Critical Eye Turns 33

A gracious good day, readers. Welcome to this column’s birthday celebration.

It’s hard to believe, but it has been 33 years since the first Critical Eye batted its lashes at readers. Much has happened in those years. But, when we wrote that first column, we promised that each year, the final column of each March would be marked by attempts to help readers to use its news space as effectively as possible, as well as a look back over the local arts scene for the past year.

If you’re one of those people who dread the anniversary each year, please delight yourself by turning the page. We won’t even look up your history with this newspaper, to prove that you at least opened it, and may have even read it. If you’re game for more, here we go.

One way I have occasionally used, to do something a little different with the anniversary column, has been to write it as an interview with myself. I ask myself questions which I have been asked by readers within the past year, and answer them in print, for all to experience. It’s kind of fun to do. I hope you think so, as well.

HOW TO

If you think you might at any time be put in charge of publicity for an organization, a club, a business, etc., or if you think that a favorite subject of yours doesn’t get enough attention in the newspaper, you might want to clip this column, and keep it for further reference, or else give it to the person who is responsible for publicity, for your favorite business or organization.

RWP: How can I get an activity publicized in the newspaper?

CE: You can phone, write a letter or send an email to the newspaper. Your best bet is to talk with the staff member who is assigned to cover the subject of your activity. My column deals with the arts, for example. If you’re putting on a photo exhibit, for example, I can help you, and will, if I can. If you’re offering a class on how to drive heavy vehicles, there isn’t much I can do. If you don’t know who is in charge of your area, you can indicate that at the beginning of your phone call, letter, etc., and your information will eventually reach the right person.

It’s important to keep in mind, the newspaper you’re holding – or viewing online – isn’t a public institution. It is a for-profit business. It survives and buys its materials and pays its staff by selling advertising space. When the newspaper agrees to announce to its readers that your theatrical organization is going to put on a play, or your Aunt Sadie is going to play the piano, or your Sunday school class is going to have a potluck dinner, they are making it less likely that you will buy an ad – the activity by which the business survives.

Logically, one reason for people to buy a newspaper is to know what activities will be taking place, in which they can participate, so it is generally worth their while to announce your activity. However, when people get all puffed up about when and where their announcement should be printed and how large the headline should be, etc., it reminds me of the time when I was quite young, when a hobo came to our side door and asked for something to eat.

My mother fixed him a large sandwich of the same things we were having for lunch, and poured him a tall glass of lemonade. He gave the food back to her and said he found the metal drinking glass in which she had served the lemonade to be unacceptable – like drinking out of a tin can. Ingratitude is an ugly emotion, which tars the ingrate, not the unappreciated.

In a similar vein, people wanting free support from the newspaper need to be realistic. The people who assemble all the different articles, ads, letters to the editor, columns, and other materials have a difficult and demanding job. They can’t staple an extra inch of newsprint onto the bottom of a page in order to list the names of all the chorus members in your musical show. Sometimes, they need to cut a piece, in order to make it fit on a page. Sometimes they need to run the article without the attached photo. If you want to buy ad space, you can have your photo in the size you want and your entire list of dancers, right there in your ad.

In a similar vein, I remember once watching a copy editor staring glumly at his computer screen and being told that he had enough material to put out five totally different editions of the newspaper, so he would have to leave many things out, and those people were going to be unhappy. If you send your information well in advance, if we can’t help you one day, we can postpone it to the next day or so. If you send it too close to the event, if it doesn’t fit, it must be discarded. Certainly, anything which arrives after deadline just can’t be used. That’s only realistic. All those movies where some newspaper person shouts, ”Stop the presses,” are fantasy, except in enormously important situations. We’re talking ”World War III Breaks Out,” not ”Pep Club Spaghetti Dinner Runs Out of Garlic Bread.”

RWP: How do I get you, specifically, to review my art gallery show or to do a column announcing that I’m going to perform the tango with my sister Gertrude?

CE: You can write to me, send me an email or phone me, well in advance. The last column of each month, I print our policies, in the ”Winks” section of the column, with addresses, phone numbers, etc. If you don’t hear back in a day or two, there’s a chance that your message went awry, so try again. On a typical day, I get around 50 emails relating to this column. Nearly every day, immediately after breakfast, I sit down and try to read each newly arrived email. Some, I forward to a different email address, from which I select the announcements which will be used in the next column. Any one which I read which requires an answer, I try to respond to right away, briefly, but I hope politely. Announcements that I’ve won the Irish Sweepstakes or that Hot Lena is eager to send me her photographs are immediately deleted. Ones which require additional information are forwarded to a different account, to be dealt with later.

That initial decision making nearly always begins from the message space, which can be seen from the inbox of the email address. If you write ”for immediate release” in the message line, your message will be passed over, until I’ve had the time to read all the ones which say things such as ”dance performance in Cassadaga, April 9.” Depending on how many messages I’ve gotten and how many other demands are made on my time, it may not get opened for more than a month. That isn’t deliberate, but it’s quite realistic.

RWP: Does the way in which I ask have anything to do with whether I get the coverage I want?

CE: Of course it does. I don’t mean people are expected to beg or grovel, but if you include all the important information, in plenty of time, in an easy-to-read format, that gets sent toward being published, right away. Of course, if I’ve promised the next column to a jazz ensemble from Sherman, I can’t take back the promise, because you’re presenting a harmonica player in Ripley. I know a great many organizations, which ought to know better, who push publicity duties off onto employees they don’t value or respect. A talented publicist is worth his or her weight in diamonds.

One theater company I frequently publicize typically sends short, clean, factual announcements. If they have an unusually interesting actor appearing, they may include something such as, ”Can you possibly find space to do a phone interview with Jane Roe, who is playing Bessie in our production? She recently appeared as Lady Bird Johnson in an award-winning feature film.” If I can possibly do it, I do.

Someone who asks, ”Do you want to interview Jane Roe?” may eventually get researched enough so that I know she’s in a major film, and it may not.

Also, if you do a lot of publicity, get yourself an Associated Press Style Manual, and use it. You may find it ”eye catching” to write your entire release without capital letters, or to add five exclamation points after your title, but we’re required to maintain certain standards, and we genuinely try to do that. If my previous sentence inspired you to sneer, hold that expression, and look into a mirror for 10 seconds. Pretty ugly, isn’t it?

RWP: Sometimes what I consider a major arts event takes place and you don’t cover it. Why?

CE: An organization may not have contacted me early enough, or they may have written, been told that I can give them a column if I have all the information before a certain date, and then they don’t offer any interview appointments, don’t send any photos, don’t send any background information, etc. I have so many people wanting to be written about in this column, I usually would have to turn down an organization which has its act together and has sent everything early and completely, in order to squeeze in an organization which did nothing, and waited around for me to call them. Few things are that important.

RWP: Any other tips?

CE: If you’re submitting photos to go with your material, the ideal thing is to send one which is vertical and one which is horizontal. That gives the person laying out the page more opportunities. If possible, avoid taking photos with a cellphone. Such pictures are often not dense enough to be printed thousands of times. Do your best to encourage the people in your photo not to look directly into the camera. If possible, tell them in advance they’ll be photographed, and encourage them to wear bright colors. It isn’t up to me if photos are used nor which photos are used, nor whether they are printed in color or black-and-white, but if the possibility of eye-catching color exists, the photo is more likely to be used.

Most important, if at all possible, make sure the subjects’ faces are visible. The back or the top of someone’s head is unlikely to catch anyone’s eye. And, have the person or people in your photo do something. A photo of a singer belting out ”God Bless America” is much better than one of the singer standing in front of a wall, smiling.

Finally don’t send photos with large blank spaces, with two people at one end of a table and a third person at the opposite end, for example.

AND MORE GENERALLY…

RWP: Do you have a favorite interview style?

CE: After a lot of experimentation, I’ve found that my best interviews come when the subject is willing to talk about the show he’s appearing in and how he got interested in dancing, etc. If I ask a lot of questions, I get a summary of my personal take on the subject. Since the subject knows all about himself and his show, and I often know very little, I get the best results when he tells me what he thinks is important about what he’s doing.

RWP: Do certain kinds of subjects usually work out better than others?

CE: Nothing is always true, but I often find that opera singers have a good understanding of what they want their public to know, and are well-spoken and know how to say things in a charming way. Actors can be wonderful, but they frequently try to read my body language and my facial expression, and to take charge of the interview, trying to get me to write certain things in a certain way. Dancers are often so focused on dance that it’s difficult to get them to understand what most readers would want to know about them. Their interviews read better to other dancers than to the general public. Popular entertainers are the most likely to be rude and dismissive, with the result that they come off arrogant and boring.

RWP: I’d really like to have your job, so I can see so many interesting things and talk to so many interesting people.

CE: There are elements of my job which are very interesting. In my experience, people tend to see themselves seeing the shows they want to see and talking to the people they want to talk about. In reality, I have to go to what’s being produced, whether it interests me or not, and whether I’ve seen it before or not. I often say, when you’re driving home alone from Warren and it’s nearly midnight and there is a snowstorm in progress and the show you just saw wasn’t interesting, wasn’t well done, and you’ve seen it more than 10 times already, that’s the other side of the job.

RWP: If you have to complain so much, why do you do it?

CE: I’m not complaining. I’m just responding to your statement by reminding you that if you take the job, you get the whole job, not just the parts that interest you.