(reprint of article in Crain’s NY – scroll down)
Of stage and screens: Broadway websites play leading role
The lights dim on traditional print coverage of the Great White Way
By Simi Horwitz
November 17, 2013 12:01 a.m.
BroadwayWorld.com’s Robert Diamond sits in front of 14 computers to keep tabs on his business and the news feeds of others. Photo: Buck Ennis
Robert Diamond’s initial brush with Broadway and technology began with Phantom of the Opera and a fascination with its leading man. “Hey, I’m a straight guy who loves Michael Crawford. When I was still in college I created the official Michael Crawford website,” said the self-described nerd, who remains good friends with the celebrity.
His next venture was a little more professional. In 2003, Mr. Diamond launched BroadwayWorld.com with a $5,000 investment. It took several years before he quit his day job working for a publisher of technology magazines, but eventually the site became his bread and butter.
These days, BroadwayWorld.com is one of the Great White Way’s biggest hits, covering Broadway, off-Broadway, regional and international theater, and even film, television, fashion and travel.
The site attracts 4 million to 5 million visitors a month, according to Google Analytics, and boasts more than a dozen full-time staffers, six photographers and 260 worldwide contributors. Mr. Diamond said the site turns a healthy profit, with 99% of it coming from advertising revenue.
Increasingly, he has to share the spoils. The Web has become cluttered with more than a dozen theater sites in the past 10 years, all vying for limited advertising revenue. BroadwayWorld.com is tops in traffic among local sites, according to Compete.com, ahead of its biggest competitors, Broadway.com and TheaterMania.com, and even Playbill.com. But many others have gotten in on the act, including BroadwayStars.com, TalkinBroadway.com, BroadwaySpotted.com, StageGrade.com, CurtainUp.com, TotalTheater.com, TheaterPizzazz.com, ArtsInNY.com and TheaterLife.com.
On the plus side, consumers get more coverage at a time when traditional newspapers are cutting theater reviews and cultural staff to save money. On the downside, much of the coverage is fan-oriented and can be influenced by advertising.
Working out of his home office, Mr. Diamond keeps tabs on his business with the help of 14 computer screens running simultaneously, virtually all day. He’s able to access what’s happening in real time—how many people are on the site and what they’re viewing—in addition to breaking news and features on Google News, Facebook and Twitter, along with all the other theater sites. His staff telecommutes from points across the globe or across town.
BroadwayWorld.com posts more than 1,000 stories daily, covering 130 national and international theater markets. Pieces include news, reviews, videos and blogs written by actors. And, of course, fans rant or rave about shows on the site’s message board.
“Rob was the first to make a go of it using an advertising model,” said James Marino, a former actor who runs BroadwayStars.com, an aggregator of theater news. Though Mr. Marino launched his site in 2000, BroadwayWorld.com quickly surpassed it. “Before he started his business, he asked me if I wanted to partner with him,” Mr. Marino recalled. “I said no because I didn’t think it would work. That was a big mistake!”
To pad revenue, most theater websites sell tickets through discount clubs, though, according to Mr. Diamond, it’s not a very profitable segment of the business.
“I haven’t seen anybody’s books, but ticketing is high-revenue and low profit margins,” he said.
Even so, TheaterMania.com earns a large portion of its income through Ovation Tix, a Web-based box-office software and discount-ticketing service, according to Gretchen Shugart, the site’s CEO. Additionally, TheaterMania.com sells advertising and provides fundraising, marketing and other promotional services for commercial producers and not-for-profit theaters.
At Broadway.com, 80% of its revenue comes from ticket sales. Indeed, the website is often mistakenly viewed as the official Broadway site, said Paul Wontorek, its creative director and editor in chief.
With offices in midtown, Broadway.com has 150 employees and a reputation for polished graphics and professional-looking videos featuring backstage interviews, theater news roundups and event coverage.
Mr. Wontorek admitted that Broadway.com is not objective journalism, but rather for fans who “want to treat Broadway actors like stars. We’re cheerleaders, and our editorial is skewed toward mainstream lovers of Broadway, like my mother.”
Rather than post reviews, Broadway.com provides a brief synopsis of each show, indicating if it’s family-friendly and whom it might attract. The more advertising a show purchases on the site, the more coverage it will receive.
Mr. Wontorek is not concerned about the lack of objectivity, saying that fun and a lightness of touch are the site’s hallmarks. “We look at news and decide what we want,” he said. “And that appeals to advertisers because it means if something is posted at Broadway.com, it has increased value.”
Others find the trend troubling, as theatergoers increasingly turn to the sites to find out what’s hot and ignore established critics who write for traditional publications like The New York Times. What’s more, in the face of declining advertising revenues, some periodicals—The Village Voice, Backstage, Variety and Gannett newspapers are examples—have reduced or eliminated theater reviews and fired staff. That has enabled theater websites to get cheap or free content, and has lowered the bar.
“Because many websites employ writers they don’t pay, there are fewer opportunities for professional theater journalists, and the level of professionalism has gone down,” said David Sheward, former executive editor at Backstage, who now writes for TheaterLife.com, New York.com and ArtsInNY.com.
“Editorial content is seen as less important and more transitory,” noted Michael Portantiere, former editor in chief at Theater Mania.com and currently writer and photographer at BroadwayStars.com.
Producer Ken Davenport, who runs BroadwaySpotted.com, a site targeted at a younger audience, said there will always be a need for the professional journalist who remembers theater history. Still, the democratization of -theater news is here to stay. “You can’t fight it,” he said. “You have to embrace it.”
SIDEBAR: Low-budget production
Startup costs for a theater site are modest for the most part, reducing the barriers to entry. Sandi Durell, a veteran theatrical producer and reviewer, launched TheaterPizzazz.com in the spring—the newest theater website on the block—for less than $500.
Describing the real costs as “time, energy and emotion,” she has been able to enlist friends, who designed the site free of charge, and freelancers willing to produce reviews and other pieces without pay, although she occasionally offers a fee for celebrity profiles.
Ms. Durell has done far better than she anticipated this early on, even generating some advertising revenue. Her goal at this point is to increase visibility through marketing. “It’s a learning curve right now,” she said.
Entire contents ©2013 Crain Communications Inc.