Reviews that fuel community dialogue?
I'm going to start this post by picking up where my Flyover compatriot in Wisconsin, Jennifer A. Smith, left off yesterday by discussing the lack of participation in the cultural dialogue by readers interested and concerned about all things cultural.
Jennifer and I exchanged a couple of comments each but this really needs to be fleshed out more, as the notion of a ongoing conversation between journalists and readers, artists and audiences, newspapers and their communities is quickly building momentum in an era that is quickly seeing the rise of a quid pro quo sensibility.
As Doug McLennan, our Sage Blog Guru and host here on Artsjournal.com, has noted in myriad ways on his own blog (called diacritical), the paradigm of mass media, which dominated most of the 20th century, is now in the 21st century being undermined, questioned and reexamined by the seemingly endless media choices available to consumers.
Even once immovable titans like the broadcast networks are now worried about competition from these niche markets. I don't remember the specifics, but sometime this past spring NBC was hoping few, especially advertisers, noticed when it reported viewer ratings were as low as 6.5 million -- in a week.
Last time I heard, there were, like, 300 million people in this country. Mmm.
Anyway, like NBC, newspapers (daily and weekly) have historically been the gatekeepers of mass media. This has been the case for cities everywhere, but especially, I think, in cities like mine (Savannah, Ga.), where the gate is even smaller and the hoary-headed keepers of the gate don't remember where they hid the key. Here, there's only one daily newspaper, the weekly newspaper is impotent, the TV stations don't care and there's no room on commercial or even public radio.
If an artist or arts groups wanted to get the word out about a exhibit or production or performance, the primary issue was access: go through the right channels, persuade the right people, and bang!, instant publicity.
That was the case as long as newspapers were the only game in town, and as long as newspapers were the leading authority of what was good, what was bad -- how, why and does that come with a money-back guarantee?
This was fine and dandy as long as we were the gatekeepers. Even as arts criticism succumbed to the spirit of the marketplace -- thumbs-up/thumbs down reviews, is it worth my ten bucks? -- newspapers like the Savannah Morning News could issue its judgments (if it bothered to review at all, which I'll get to in moment) and no one was going to say boo, because we were, after all, the gatekeepers.
Now that there is more than one gate and now that readers are figuring out that there's more to the media than newspapers and even TV, this gatekeeper philosophy of power is just not working.
And now that spirit of the marketplace has become fully entrenched to the point where readers expect a thumbs up or down review even without a critical-historical-aesthetic foundation on which to base it, the whole notion of a review is becoming pretty problematic.
Anyone with a computer and a blog can write a review. When virtual reality has become Wikiality, why pay someone a salary and benefits when you can get readers to do the same thing for free?
Suddenly, what critics do isn't so special. The authority, privilege, access and power we once enjoyed are not what they used to be. With the cost of newsprint and the industry-wide push for a presence online, there's little incentive among management and staff to make room for reviews where there was once plenty.
In the words of one editor here: If the show happens only once, what the point of a review?
In the words of my designer: Why do I want to be reminded of what I missed?
What's the point of talking about reviews? Especially in the American Outback, where one can presume with some confidence that art-making, such as, say, theater, may not be of the highest caliber (I've seen two shows recently. Dreadful stuff. 'Nuff said).
The point is that while news reports, features, interviews and previews serve a purpose, they are unlikely to spark the urge to participate in a community-wide dialogue about the arts that Jennifer and I believe is the hallmark of a healthy community, one that makes it clear to newspapers that they need to cover the arts.
What does, however, get people's juices flowing is an opinion, an insight, or a thoughtful commentary. Jennifer noted that people, even well-heeled and highly educated people who care and think about the arts in Madison, where she lives, are less likely to fire off a letter to the editor over the arts than over politics.
"That gets me more fired up," she was told by someone she admires.
Perhaps more reviews, not fewer, are what's needed to engage a newspaper's readership. A good review offers insight, context, perspective and meaning. Even if, say, the theater production wasn't very good, it may be an opportunity, as I tried to do in this "arts notebook" piece some time ago, to address larger concerns facing the arts community and the people it serves.
The problem here is that management's answer to this would be, "Sure, you can do more reviews. That's what blogs are for." Without the space constraints online that editors face in print, they have no fear of news ideas. But they have no fear also, I think, because there's not much at stake in a blog. And there's not much at stake, because ultimately management doesn't take blogging by journalists all that seriously.
As Doug mentioned in a hugely insightful post called "The Great Newspaper Comments Debate," editors are unequal in the time and resources devoted to story comments and the time and resources given to letters to the editors. Letters are vetted, balanced, edited and verified. With story comments, it seems anything goes.
Same with an arts blog.
An ambitious critic wanting to write more reviews in order to satisfy some highfalutin desire to enhance the overall dialogue of the arts community is no skin off editors' noses, because it's not going to cost them anything in time, money and manpower. Ultimately, such a disparity seems to me a comment on management's misunderstanding of quid pro quo.
Is this the legacy of a mass media mentality? Is this a fair and constructive question?
I'll end this by quoting Jennifer's comment yesterday.
"These things [discussion boards but you can substitute story comments and blogs] attract some intelligent conversation and lot of not-so-great stuff, and then you get this whole online stew that is not well integrated with the whole of the paper ... how do we have genuine, high-quality, two-way dialogue?"
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program