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Several of my colleagues--including this year's KCACTF winner Mark Costello--have already begun the two-week-long O'Neill Critics Institute (OCI), and I'm very excited to be headed up there in the morning. This year, from July 14-18, the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) hosts its national conference alongside the OCI, and I'll be speaking on a panel about theater criticism and new media. 

For me, it's been an interesting and frustrating e-year--interesting because there are so many more potential ways to disseminate arts coverage than there were even as recently as last year, and frustrating because instead of being mandatory, they're still overlooked by nearly every theater reviewing outlet in Philadelphia. While I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper (including freelancers who, though we have largely replaced staffers, don't get the idea-tossing benefits of regular staff meetings), it hasn't happened yet. 

So here's what I can do something about: the comments section. Although the comments section is generally regarded as the exclusive province of trolls and there's a general rule that you don't feed them, this hasn't been my experience. Perhaps it's because the audience that cares enough to comment on theater is different (*cough* better *cough*) than the audience for stories about sports or politics. And while I occasionally get the reader who just plain calls me a hack WITHOUT USING A SPECIFIC EXAMPLE (note to you, dear reader: I am always specific in my critiques), there are far more people who leave a mini-review or call me out with a differing opinion. I also find that when I jump into the fray, it makes for a far livelier conversation with more commenters, and remains active far longer than the usual review.

I've gotten varying opinions on this practice from colleagues. Some say it's a great way to make the review come to life. Others say once a review appears, it's time to let readers do the talking. I've heard from readers grateful that I'm still engaged with the work, and still others who say it's just poor form to get down there in the muck. 

So what do you think? If you're a critic, do you like to engage in discussion with your readers? If you're a reader, do you want to hear from a critic, or would you rather continue the conversation on your own? 
July 13, 2010 4:18 PM | | Comments (7)

7 Comments

If it were welsh it wouldn't have vowels.

MWnyc: You know what? I think--at least to start out--I would be willing to do audio or video segments gratis. As long as the paper provides some training (And I think they really should. after all, it benefits everyone), why not? If the experiment generates some increased clickage, well then, I'd certainly expect to be paid.

Mark: You always engage with your commenters, and I think it's really fun to read, plus it keeps me coming back, which is really, really important. And yes, Roger Ebert has certainly become a real role model for online journalists seeking to engage audiences.

I agree with Larry. If a reader leaves a comment that's thoughtful or surprising, then I'm going to respond. For me, the whole purpose of writing criticism and features is to engage in a conversation and push thinking forward.

I'm always really appreciative when something I write is the starting point for a thoughtful exchange. I want my reviews to be the starting points for conversations, not monolithic "final words," and when my readers engage with me (and each other), I feel like I'm doing my job.

For a model of how to thrive online, we should all be studying Roger Ebert. He responds (beautifully) to the helpful comments and he pays no mind to the unhelpful ones.

If a reader asks a question or challenges a supposition, then a response is in order. If they provide a different view of the same production, I let it stand, even if there are factual errors or misinterpretations.

What I don't like are the love notes some leave about an actor or group. But I print them too. The line between blog and digital magazine is fuzzy.

In the end, isn't it about encouraging regular readers? Making them part of an online website is one way to do that.

I do have mixed feelings about this.

On my blog, I always respond to comments and I love the dialogue. But I only get a few, most of the time none, and no one's ever been mean-spirited or picked an argument with me. My blog is a hobby.

As a writer for a mainstream publication, I think it's a bit different. You ought to let your writing stand on its own and take the heat or praise.

Otherwise, you could go back and forth forever because there are some people who just want to tangle with you or don't like the fact that you're the big fish in town and you gave their production a bad review.

Having said that, we are living in a different era and I think there should be more opportunities for people to engage critics, to be part of a dialogue.

I don't think there's anything wrong with a critic weighing in if there's a point in the review that requires some clarification. But like MW says, you've got to be able to do it without being thin-skinned or defensive. That can be tough.

There's still plenty of room for dialogue apart from reviews. There are issues about the theatre, about the arts in general, where I think it would be interesting to have a critic weigh in and be part of the discussion.

Wendy says:
>>I'd like to see every print-based arts-covering journalist in this city get together with their bosses to discuss a multi-platform approach and create content wherein what appears online complements and/or supplements what appears on paper

That's a dandy idea, Wendy - except that, for now, the resources aren't there to do it. Those arts journalists would likely dread having that conversation with their bosses, because it would be signing up for another full-time job for no pay.

The newspapers/magazines/etc. are generally unable or unwilling to spend the money for extra staff or freelancers to produce that multimedia content. And would you as a freelancer, for instance, be willing to produce - by yourself - audio or video segments or even a slideshow to go along with your print review or feature for no extra fee?

As for responding to reader comments, I'm all for it as long as the journalist can keep himself/herself from being thin-skinned, defensive or belligerent. (And not all of them can.)

Wendy,

Great dialogue you're creating here by simply asking the question.

The fact is, if critics (or anyone else for that matter, including media outlets employing said critics) are inviting their readers to leave comments, what's really the point unless further dialogue and discussion can be created from those comments?

Plus, it's quite possible that even though a review may be able to stand on its own, it may have been pared back significantly enough for space purposes or word count that a vital point may not have been made explicitly. By engaging with your audience, you have the opportunity to make those points and have the opportunity to further elucidate your readers on items you've raised in your review.

As Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." Why be afraid to engage with your readers? You might just find your opinion validated more than you ever thought possible by talking one way.

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