Journalism reality check II: The death and rebirth of criticism

Over at American Scene, Peter Suderman offers a good response to Patrick Goldstein’s LA Times lament about the loss of entertainment critics in print media. Suderman writes:

For the vast majority of people, a Friday night at the movies is just that — and nothing more. Most people really don’t care about and have no use for lengthy dissertations about the ways in which Steven Soderbergh borrows from Godard. They just want to know whether to see Ocean’s 12! Playing blame the audience doesn’t work for music studios trying to combat piracy, and it doesn’t work for cranky critics who remain convinced they deserve $2 a word for 1) their insights into obscure movies few people want to see or 2) their complaints about Big Dumb Movies that everyone’s going to see anyway.

I would add that a majority of criticism doesn’t even rise to this level of sophistication/pretension. When I led a session on criticism at the Poynter Institute’s High School Writers Workshop, I presented the difference between good and bad criticism as the difference between a term paper (an original thesis supported by examples from the text) and a book report (basic plot summary with maybe a cursory judgment). Many print reviews still tend toward the book report end of the criticism spectrum. (Plus more papers are experimenting with things like American Idol live-blogs and other “insta-criticism” that runs more toward summary/quick response but is totally appropriate for the subjects and form.)

Suderman makes an even more important point about the lack of perspective from those in the newspaper industry who mourn the loss of print critics. He writes:

Trenchant criticism hasn’t died; it’s just shifted venues. …

Meanwhile, I simply refuse to buy the argument that the loss of book pages and film-review jobs is a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing for professional critics. Yes, it’s tougher for those lucky few thousand folks to make a living reading books and watching movies! On the other hand, the internet has actually created vastly more opportunity for aspiring critics to get their work read. The barriers to entry in top-end publications are still high, but those outlets are no longer the only options for critics on the make. So we’ll see fewer professional critics, sure, but we’ll also see far, far more criticism.

And yes, some of it will be bad. But on the whole, I’d guess that it will create a net gain in serious, thought-provoking criticism of just about every medium. Meanwhile, most of those truly elite outlets — the New Yorkers and the Washington Posts — are not going away.

Terrific points all. Jody Rosen is the best music critic in the country; he writes for Slate, not a newspaper. Newspapers that have a Jody Rosen should build an online brand and community around that critic and hope the critic doesn’t leave. If they don’t have a Jody Rosen, if their critics file one book-report review after another — and if newspapers increasingly need to think about what they can offer readers that no one else can — then they should treat every kind of critic as a luxury except for (maybe) local-music and (definitely) restaurant critics.

But there’s one crucial piece missing from Suderman’s analysis. Yes, there’s plenty of great criticism online. Yes, there’s going to be a net increase in great criticism thanks to that online crit-boom. But like so much of the online news-commentary-criticism boom, it is invisible to newspaper readers.

Suderman assumes that getting rid of critics won’t matter because newspaper readers will find the good stuff online. That would be true if you assume everyone has an RSS feed and reads Slate, Pitchfork, and House Next Door. Needless to say, not everyone does. If they did, that would further erode newspapers’ declining readership.

So if newspapers do get rid of in-house critics, they need to simultaneously start giving readers some of the material Suderman talks about. That goes for more than just criticism. Newspapers can no longer treat the online universe as invisible. They have to find a way to bring that great content to their readers, both via the Web and in print.

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2 responses to “Journalism reality check II: The death and rebirth of criticism

  1. dumolderguyinflorida

    OK, I give up, where’s the RSS icon hiding in House Next Door? I can’t find the little muther.

  2. Hmm…I can’t find it either! If you’re using Firefox, the RSS icon should show up at the end of the URL window. If not, you should be able to just copy and paste House Next Door’s URL into your RSS reader, and it’ll find the feed…