The Washington City Paper sucks. The Washington Post sucks. The Washington Blade sucks. The Washington Examiner sucks. Metro Weekly, Dupont Current, DC Theatre Scene, DCist, TV news stations: suck, suck, suck, suck, suck.
And a catch-all assessment for all other D.C. media outlets that pretend to cover area news and culture: Suck!
What other word, after all, could possibly describe the following reportorial breakdown: Joy Zinoman, an absolute titan of the D.C. theater scene, announced to Studio insiders that she had settled on a schedule for stepping down as the founding artistic director of Studio Theatre.
That was four years ago.
The public didn’t find out till last week, when Studio decided to release the news.
If you’re not registering what a blockbuster reportorial failure went down here, let’s try some background. Zinoman founded Studio in 1978, an event with grand implications not only for the D.C. arts scene but also for its economic development. Her playhouse, which has expanded into what theater lovers call the “Zinoplex,” laid down roots at 14th and P Streets, anchoring a slow but astonishing revitalization of one of the city’s critical commercial corridors. Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote that her departure “augurs one of the most significant changes in years at the top of a Washington performing arts organization.”
Not significant enough, though, for local media to snuff out. It was all the way back in spring 2005 that Zinoman announced to a “retreat” of Studio staff, board members, and others that she wished to step down in 2010. She noted that this was not a public announcement and asked people not to blab about it. “One reason I did this was because I wanted to get some work done,” says Zinoman. “I still had five years of what I considered my life’s work, and I didn’t want to be distracted by the chatter.”
When Zinoman made her presentation at the retreat, she was speaking to 35 or so full-time Studio staffers, the 30-plus members of the board, plus a bunch of other individuals! Serge Seiden, Studio’s associate producing artistic director, says that retreats pull in somewhere between 150 and 200 attendees.
Attendees? No, potential sources.
In handling the information, Studio didn’t gather a few longtime company agents in a safe house and swear them to secrecy or make anyone sign a non-disclosure agreement. Instead, it just gathered hordes of people, gave them the 411, and politely asked that they keep it to themselves—-a scenario that even lame journalists prey on. Zinoman herself was surprised that the secret held: “I actually thought that some people must know. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t. I thought, No way can we control what 100 people say in the gym or at their Christmas breakfast or in the gym.“
And get this. A year or so into this four-year secrecy campaign, Studio created a committee to manage the post-Zinoman transition. A committee, with meetings, documents, e-mails, and what have you—-journalistic gold!
That the secret indeed held up was evident on the night of Sept. 16, when Zinoman made her announcement at the theater. According to several sources, gasps were audible as the news broke. It’s unclear whether the mass incredulity stemmed from shock that Zinoman was stepping down or from disgust at the miserable performance of D.C. news organizations.
A breakdown this complete has to invite comparisons. When asked to do just that, the New York Times‘ Frank Rich points out via e-mail: “I have never heard of anyone in the New York theater telling 100 people anything—a minor bit of casting, let alone big news like this—without it leaking out instantly. Someone would blog about it immediately on a theater web site—[a typical example is here]—and The Times and New York Magazine (among others) would race to get it confirmed and on line.”
Zinoman’s deputies have theories as to how they managed to compartmentalize the information. One is that Studio is a healthy institution and the 66-year-old Zinoman remains at the top of her game —-so pressing questions about fresh leadership don’t just pop up. Another is that Studio people didn’t gossip out of respect for Zinoman: “Everybody who cared about her understood that this was a big decision and we all, out of respect, wanted to do it how it should be done,” says Seiden. A third relates to institutional discretion: “We’re very good at keeping secrets,” says Keith Alan Baker, managing director and artistic director of Studio’s 2ndStage.
Studio’s board chair, Susan Butler, “had it the hardest” when it came to keeping the secret, according to Zinoman. Butler confirms the struggle: “Because I’m chair of the board, over the last four years, I was asked many times when Joy was going to retire,” says Butler.
You mean, by reporters?
“No, no, no—-never by a reporter,” replies Butler.
Well, at least one scribe was in the ballpark. The Post‘s Marks addressed the question in a March 2008 profile of Zinoman: “And it is a measure of how deep is her imprint that when the question is broached of who might one day succeed her, even some high-up people in the organization decline to speculate.”
When asked about this durable secret, Marks writes via e-mail: “Never in all my years of talking to Joy Zinoman and her staff had any of them uttered a word about her plans.”
Marks, who sucks far less than the rest of the D.C. theater reporting corps, was well-positioned to carry the Zinoman exclusive once Studio was good and ready to tell the world. He snared a sit-down with Zinoman prior to the announcement and worked under an embargo that never sprouted a leak. “At the end I was worried about bloggers, and the advice I got was there was nothing I could do about it, so I had to hold my breath and hope,” says Zinoman.
Worried about bloggers? In D.C.?
And why did Studio feed the news to the Post? “I certainly thought that the Post had covered the theater community well and they had cared,” says Zinoman. “They had tried to improve the coverage, they were responsive to the community and certainly they would have the farthest reach.”