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March 7, 2007

What USA Today's new website means to critics

John Stoehr

USA Today launched a newly designed website over the weekend. The overarching aim of the site, according to this report from Editor & Publisher, is to "create a community around the news."

"Using the new features, users can see other news sources directly on the USA Today site; see others readers' reactions to stories; recommend content and comments to each other; interact using comments and in public forums, upload digital photographs to the site; write arts and culture reviews of their own; and interact more with the newspaper's staff."

My newspaper is attempting something similar with its website. So I feel I can contribute at least one constructive comment about this trends in newspapering: This new paradigm of "creating a community around the news" can be good for arts journalists or bad -- to a large degree, it's up to us.

Here's what I mean. Notice the report mentions that readers can "write arts and culture reviews of their own." At a large newspaper like USA Today, where reader demand drives the need for a staffer to writer music and CD reviews, the raison d'etre of the critic is likely unchallenged (we hope, anyway).

However, at a small newspaper, like mine, where arts coverage, especially criticism, is already on the margins, if not marginalized, this new "creating a community around the news" paradigm could ultimately pose some questions. One, for instance, I can easily imagine (in the voice of management): "What are you doing that I can't get for free from our readers?"

This is not to disparage management, mind you.

I actually think this trend can be a sign of positive change, because this newfound interest by the newspaper industry in engaging with readers has been what arts critics have been doing for a long time. Moreover, I think criticism and arts journalism can only improve if we're forced to interact with readers more, to serve as moderators, so to speak, of the arts and culture debate taking place in most cities.

For too long critics have been seen as sitting atop an Ivory Tower. This of course is bosh for most of us. But there are historical grounds for that perception. Perhaps a renewed campaign of engagement can serve two purposes: rebuilding the critic's troubled relationship with his readers and reminding management of the reason for hiring the critic in the first place.

Posted by John Stoehr at March 7, 2007 9:32 AM

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I agree with you--I think this could be a very positive trend. It allows the critic to take the role of facilitator and to engage readers.

In John Lahr's talk, he said that critics are the middlemen of culture. I do think we can play a role in helping to translate works and to take audiences from the very superficial "It was great, I had a good time" to a deeper appreciation of the work that the artist has done.

Yes, sometimes that means being more critical, but it also means seeing and recognizing the good work that is taking place and understanding *why* you like something.

It's far easier to fulfill that role in a conversation than in a one-way publication of 300 to 500 words.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at March 7, 2007 10:21 AM