An Elegy for Goings On About Town

The New Yorker’s decision to cut its venerable listings section from six pages to two “for budgetary reasons” eliminated a steady income for freelance critics and is part of the wider disappearance of once-thriving coverage of the city’s cultural life

On June 22, the last morning of his vacation, Michaelangelo Matos woke up to an alarming email from Jay Ruttenberg, the music editor of The New Yorker’s Goings On About Town section, to which Matos has contributed blurbs about electronic music since 2018. Ruttenberg was passing on a message from Shauna Lyon, the editor of the section. “The New Yorker has decided that for budgetary reasons they are cutting four pages from Goings On About Town, and it will become a two-page spread in print and a culture newsletter. The final issue with a full music section will be the July 31 issue (closing July 19),” Lyon wrote. “We’re working out what exactly the new iteration will be, but we do know that it will no longer be a comprehensive listings section. It’s likely that we will have a small tight list of events and reviews every week, and we will likely use staff critics to write these.” Ruttenberg, whose contract was due to end at the end of June, added, “Naturally, it was really neat and fun to work with you in this capacity.”

Matos pondered this shattering development as he and his girlfriend packed and prepared to leave their Philadelphia Airbnb. He’d moved from New York to Minnesota in 2016 because he could no longer afford the cost of living. When an editor first offered him the Goings On About Town gig, he thought it was a dream — as he struggled with a diminished freelance market, the section’s dollar-a-word print rate became a lifeline. “It was my only steady income source outside of a day job I have, and I only have that day job sometimes. So it was a huge blow,” he told The Fine Print. “I was writing one, sometimes two of these things a week, and that oftentimes would be the only money I had.” He doesn’t know what to do about the hole in his budget. “There’s nothing out there,” he said. “I spent five years perfecting this weird little niche of writing about this stuff for that audience and there’s nowhere else — anyone else who has that audience doesn’t want weekly previews of DJs. I don’t foresee filling that gap.”

Though his case is particularly dire, Matos isn’t alone. Steve Futterman wrote about jazz for Goings On About Town for so long that he’s forgotten exactly when he started. It was in the early ’90s, he knows, around 25 years before the introduction of bylines. The moment he received Ruttenberg’s email announcing the reduced section seared into his memory, too. “I remember JFK’s assassination, and I’ll remember this. I was watching TV on the couch. As I told Jay, 30 years passed before my eyes,” Futterman told The Fine Print. “The money was never great and it certainly wasn’t great at the end, even with the increased pay. But it was a wonderful forum.”

“Particularly for jazz, a similar situation is not going to come up again,” Futterman added. “I really would love for it to, but I’d be a complete fool to think that people are going to be clamoring for a weekly listing for jazz in a prestigious national magazine. There’s no replacing that.”

Music writers were a subset of the regulars who contributed to the section every week since well before the introduction of universal bylines in 2018. (The section has credited film critics by name since 1987.) They poured years, in some cases decades, into mastering the radically concise listings format. It was routine work that writers facing the instability of freelancing could rely on. “It is a steady part of my income that I have to replace,” said Brian Seibert, who’s written weekly dance blurbs since 2002 but won’t be able to maintain the same frequency going forward.

Goings On About Town was a writer-driven section, and its contributors’ expertise and reliability not only informed readers about cultural happenings outside the purview of even some specialist publications but also made editors’ lives easier. “Every writer was an expert in their field and a really great writer,” Ruttenberg told The Fine Print, who added that editing such writers “was kind of an easy job.”

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By the time Lyon made the public announcement of the changes to the section on July 31 in the inaugural Goings On (sans “About Town”) newsletter — whose contents appear as the new two-page Goings On section in the August 7 issue — she’d softened her message. “This new iteration of Goings On replaces our previous culture newsletter, The New Yorker Recommends, and marks the evolution of our iconic Goings On About Town section,” she wrote. “From the very beginning, the listings, covering art, the theatre, moving pictures, and dinner-and-dancing venues, were quippy, incredibly cheeky, and brutally astute. The new Goings On will hark back to those roots, recalibrated for the needs of the digital culture seeker.” A New Yorker spokesperson put a similar gloss on a statement shared with The Fine Print: “We’ve been talking for some time about updating the section to better reflect the way people find cultural recommendations today, which is largely online. As part of the changes we’ve made, Goings On has a reimagined digital presence, including a new dedicated newsletter, that better serves our readers. We’re excited about this evolution of Goings On, which remains an important part of The New Yorker’s extensive arts and cultural coverage.”

The section’s history began with a single page near the back of The New Yorker’s first issue in 1925. At the start, it was billed as “The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while,” a motto Goings On About Town would display with slight variations until 1988. Unlike later iterations, the debut seemed focused more on being funny than useful. A review of the film The Lost World, which was playing at the Astor Theater, ran: “Through camera trickery, dinosaurs and other beasts of the prehistoric past live again. Interesting because it proves that the camera is a liar.” (Willis O’Brien, who would later give life to King Kong, was not then noted as the author of that stop-motion camera trickery.) A blurb about a Gilbert and Sullivan revival ended: “Not a voice in the company, but you’d be surprised how much that doesn’t matter.”

The section hung around the middle and back of the book until the 49th issue in 1926, when it took its now-familiar place as the opener to the editorial matter. By 1933, the editors realized that readers were using it to plan their week, not just to snicker at the happenings. “You’d better verify the dates; managers often change their minds,” reads a note above the theater listings in an issue from that year. Under William Shawn, the magazine’s second editor, these notices started to get snootier. “Confirmation of dates, curtain times, and casts is distinctly advisable,” reads one from 1967. Robert Gottlieb, who took over as editor in 1987, added color illustrations and slightly longer breakout essays. But for the most part, the section’s format held steady until well after internet search engines made some of the once helpful data — opening and closing hours of galleries, theater addresses, phone numbers to call for additional information — redundant.

Goings On About Town could be a beacon of continuity in aberrant times. When the magazine devoted most of an issue to John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” in 1946, it was the only regular section that remained. It gave rise to an irrepressibly abundant vision of the city that has long appealed to readers far beyond the five boroughs. “When I lived overseas [in Hong Kong], that’s when that section meant the most to me,” said Seibert, the dance contributor. “It was this vicarious experience of what life in New York would be like if I lived there. When you actually live here, you have a life. You can’t actually get out to go and see everything in every section. But when you’re living somewhere else, you imagine that you might.”

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Because contributors were so deeply engaged in the cultural life of the city, it wasn’t unheard of for them to appear in the Goings On About Town listings before they ever wrote for the section. Meghan Dailey, who wrote art blurbs in 2013 and 2014, popped up in a listing for a reading in May 2004 by contributors to the online literary journal Flâneur at the Slipper Room. “That’s actually the only time my name has been in print in the magazine because when I was writing reviews for Goings On, they did not have bylines,” she told The Fine Print. “All these things are ephemeral, and yet there I am in the archive. I don’t know how somebody found out about that.”

The experience could give future contributors an awareness of the listings’ efficacy. In June 2009, well before Ruttenberg’s first contribution in 2018, Goings On featured an installment of his comedy zine Lowbrow Reader’s Variety Hour event series at the Housing Works Bookstore. “The show was the Fiery Furnaces and John Mulaney, which now would sell out Housing Works. But at the time, that was a really big help to have The New Yorker write about it. I think that’s one of the reasons it got a really good crowd,” he said. “I’ll take credit for Mulaney — all of his success traces back there.” In May 2012, the section featured another edition of the Variety Hour. “I was always really impressed that for such a big magazine, they allowed you to focus on upcoming artists or fringe artists that maybe wouldn’t get a lot of real estate in other publications,” he said.

In some fields, Goings On About Town was one of the last places print readers could get a sense of what was happening in New York. “As a person in the dance world, it still is, but now there’s one a week — one thing you can find out about,” Seibert said. “There was a tradition. I think it had to do with Arlene Croce, the dance critic in the ’70s and ’80s. Her authority bled over. You didn’t have to fight to say that dance was important. It was assumed that there was going to be a robust dance section in that part of the magazine, even as it became much less robust in the back of the book — that frequency went way down and remains very low. But I never felt — until now, until this change — any pressure of, ‘Why do we have a dance section? Do we need a dance section?’ Which you definitely hear at other publications that I write for.”

The section played an important role not only for audiences in the dance world but also for performers. “You could get in it for some fairly obscure, small stuff. Sometimes that’s all the coverage the thing got, the little blurb I wrote. But you can see that on the choreographers’ websites and, I’m sure, on their grant applications,” Seibert said. “It meant something to have The New Yorker say something about you.” Seibert is still writing the dance blurbs in the truncated section, trading off weeks with Marina Harss, but the dynamics have changed. “Now I think it becomes something else,” he said. “If you’re just picking one, it’s a very different kind of choice — it’s winner take all. It’s just going to be the biggest thing every week.”

Goings On About Town was a notable holdout while other listings sections slimmed down or disappeared. “I’ve lived here for 23 years. At first, The [Village] Voice and Time Out were really big voices in having listings,” said Ruttenberg, who worked at Time Out from 2000 to 2011. “The Village Voice is gone [after an aborted attempt to relaunch its print edition], and Time Out went the way of the dodo — I think it’s still publishing but online.” New York magazine might be the last of the New York City publications with a comprehensive guide, though even that is bi-weekly. Every field has a devoted readership that’s lost something. “People who I know in the art world — artists, dealers, writers, editors — would read those,” Dailey said of the abundant Goings On art blurbs. “It was just something you read, like the way that The Times had Inside Art every Friday, once upon a time. We’re living in a different age.”

When Matos saw the first edition of the two-page Goings On, he thought less of a different time than of a different place. “The only thing I could think was: Welcome to Omaha,” he said. “You’re the biggest city in the world and there are only eight things happening? What a disservice.”