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March 2, 2007

Bad Arts Writing: Part 2

John Stoehr

I should preface this by saying that we all make mistakes. Certainly, given the pressures of space and time, we have all at one point or another chosen the road more frequently traveled. And I don't single out the errors of this particular journalist for personal reasons.

However, a review Sunday in the Charleston Post and Courier on a performance by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra exemplifies why I believe reviewing as it is popularly understood to mean has a problematic future in the newsroom.

The review, as it is put into practice here, follows the tenets of journalism: what happened, where did it happen, who did it and was it good. It is a thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach that falls in line with the logic of consumer journalism -- give the reader value by telling the reader what's worth spending money on.

With this ideology in mind, the critic does not provide context, meaning, observation beyond the event, commentary or insight -- all the things that would give reviews a raison d'etre both for those who did not attend the concert and for those who did.

This is the kind of thing that Mitchell Stephens talks about in his brilliant and convincing article in the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

"The extra value our quality news organizations can and must regularly add is analysis: thoughtful, incisive attempts to divine the significance of events -- insights, not just information [my bold]. What is required -- if journalism is to move beyond selling cheap, widely available, staler-than-your-muffin news -- is, to choose a not very journalistic-sounding word, wisdom.

"Here's more historical precedent: In the days when dailies monopolized breaking news, slower journals -- weeklies like The Nation, The New Republic, Time -- stepped back from breaking news and sold smart analysis. Now it is the dailies, and even the evening news shows, that are slow. Now it is time for them to take that step back."

I can't add much to Stephens' article, because it is so comprehensive and so insighful. However, what I will say is that the more we write in the fashion exercised by the Charleston writer, the more we are undermining our own jobs.

That's because thumbs-up/thumbs-down reviews can be done so much better in venues other than newspapers. Yahoo!, for instance. Perhaps Yahoo! can't connect on a local level, but consider how the Wikipedia model seems to be giving the newspaper industry cause to consider the viability of reader-generated reviews.

Why not? All the newsroom staffers are doing is going to concerts and saying who, when, where and if it was good, right? Why pay them a salary and benefits when we can get the same product for free and get readers to buy into publications, which are "no longer in the newspaper business, but in the information business."

Thus Spake Management . . .

Posted by John Stoehr at March 2, 2007 1:01 AM

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COMMENTS

And yet...I thought the review was rather well-written and did what it was meant to do.

Does every review have to establish a context? What should the writer have sacrified in that review if he had no control over the word count? Perhaps you could get rid of the paragaraph talking about the conductor's background, and yet that is part of what establishes context.

I think there is still a place for answering the 5Ws and addressing the quality. Yes, we need to stretch beyond that, but neither should we neglect it. There has to be an opening for people who have not yet discovered art or a particular form of it.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at March 2, 2007 1:20 PM

I understand what you mean. It's a fair question.

No I don't think we should forego the who, what, where and how good was it. These are the questions we are obligated to answer. However, I don't think it's enough to bear witness, which in my view is what this review is doing.

This complaint of course may be something the reviewer can do nothing about. He has an inch count and no doubt other barriers to the kind of writing I suggest.

But this I think reflects a problem that resonates beyond any one review. The questions should be what can this review do for the reader beyond just bearing witness? And the reason for that is bearing witness is not going to be worth enough at some point in the future to warrant paying us a salary. Papers will just get readers to do that in reader-generated reviews.

Here's what I think we need to consider as professionals. Does the review provide entertainment, insight, commentary, illumination, something beyond the five W's? This takes time and length, but it gives the reader something beyond the news. It's the kind of analytical journalism that Mitchell Stephens suggested in the Jan./Feb. issue of CJR.

On the other hand, this reviewers problem might just be subject matter. How many variations of a review can you write about a Beethoven Concerto? Perhaps this could have been the writer's angle. It would be irreverant and cetainly more interesting.

Assuming this reviewer has a certain level of credibility with his readership, wouldn't it be interesting to see him take the orchestra to task for performing yet another Beethoven Concerto? Instead he encourages it by telling the reader the orchestra gave "another rare Masterworks concert."

Really? How rare is rare? It's somewhat disingenuous, don't you think?

Posted by: John Stoehr at March 2, 2007 2:29 PM

Rare is probably not the best of word choices, I agree.

I do think we have to be careful as critics about assuming that our experience is the same as everyone's experience. I sometimes wonder how a sports writer can write about, for example, a basketball game night after night. How many variations can you write on a basketball story? Yet, she can't call for the team to do play a different sport or introduce an extra ball just to provide variety. Well, she could, but she'd look silly.

Likewise in the arts, there are some things that get done over and over because people want to see or hear them again and again.

That's a slight side issue, though, as you were using that as an example, not as your main premise.

I agree that there is far more use and need for analytical journalism. I'd rather see us move in that direction because those type of stories make for better journalism. I'm just not willing in the name of better journalism to consign non-relativist arts writing bad.

Then again, I can be a wimp when it comes to calling something bad.

Posted by: Bridgette at March 3, 2007 10:03 AM

That last point is well taken, Bridgette. I should also be more unwilling to consign non-relativist arts writing as bad. Perhaps I'm being extreme in order to make a point, which is that this kind of writing doesn't help our cuase as art journalists. I suppose it doesn't harm either. While we do need change in our profession, that doesn't mean the tradition should go out the window. I could take a cue from you and adopt a more moderate tone. Again, thanks and point well taken.

Posted by: John Stoehr at March 3, 2007 5:06 PM

Wait! My last point that I was that I'm a wimp. (I am now resisting the urge to put one of those annoying smilies at the end of the sentence just to ensure you know I'm bantering.)

Seriously, there is a spectrum of criticism that can include calling out that which is wretched, challenging that which is mediocre, encouraging that which is good but on the edge of something great, and then expressing awe at those things that blow our mittens off. One of the things that make a forum like this delightful is that we can engage in a discussion about where on that spectrum something falls--and the discussion would be dull if we always agreed.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at March 4, 2007 9:54 AM

I agree. :)

Posted by: John Stoehr at March 4, 2007 11:45 AM