are grappling with or the way works are being staged? So, you know, we’re constantly trying to figure out what is of interest to people and what is important to people with the theory that the reason people come to us is that they’re looking to us to sort of help them sift through this huge volume of stuff that’s going on in the world and, in our case, this huge volume of theatre that’s being made and those people who come to us look to us in part to say “Hey, you ought to know about this,” and that’s the judgment that we’re paid to make.
Ken: You mentioned, in today’s age, knowing what the readers consume. It just made me think of me and my blog – I know “Look, I got more readers on that entry.” Do you get that data for your own articles?
Michael: Yes. It’s relatively new – I would say it arrived in newsrooms a couple of years ago but the Times is very slow to give reporters access to that information because I think there’s a real concern about what its value is and its potentially corrosive nature because it can be quite disheartening, in a way. But, yes, I have access now to software on my computer where, every story I write, I can see how many people read it and I can see how they got there – did they come from Facebook or from Twitter or because it was placed on the New York Times homepage? So there’s quite a bit of data and you very quickly see what kinds of stories perform better than others and you learn other information, depending on what time of day or what day of the week something is published it might do better. There’s a kind of randomness to this as well but, yeah, we have a lot of data now and the next struggle is to figure out what to do with it and I think for the Times, broadly, what do we know, what do we do if we know that coverage of Donald Trump and terrorist attacks gets enormous readership and coverage of, say, physics or west Africa or classical music gets much less? Do we then stop covering things that fewer people read? I don’t think that we want to do that because we view ourselves as a news organization that is committed to broad coverage of the world but that information seeps into your head and, of course, in my little world it knows that whenever I write about Hamilton the traffic is high and whenever I write about an off-off-Broadway show the traffic is much lower and, again, we remain committed to broad coverage of theatre but now we have information that we didn’t used to have and I think we’re still sorting out what that means.
Ken: It’s fascinating, I’ve never actually thought about it until this very moment that you might have all this data available to you which, yeah, I imagine, as someone who started reporting several years ago, when you didn’t have this information, it would seep in and maybe change the way you write, whether you like it or not.
Michael: It’s not just the information that has changed. I mean it’s true, when I started everything went into a print paper and people got the package on their doorstep and you could naively believe that they were reading your little story about the meeting of the conservative commission in some small town on the south shore of Massachusetts, because there it was in front of them, and who knows how many were actually reading it, but not only do we now have all of this data but of course people are getting us differently. The majority of people are not getting us in print but they’re getting us on some kind of digital device which, until five seconds ago, was a computer but now, increasingly, is some kind of mobile device, usually a phone, and they don’t read in the same way, they don’t read the same volume of stuff, they don’t find us in the same way – increasingly they find us not by coming to the New York Times but because somebody on Facebook or Twitter said “Hey, look at this story that I saw on the New York Times,” so other people are curating us for their friends instead of us curating us for you and, you know, they’re reading on the go, they’re juggling us with Candy Crush and whatever else – our competition is no longer other media but is other forms of entertainment and other forms of just passing the time on the subway or wherever – so the world has become a lot more complicated and we’re still constantly trying to figure out how that shapes how we tell the news.
Ken: And what do you think about social media and all of this? You’re very active on Twitter yourself, tweeting out your stories and reactions to other people’s stories as well. Has that been an enjoyable thing for you? Something that’s been hard to start?
Michael: I think it’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand it’s exciting, you can feel people engaging with stories much more instantly and intensely and it’s great that you can watch stories be shared in the world by people who share your interests. On the other hand, of course, it can be brutal when you watch some things that you care about be essentially ignored and also there can be an ugliness to some of the conversation that takes place in social media that’s unpleasant to be exposed to and that’s part of the world too.
Ken: So you’ve been on the beat now 14 months. What’s your favorite story you’ve written in the last 14 months? Your favorite topic, besides Hamilton. I mean I guess it could be Hamilton but what’s the thing that stands out as “This is a really cool thing,”?
Michael: One of the great things about this job is that I’ve always gotten to meet a lot of interesting and important people who are smart in various ways but I haven’t met a lot of artists, people in creative fields, and they have a kind of cookie intelligence that is different from what I’ve been exposed to previously and it’s really fantastic for someone who is not creatively skilled to be exposed to that. I’ve really enjoyed getting to spend time with theatre makers, both performers and writers, so very early on Fun Home was on its way to Broadway when I started and I went up to Vermont to visit Alison Bechdel at her home outside of Burlington because she’s the cartoonist whose graphic memoir was the basis for Fun Home and she’s just a fantastically interesting and unusual person and Fun Home was this fantastically interesting and unusual project that uses three actresses of different ages to play this one person at different stages of her life in this kind of Russian doll structure that unpeels the layers of this person’s life. It was just cool and it reminded me that I was stepping into something that’s a little zanier and a little more fun than what I had been doing before. On a more serious note, if I can veer slightly towards Hamilton land, I collaborated with a business reporter a couple of weeks ago on a piece trying to look at how Hamilton makes its money and where that money goes and that felt like a worthy expedition for us. Obviously Hamilton is a huge hit, tickets are very expensive, it’s generating a lot of money and it felt like something valuable for the Times to do would be to try to take a hard look at how does a show like that make money and who benefits and I was proud of that.
Ken: It was a fascinating article. We’ll include a link to that in the blog about this podcast. I sent that to all of my investors and anyone expressing an interest in investing so they could see how that all broke down. I did find it very interesting that that article was written and published and then the prices for Hamilton went up after that article was released. If you were sitting around at some reporter bar – I assume there’s got to be some watering hole for all of the reporters – and there was someone from the science beat and they were like “Hey, what’s that Broadway beat like?” how would you describe the theatre industry to people that didn’t know anything about it?
Michael: It’s a really good question. I think, as I said before, the relationship between my newspaper and the industry really changes what it’s like to cover this beat. It means that I have a lot more access than a lot of beat reporters. Generally, people, with some exceptions, are eager to have me around, willing to let me watch whatever I want to watch and talk to whoever I want to talk to and that’s an incredible privilege. It also comes with, I would say, a very high degree of sensitivity, thin-skinned-ness, and a kind of expectation that we will pay attention to everything that’s going on – people are rapidly disappointed or angered when we don’t do everything that they wish we would do and that they think their worthy projects deserve – so it’s both a plus and minus, the close relationship between the Times and the industry. It’s also the geographic nature, especially of Broadway, is incredibly helpful to me. My last job I was on a plane for almost every story. Now I can leave my cubicle and be anywhere I need to be in five minutes. And, you know, I find theatre artists kind of excellent subjects for journalists. I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about this – I think that the world of theatre, of course it’s a world of storytelling and journalists want to hear stories, and it’s also a world – and I’m thinking particularly about actors here – that kind of rewards sharing about things that have gone wrong in your life or your career. There’s no shame in talking about disappointments, failures, mistakes, as well as victories and accomplishments and, as a result, when you talk to theatre actors in particular, there is an openness that is just so valuable to journalists and it really contrasts, I think, with the experience of people covering Hollywood where I think the stakes for actors there are higher because they’re more famous and anything they say can be kind of seized upon by social media and either mocked or criticized and they’re also handled in an intense way that is just different from theatre actors. So that’s another benefit to this beat, is people are just open and they have good stories to tell and they want to talk, by and large.
Ken: This is a business also that has lots of politics. I sometimes refer to it like one giant Thanksgiving dinner, that we all love each other but we’re a little dysfunctional at the same time and God knows who’s saying what about what in the other room. Do you get a lot of off the record conversations? Is everyone like “Look, I want to talk to you about this but you can’t quote me because I have to deal with this agent tomorrow, I have to deal with this producer tomorrow, this theatre owner,”?
Michael: It’s true. The other thing that I didn’t mention that’s distinctive about this beat is that the industry is small. It’s a small group of people, most of whom know one another, many of them have worked together and competed against one another, sometimes at the very same time, and they’re all working in a pretty small area of midtown Manhattan. It’s fascinating and, yes, lots of people want to talk off the record for all kinds of reasons. That’s true on every beat but it’s amazing how much everybody is at the same shows, at the same parties, sort of friends with one another and also quietly quite critical of one another. I mean particularly in your world, I think in the producing world, there’s a lot of chumminess but also “I can’t believe how much that guy screwed up that production.”
Ken: What’s the most shocking thing you’ve ever heard anybody say to you off the record?
Michael: I’m not going there.
Ken: Dammit! Okay, well speaking of that kind of off the record or not getting a lot of people to talk about some things, is there any story that’s on your list to write? “I’ve got to write this story!” but you haven’t been able to find enough on the record or actual evidence of a story that you know is there. Anything you’re looking to expose?
Michael: It’s a good question. I mean there are various kinds of stories we’ve talked about doing that we just haven’t found the right situation for and we’ve talked about writing about the preview process and what actually happens during previous, because lots of my colleagues go and are kind of intrigued by all of those people who are in the back with the computers and the notebooks. We talked about it this past season, it just didn’t work out for various reasons, but I think we have this fantasy that it will be sort of cinematic and that if you’re there at previews all the time you will actually see somebody get fired and some character get knocked out of the show and songs being replaced, a huge change, and some publicist sort of warned me. “What you will really see is a director saying “Could you enter 30 seconds earlier or stand a few feet off to the right?”,” and the changes, by the time something is in previews in Broadway, are slightly more modest for a lot of shows, especially because the majority of shows that come here have been worked on somewhere else. And I think we can get a better grip on the economics of the industry in various ways. That Hamilton story was a stab at one element of it but I think it’s important for us to engage with how this industry works and doesn’t work financially and obviously that’s something I’m going to learn more about as I spend time on the beat.
Ken: What’s the biggest mistake that you think producers make when it comes to the press?
Michael: Well, look, I think some producers understand that news organizations and theatrical productions have different roles to play on planet Earth and are kind of at peace with the idea that I’m going to ask questions that they would wish I didn’t ask and they’re going to decide whether to answer them and that the stories that I write are the stories that we think are most important and valuable to our readers are not necessarily the exact thing that they put in their news releases and I think some producers mistake us for an arm of their publicity operation which is just not the way the world works and that’s a challenge for some relationships.
Ken: Do you believe that all press is good press?
Michael: That’s a good question.
Ken: It certainly wasn’t good press for the church in your prior gig.
Ken: But here?
Michael: There’s a larger question of is all good press good press and is any press good press? I don’t think we fully know how people decide whether to buy tickets to a show and what the relationship between news coverage and ticket buying is and I think it varies depending on whether a show is on Broadway or Off Broadway and depending on whether it is a musical or a play and depending on whether it has a movie star or not but, you know, I think no, there is some press that is damaging, right? There is unquestionably some press that can be damaging to some shows.
Ken: You are a theatre fan, you’ve been a theatre fan for a while, but now you’re writing editorial – do you find yourself having to catch yourself, like “Oh God, I really, really want to say what I feel about this show but that’s Ben and Charles’ job, I can’t do that here,”? Does anything ever slip in?
Michael: Yeah, I really often wonder what the line is because most of my colleagues in the media who are not at the Times write both news stories and criticism – most organizations can’t afford to have multiple people covering theatre – and there’s no boundary, and social media has made that boundary very blurry too because I think social media invites a casual rapid-fire conversational tone and often I will tweet that I am going to see some show – I always tweet what I’m seeing before I see it so I won’t be tempted to offer an opinion – but, understandably, on either Twitter or Facebook people then ask me what I thought and the Times rules are that I should not weigh in, that I should leave criticism to the critics, so I try to stay out of it. But sometimes I see a performance and I’m just blown away and I want people to know and I’m still wrestling with how to deal with my own enthusiasms, which mostly I just try to keep in check and just share with friends.
Ken: Where do you think reporting will be twenty years from now? Will you still be doing it or will you have moved on to another beat, and where do you think it will be?
Michael: We’re talking at a time when the news media is in enormous transition. Just over the course of my short career the changes in the way people consume news have been enormous and incredibly devastating to the financial model of news coverage in the United States. We’ve seen lots of newspapers disappear, we’ve seen every newspaper cutting back in various ways, we’ve seen all forms of competition that we never could have imagined and this kind of total transformation of the way people on planet Earth get information now and the New York Times is as healthy as any news organization in this country but is still struggling to figure out where it’s going to be, never mind in twenty years but in two years. How do we understand what is the future of print and how does the fact that so many people now read us on cell phones affect the lengths of stories or what the expectations are for visual elements to them or how much they have to play to the kind of grabby packaging that drives so much of conversation online and what’s going to happen to my career? I have no idea. I think I will continue to go back and forth between editing and writing, both of which I’ve done, and I’m optimistic that the New York Times is going to remain an essential part of the news ecosystem in the United States and in the world – because the Times is increasingly expanding globally – but I’m not 100% confident of that. There have been changes during your lifetime and my lifetime, technologically and information-wise, that we could never have imagined and so I think we have to acknowledge that there may be more changes coming that we can’t imagine so we’re sort of along for the ride.
Ken: It’s funny, the theatre and journalism are very similar in the way that they’re evolving – a few years behind other industries and I think both will experience great changes.
Michael: I think that’s right. I also think there are other similarities – when I look at the Broadway League, which does an annual survey of who goes to shows, and when I look at the demographic challenges of Broadway they’re very similar to the demographic challenges of the New York Times and other legacy news organizations, which is to say an audience that skews much older than the general population, more affluent, more white, and one of the reasons I think that the theatre world and the New York Times interact so much is because we have similar audiences but it also means we have similar challenges because, of course, for both theatre and the Times to survive we have to reach younger people, we have to reach more diverse audiences, in all kinds of ways of defining diversity.
Ken: Okay, my last question – you know what it is because you’ve listened to a couple of these podcasts – it’s my Genie Question. I want you to imagine that the genie from Aladdin comes to your office at the New York Times and thank you for jumping on the beat and doing such a great job of covering it in only 14 months and says to you “Michael, I want to thank you for this by granting you one wish.” You’re such a nice guy, what’s the one thing that makes you so angry, frustrated, mad, as a theatre-goer or a theatre reporter, that you would want this genie to change about Broadway with the snap of a finger?
Michael: First of all, the New York Times is across the street from Aladdin so it would be a really short trip, and despite our kind of elite image I have to say that if the genie walked into the newsroom – it’s an open newsroom – he or she would be thronged with autograph and selfie seekers. But I think if the genie had any connections to Silicon Valley I would ask that someone invent a technological way to prevent cell phones from ringing in shows. I go to see everything on Broadway and a lot Off Broadway; I am almost never at a show where a cellphone does not ring, no matter how many warnings, it doesn’t matter if Sara Bareilles sings it to you, which she does during Waitress, it doesn’t matter how humorous it is, how serious the show, a cellphone rings and it feels to me like changing behavior, we’ve lost that battle, and the only solution is technological.
Ken: I’m so glad you brought up the Waitress cellphone message because it’s one of the best.
Michael: It’s so endearing, yes.
Ken: And Sara is so endearing and it just makes perfect sense and the night I was there one went off too. How can someone not at least check? I don’t understand it. Even I – and I’m pretty good with my phone – was like “Oh, let me just double check just to be sure.” Are people not hearing this stuff or is it only people that are octogenarians that don’t know how to turn it off even if they wanted to?
Michael: I think that happens sometimes but I think that lots of young people just think they’re exempt, forget, push the wrong button, don’t check it at intermission and, you know, we’re in an era where we have our phones with us when we sleep, we have them with us all the time and people struggle to disconnect.
Ken: Well we’ll see what we can getting one of those Silicon Valley…
Michael: Get the genie on it, okay?
Ken: To build a wall around the theatre that prevents cellphone access. I want to thank you for allowing us to spin the microphone around here and for your dedicated and passionate coverage of our industry – all of us have enjoyed it. That’s my review, and actually the industry’s review – we love reading that stuff. For those of you interested in Michael’s life prior to Broadway, he is the co-author of Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church which you can get on Amazon – we’ll throw a link to that into the description of this podcast – which is the book that inspired Spotlight and got Michael that big Pulitzer. Also follow him on Twitter. Thanks to all of you for listening. Until next time, I am Ken Davenport, this is the Producer’s Perspective Podcast – tell a friend!