FlyOver: September 2007 Archives

More than a month ago, we asked this question: What accounts for the minimal role of value-judgments in contemporary reviews? Perhaps it was an unfair question as it suggested a state-of-mind I see in reviewing. That is, a tendency to describe rather than proscribe in our critical assessments. Maybe it's done for personal, practical or ideological reasons. Maybe it's not done at all and it's just my imagination. To my delight, readers recognized this and brought an array of interpretations to the questions to come up with some interesting conclusions. They are worth revisiting and I hope the conversation continues.


Hot air?


Since the first rule of criticism is, "if you're gonna dish it out, you'd better be able to take it," I'd assume that some percentage of reviewers spare the lash and overdo the rehash because they can't stand the backlash.

Or even if they're game for the fray, perhaps their editors are not. But sometimes, given space constraints, rendering and effectively supporting a judgment can be extremely difficult, if not downright foolhardy.

Visual arts critics seem to have it especially hard on that score, having to describe key individual objects and how they fit into the larger show, then deal with matters of interpretation and art-historical context, while also assessing purely visual appeal. Lacking 20+ inches, that's asking a lot, especially for a mixed review that needs to explain pros and cons. Maybe that's why visual arts reviews seem more prone than performing arts reviews to describe and contextualize, without rendering a judgment.

Critics who can be consistently provocative and informative, while communicating their love for an art and avoiding excessive cruelty and arrogance, are among the wonders of the world. I don't think there's any dishonor for those who make an honest try and get it partly right.

But ultimately the point of a review is to make a point, in the form of an opinion. Maybe critics who shy from making judgments just need to be reminded of that and supported a bit, and given a sense that somebody's got their back.


I VALUE "THIS!" Does the artwork have "this"? Does the artwork execute "this" to maximize its intensity and clarity?

Clearly, every critic performs the task above. So what do you mean by value-judgement? Do you mean a set of social values that the critic applies to the artwork even if the artist does not address those values? Or you mean advancing an artistic agenda by selecting works of art that provide the best examples to clarify the artistic agenda and its contribution to art or society?

As the discussion leader, please clarity?

In regards to the classic "value-judgement" thing, it does not happen in the journals that "we" are reading. It is happening everywhere else. The answer to the classic thing is that a certain thoughtful element of world culture wants to be open and free to all concepts and ideas. We love to see where the ideas travel. Restriction by an overlay of exteral values limits the posibilities.

This world culture group is very strong in a variety of museums, publications, universities, etc. If you want to play with this group, then you adopt their values - the value of openness. If not, many other groups with different values exist to join.

In terms of my values, I encourage our best and brightest to join or to form different groups around values. How else can we have a diversity of human experience with the coming global end to traditional geographic diversity? If we don't form more groups, then we may be left only with economic diversity.

Perhaps the better question. What accounts for the fear of critics to declare themselves part of a different group? Are you willing to face the rejection of your city's contemporary art museum and the links to the broader club of that universe? Or do values exists that allow the critic to float in a few groups, including the MOCA of ____________?


In maintaining my blog, Two Coats of Paints, I've read a great many art reviews and noticed a pronounced scarcity of explicit, differential value judgments - i.e., "this is good" or "this is bad." I have developed a couple of ideas as to why this is so.

In practice, the role of the art reviewer depends substantially on the target audience and social context. In smaller communities far from cosmopolitan arts centers, the reviewer is more likely to be a booster than a critic.

In local newspapers and regional general-interest magazines, art reviews often consist of little more than rehashed press releases. With no designated art critic on staff, the arts-writing portfolio is up for grabs. Writers unfamiliar with either art history or contemporary art shy away from making value judgments because their frame of reference is - quite understandably - small.

Since serious art criticism plays an important role in career advancement, however, the artists themselves suffer. A good review from a well-respected critic can establish an artist's reputation. Their art work sells, their prices rise, and better exhibition opportunities present themselves the next time around. Without reasonably sophisticated art criticism, the cycle breaks down, or at least slows considerably.

This dynamic may also keep serious critics from writing negative reviews: if a critic can help make a career, he or she can certainly break one, too. For this reason, critics tend to wait until an artist has reached a certain level of demonstrable professional achievement before they will consider writing about their work.

Eminent critics like the New York Times's Roberta Smith generally examine the artist's work in relationship to the artists' stated goals and past projects, and through the dual lenses of history and contemporary art.

With a multitude of shows open at any given time, and so few art critics to write about them, it makes sense that the best critics want to write about the shows they deem the most accomplished.

Thus, while artists may understand critical silence as a tacitly negative value judgment, the actual content of informed art criticism is predominantly positive. The more entrenched this standard becomes, the smaller the role that explicitly discriminating value judgments will have in reviews.


From my review of Gail Pool's book, Faint Praise: The Plight of Book Reviewing in America, which is on book/daddy's blog as well as on the National Book Critics Circle's Critical Mass website:

"It's one of several misconceptions about reviewing that Ms. Pool kicks down: that anyone can do it, for example, or that "objectivity" is always desirable or even expressly sought by periodicals or readers. The "match" between reviewer and book, she believes, is the most important choice an editor makes. If that editor were to winnow out any reviewer who has argued against a book's thesis as well as any reviewer who has championed it, he may be left with no knowledgeable critics at all. Yet aren't reviewers hired, Ms. Pool asks, because they have passionate opinions?

It's in the American tradition to seek "objectivity" in reviewers (meaning "no obvious conflicts of interest") and not in the British tradition, where a smaller pool of writers contributing to far more review outlets encourages political sniping, rousing crossfires and unabashed promotion of one's chums and allies. Witness Christopher Hitchens' merrily unrepentant declaration on a recent BookExpo panel about criticism that he was the best person to write an Atlantic Monthly review of his friend Ian McEwan's new novel, On Chesil Beach and he didn't care who thought otherwise.

The American tradition of objectivity is partly due to the principle of "journalistic balance" developed by The New York Times and other papers, which became the press' calling card to white-collar respectability and professionalism after World War II. In other words, as Ms. Pool notes, it's a journalistic principle, not a literary one. It's also a principle, she doesn't note, that has been buttressed by the post-war tendency toward monopolies in city newspapers. When you're the Big Voice in town, there are pressures from all sides to remain "balanced," although in practice this generally means not accuracy so much as a safe status quo. This monopoly set-up is one reason that I -- and many other readers -- don't mind reviews such as Mr. Hitchens' (and even eagerly seek them out) in a periodical like the Atlantic while in a town's Only Daily, we'd find the same review and Mr. Hitchens' personal ties to his subject a somewhat more irksome issue.

Significantly, "objectivity" in reviews is also an American legal decision that was never laid out in Britain. The James Fenimore Cooper libel cases were a little-known quarrel (Ms. Pool's is the only extensive discussion of them that I've seen -- bravo to her for digging it up) that had the author of The Last of the Mohicans seeking redress against reviews that had stepped beyond literary comment into personal attacks on a property issue. He won, and "fair comment" became an American principle: "The privilege of criticism cannot warrantably be perverted to the purpose of willfully and falsely assailling the moral character of the author."

Fine and noble. But in the end, American editors and reviewers still supposedly seek objectivity -- a kind of above-the-fray neutrality that can suck the life out of a review -- when what we need, Ms. Pool writes, is "fairness": disagreeing with a book but giving the author his due, acknowledging our own biases, not being blinded by them.

Yet it's the blandly positive that prevails. Although Ms. Pool doesn't explicitly mention Heidi Julavits' famous, misguided attack on "snarky" writing, she does make a convincing case that mushy praise is a much more common failing among American reviews, and those journals, like Ms. Julavits' Believer that espouse "positive" reviews out of highmindedness (or squeamishness) are not really doing anyone any favors -- except booksellers and publishers. By default, many newspaper book pages take precisely the same stand -- "no unhappy news" -- for less noble reasons but to much the same cheerleading and book-peddling effect. The editors fear readers won't read many hit jobs. They worry their own bosses will ask, why waste space on worthless books? So then ... why do we report losing baseball games? Why cover failed candidacies?

Magazine reviews aren't much better: I've been told by glossy magazine editors that their business is to provide readers with choices of what to buy. And as for the disappearance of book reviews from men's magazines, I was jokingly informed that they've declined because "knowing about books won't get you laid." Women remain the prime market for most kinds of books, but long gone is Hugh Hefner's air of supposed sophistication, his fantasy of the bachelor "putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion" about Nietzsche. Considering many young males today -- and their magazines -- this looks like some golden-age ideal of literary discourse.

The prevalence of happy reviews holds true even on the Web, regardless of its reputation for being more honest, more personal, more brutal. If one discounts any site powered by political animosities or calculations, it should be plain that the great mass of blogs out there are motivated by the fan's eager dedication, while many substantial Websites are mostly promo vehicles. Google a favorite author's name and see what you get: The slashing attacks will likely number in the low single digits.

A critic can make a stir, can make himself the center of attention with a savage pen. But it's hard to sustain, hard to make a living at it. Americans, Ms. Pool makes clear, really do not abide much negative thinking. Dale Peck has already said he's quit writing his infamous "hatchet jobs," although they were Hallmark Valentines compared to what made Edgar Allan Poe the best known literary critic of his age. He warmed up by calling Longfellow a plagiarist and got ugly and personal from there. But Poe never could get the funding for his own literary journal off the ground -- and his was America's first great age of literary journals. Most publishers, especially in the tight-knit, commercially incestuous world of New York periodicals, will not pay writers to piss off influential people (Ms. Pool provides examples of the eager and unethical backscratching among our writer-reviewers -- what Spy magazine used to label "Logrolling in Our Time")."

September 30, 2007 1:32 PM | | Comments (2)

The attrition of authority? . . .

Mainstream media's need to speculate about the future also reflects insecurity about its shrinking role in society. With so many of us gathering information from more sources than ever before, the big news organizations have lost the ritualistic claim on our attention they enjoyed when virtually everyone tuned in to one of three major networks and Walter Cronkite intoned, "That's the way it is."

From David Hoppe's Aug. 29 column, "Afraid of the Dark," for NUVO, the alt weekly in Indianapolis.

September 25, 2007 1:02 PM | | Comments (1)

book/daddy (aka Jerome Weeks) dropped in overnight to comment on my post about newspapers aiming for difference, not sameness. Unique content will attract readers, not content (i.e., wire stories) found in a plethora of other sources. The thinking is that editors and journalists need to look locally, not nationally.

book/daddy, however, politely demurred. He said such a mindset might do more to undermine arts coverage, reducing it to a one-man beat shop, than to diversify it. As he writes:

Movies, TV, pop and classical music CDs, books -- all of that is, more or less corporate and nationwide. Ergo, in this scenario, unless there's sufficient local activity in those arts -- and frequently, there isn't -- then there's little reason for much of an arts staff or arts section.

The idea that, say, the local classical music critic might have something original to say about the latest Placido Domingo CD is not a consideration. Without enough of a local TV industry or theater community to bother with, those beats get killed or cobbled together under one arts writer-editor-critic or covered by wire stories.

He also weighed on John Dvorak's argument that national subscriptions to the New York Times are evidence of readers' desire for original content and not wire service copy. book/daddy, in a urbane turn of phrase, calls this "bullshit."

Only people of a certain economic and educated kind buy the NYTimes all over the country. The Times deliberately set out to snare that audience, and the mantra used to be that the Times would sell basically within 5 miles (or 10 or whatever) of any place with a Saks store. In short, college-educated, upper-middle-class- to upper-class people are more alike from Florida to Oregon than they are like their blue-collar neighbors.

Find all of Mr. Weeks' commentary here.

September 25, 2007 10:38 AM |

David Sokolec wrote to comment on my post yesterday about the problem (in my view) of newspapers trying to be like each other instead of different from each other. He observes, with insight and authority, that discussions about the future of newspapering usually don't take into account the commercial appeal of comics.

Apparently Gertrude Stein used to complain that she had to buy two copies of the International Herald Tribune because Picasso and his lover at the time both demanded to be the first one to read a strip called "The Katzenjammer Kids."

David points out that whatever new media does, it can't replicate (so far anyway) the happy surprise of accidental learning associated with reading a newspaper.

What newspapers provided-back when they were written for those who were literate-was information you were looking for placed next to information you were not.

Read more of David's commentary here.

September 25, 2007 9:00 AM |

Thanks, Howie. That's what we've been saying all along . . .

It is one sweet deal for the networks: small armies of tech-savvy volunteers in places where reporters aren't, offering their services free of charge.

From Howard Kurtz's Sept. 24 column for the Washington Post, "Got a camera? You, Too, Can Be a Network Reporter."

September 25, 2007 6:26 AM |

We've had a slow fortnight here in Flyoverberg. From highs of 800-plus readers a day two weeks ago, we're now down to less than 300 a day lately. A lot of that traffic came from random hits to my "Generational differences" post, because, to the best of my knowledge, I had several references to the world going to hell. Perhaps there's a lesson here. As Doug McLennan once told me, there are websites trapped into a kind of thinking dominated by the "tyranny of the click." Quality, not tyranny, is our goal here.

Anyway, just when I thought I was getting boring comes this supportive note from Doug Ramsey, author of the novel "Poodie James" and keeper of Artjournal's "Rifftides," a blog about "jazz and other matters." He kindly recommends Flyover to readers with a passion for journalism and jazz. In particular, he noted my recent posts on the Savannah Jazz Festival ("Being told to shut up") and my reflections on the limits of objectivity as a genre of writing. Thank you, Doug. Much appreciated. And I'll try to work on those proophreeding skills for you. Thanks, again. -- J.S.

September 25, 2007 5:34 AM |

News that takes time and money v. news that's cheap and easy

It's enough to scare you into never leaving your house again. Or perhaps you need to get a concealed weapons permit. Maybe it's time to give up some of your civil liberties so you can be a little safer. At the very least it's time to, once again, demand that elected officials get more cops on our dangerous streets.

Or could it be time to stop watching so much local TV news, which is addicted to reporting about violence and mayhem because it's a cheap, easy way to fill a newscast? Here's a headline you probably won't see on local TV news: Some crimes are down in Orlando, and our streets are relatively safe.

From "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: Three weeks of local TV news demonstrates one thing: you are in grave danger" by Jeffrey C. Billman for Orlando Weekly

September 24, 2007 2:59 PM |

Mass media meets mini media . . .

What's Converging? In the twentieth century, mass media played a dominant role in controlling the flow of information and shaping popular culture. These media are now concentrated in the hands of a few mega-corporations. Time Warner, for example, owns film companies, Internet services, TV networks, cable systems, and publishing houses. If one of its media properties can capture popular interest across several of these channels, it's a big win for the corporation. That's one type of media convergence.

Another type of convergence is driven by consumers. Using readily available software and the Web, the average Joe or Josephine can now produce and distribute content widely. You no longer need a printing press to get your message out or a studio to make a video. As fans use media to participate more fully in fictional worlds (such as Star Wars) or work together to solve a puzzle (such as figuring out in advance Survivor's "final four"), they cease to be passive spectators. They become members of online communities, where they can share their knowledge and creativity and get meaningful feedback.

From "Media Is Everywhere! Welcome to the Age of Convergence" by Robyn Fizz.

September 24, 2007 2:44 PM |

Imagine news judgment according to the Wisdom of Crowds . . .

"If someday we have a world without journalists, or at least without editors, what would the news agenda look like? How would citizens make up a front page differently than professional news people?" asked the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studied the effect of social networking sites like Reddit, Digg and

From Dan Kennedy's blog on the London Guardian website.

September 24, 2007 11:10 AM |

John Dvorak, in this column for MarketWatch, asks an important question that I have asked myself on occasion: Why do newspapers strive to be like other newspapers?

In the marketplace of news, in which national and international news are available to anyone anytime, why do local newspapers, especially ones the size of the Savannah Morning News (circulation 50,000), continue to run news stories that everyone already knows about. Why is there so much redundancy in journalism? As Dvorak writes:

The only papers or news organizations that can expect to survive will be those with lots of original content available only at their individual sites. The operations that rely more on universally available news feeds will be at the mercy of a fickle public -- one that doesn't care where they read a particular story, especially if it is the exact same story with the exact same headline.

Why bother providing information that can be more easily accessed via CNN, et al.? What's the point of redundancy? What's the real value to the reader? Shouldn't newspapers be doing everything possible to not be like the others? Have we ever heard of branding?

At the same time, newspaper are cutting newsroom jobs, handicapping their ability to generate unique local content. They rely increasingly on wire stories, which are, of course, the kinds of stories everyone with internet access and 24/7 cable news already knows about.

Again, Dvorak:

The wire services used to provide local papers with a wide range of stories that local editors could use to enliven their news mix.

Over time, many newspaper owners saw the savings they could realize from loading up on wire stories while minimizing their original editorial content.

Once the Internet arrived, this model was dead, as the Net revealed that many newspapers weren't actually contributing anything new or unique. The fact that people all over the country subscribe to the New York Times, rather than to a local paper, says it all.

Granted, this is a business-minded approach to journalism, not one made by journalists. But in the absence of a business approach that works, perhaps this is one that should gain traction. In a marketplace in which there is so much same-y information, doesn't it make sense that the publication that offers interesting, long-form, investigative, one-of-a-kind reporting, design and mutli-media be the one people would naturally gravitate toward, because all that can't be found elsewhere?

The choice, it seems, is this: Either newspapers, especially small- to mid-sized papers, shift from redundancy to uniqueness or they inspired what Dvorak notes as the current phenomenon of "too many newspapers."

Once a reader hits a stale site, they're not likely to hit it again.

Why should they? There are now plenty of news sites to choose from. I would argue that there are too many newspapers.

The scene has changed from one of minimonopolies to a sector that's crowded and hypercompetitive.

September 24, 2007 8:32 AM | | Comments (2)

Reason for dailies to step back like weeklies of yore? . . .

There is an enormous change taking place in this country in journalism. And it is online. We are eventually -- and I hate to tell this to The New York Times or the Washington Post -- we are going to have online newspapers, and they are going to be spectacular. And they are really going to cut into daily journalism.

I've been working for The New Yorker recently since '93. In the beginning, not that long ago, when I had a big story you made a good effort to get the Associated Press and UPI and The New York Times to write little stories about what you are writing about. Couldn't care less now. It doesn't matter, because I'll write a story, and The New Yorker will get hundreds of thousands, if not many more, of hits in the next day. Once it's online, we just get flooded.

So, we have a vibrant, new way of communicating in America. We haven't come to terms with it. I don't think much of a lot of the stuff that is out there. But there are a lot of people doing very, very good stuff.

From an interview with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh by Brad A. Greenberg for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles. (Thanks to Poynter's Romenesko).

September 24, 2007 8:04 AM |

Stephanie Barna, the editor of the Charleston City Paper, asked if I'd be interested in writing an advance piece on the Savannah Jazz Festival. She thought it was something worthy of previewing. It would also be a chance for me to introduce myself as the CP's new arts editor.

I said sure, but that the festival wasn't worth driving from Charleston to see. Nevertheless, I said, writing about the jazz festival might be a good way of explaining Savannah's dynamic (read: staggering, brilliant, inconsistant, erratic) arts scene and why I'm looking forward to living in Charleston.

Here's the result of my musings. An edited version will be published (I think) next week at

The first time I interviewed one of the organizers of the Savannah Jazz Festival, I was told to shut up and listen -- you write what I was tell you to write, son.

I was looking into why the city's most respected jazz musician, bassist Ben Tucker, had not been invited to perform at the festival with a group called the Hall of Fame All-Stars, a band assembled in honor by the Coastal Jazz Association, which organizes the free annual event in Savannah's pastoral Forsyth Park.

Tucker is one of those studio legends who once played with everybody, like Benny Goodman, Shirley Horn and Johnny Mathis. With James Moody (the saxman sideman for Dizzy Gillespie) and Ben Riley (Thelonious Monk's brilliant longtime drummer), Tucker is Savannah's most famous jazz export. His "Comin' Home, Baby" was re-recorded by the wildly popular jazz singer Michael Buble.

Back to being told to shut up: I don't like being told to shut up. It irritates me. But this was merely among the first hard news stories I would write as the arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News. I was only beginning to experience the profound levels of irritation that were to characterize my tenure in Savannah.

For three years, the arts were my beat for the only mainstream newspaper in the Hostess City. I witnessed all manner of marketing hype, organizational disorder, provincial thinking, bombastic arrogance and thin-skinned insanity.

Conversely, I witnessed the rise of city's three major arts institutions to national recognition: the Savannah Music Festival, the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Telfair Museum of Art, all of which raised the local arts bar while raising Savannah's profile as a city that loves the arts.

Indeed, there is much to warrant Savannah's growing reputation as an arts city, the Music Festival being only the most obvious reason. What's hidden beneath the city's 18th-century Anglophilic facade, however, is a maddening hash of cosmopolitan aesthetes, philanthropic potentates, grass-roots rubes, amateur thespians and eccentric dilettantes as well as serious professionals and brilliant innovators whose work is often mired in an abundance of mediocrity.

It was often hard to tell what to take seriously and what to just ignore.

Anyway, you could say Savannah's arts scene divides into two camps.

One contains the new people, usually Yankees, who have identified a business or artistic opportunity and who have brought with them a entire rubric of sensibility, taste and judgment from the cold wasteland to the north. Here you find the Telfair, the music festival, SCAD and an army of visual artists who have moved here for the education, the great weather, cheap housing or all three.

The other includes people who've been doing art the same way for 30 goddamn years. They expect garlands and accolades. They don't like new folk coming in who do what they do better. Some of them accept change, some step aside. Others don't and they are (sad as it is to say) green with envy.

Remember the guy who told me to shut up? Guess which camp he's in?

It turns out Ben Tucker was ostracized because this guy, who books all the festival acts, was jealous. That's the conclusion one comes to. The guy in question is an All-Star, but no where near as accomplished as Tucker. So when there was, some years ago, a dispute between them, he took the opportunity to rally All-Star sentiment against Tucker, which led to his ouster.

All of this was made public on the front page of the Morning News. No one questioned my reporting, but some months later I received a copy of the newsletter written by the then-president of the Coastal Jazz Association.

It contained Profound Irritation No. 2 of this epic saga -- my front-page report, the author said, was chock full of errors, omissions and outright lies. (For the record, Tucker and his nemesis have since kissed and made up; Tucker will perform with the Hall of Fame All-Stars.)

Adding to my irritation was the idea that my "lies" contributed to a period of clear-as-day decline in the jazz festival's quality. When I arrived in Savannah, in 2001, the festival was pretty kick-ass. For the past four years, however, the festival has featured an array of no-name acts, second-stringers and has-beens.

But to hear organizers tell it, the jazz festival is among the elite jazz events in the Southeast, right up there with the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Charleston's ChazzFest and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Let's comparison shop, shall we? In 2007, the headliners were/are: for Bubbaville, George Benson and Al Jarreau; for Chucktown, Branford Marsalis and Kool and the Gang; for NOLA, Norah Jones, John Legend, other celebrities.

And Savannah? Some guy named Dee Lucas. (To be fair, the festival is bringing in the Yellow Jackets, the most "popular" smooth jazz act I have seen in Savannah; even so, no one by the name Marsalis is in the Yellow Jackets.)

I should say at this point that I'm a fan of the jazz festival. I studied jazz history and form, played jazz in college. I have an inside-baseball admiration for the artists who come here even when most people don't know who they are.

But taking my jazzbo beret off for a minute, I don't like being told to shut up (as I've genteelly mused) and I don't like being told -- publicly -- that I lied in print (which is false, by the way). Worse is the Sacred Cow smugness festival organizers have, which assumes the City of Savannah will pick up the tab.

Which it does every year, to the consternation of many.

This arrogance is so great that the paperwork required by the city in order to get public funding was hardly taken seriously during the same period in which the quality of the festival was in steep decline.

Just before last year's festival, I painstakingly pored over these public documents to discover what must be the most glaring overstatement I've seen as an arts reporter: that estimates for the number of people attending the free outdoor festival included the number of hits on the organization's website.

This is not just incompetence, though it surely is that. There is also a financial incentive for inflating crowd numbers: the more people who go to an event, the cheaper it is per person for the city to fund it; and the cheaper it is, the more likely you are to get a big fat check courtesy of Savannah taxpayers.

Remember, the jazz fest is Savannah's Sacred Cow. It never gets scrutinized. Well, this time is did and this time no one called me a liar. But if that's what it takes to get a quality jazz festival, I don't need it. I'd rather head for Charleston, where art is taken seriously and (maybe) I won't be told to shut up.

John Stoehr is a cultural critic and, effective Oct. 17, the new arts editor for the Charleston City Paper.

September 21, 2007 11:51 AM |

Once again Mike Boehm from the Los Angeles Times has contributed a quality comment that I feel compelled to showcase. Here he responds to my post yesterday exploring the limitations of objectivity as a genre of writing. Mike argues that the genre works just fine, thanks. The real problems in the industry are found in a failed business model, a dominating economic ideology and shifting sands of Internet technologies. As Mike writes:

Can we please lay off trying to reinvent the wheel of how to do good journalism, when we already know that? The real crisis we old-media types all face has to do with changing business structures and revenue shrinkage in the Internet age. It doesn't mean there's anything obsolete about the principles we follow in gathering and presenting the news. Objective journalism is a method that is proven and reliable and strong, but like a superbly designed automobile, how fast and how far it will take you still depends on how much gas you put in the tank. Let's not make the silly mistake of confusing an empty gas tank for a blown engine. Now, fill 'er up, please.

Read Mike's and Gary Panetta's commentary here.

September 21, 2007 8:26 AM |

I don't come from a journalism background. I never went to j-school. I never took Reporting 101. I was indoctrinated by music school, Western philosophy, the classical and jazz traditions, and graduate courses in literary theory, rhetoric, new historicism and lots of Shakespeare and American and English poetry.

So when I began writing for general interest publications like alt weeklies, music magazines and especially daily newspapers, I had to learn quickly about objectivity. What is it?

For me, unlike, I suppose, those reared in journalism schools, objectivity wasn't an ethos or mode of thinking as much as it was a genre of writing. As someone who closely studied storytelling as practiced in the Western tradition, objectivity clearly had its own set of conventions, tropes and cliches, just as Restoration comedies, miracle plays, epic verse and horror movies had theirs.

In learning how to write in the genre of objectivity, just as I learned to write an academic paper (or a limerick or doggerel), I discovered something interesting and frustrating: that the rules of objective writing -- he said, she said, officials say this, critics say this -- were very limiting. Ironically, as I strove to tell the truth to the best of my ability, the writing conventions I used were sometimes keeping me from telling the truth.

Case in point is a piece I wrote about a ballet company. The group is called Ballet Savannah. It has problems. Two, mainly. One was hiring an artistic director to professionalize the organization, lead fundraising and execute a 32-week season.

I know, that doesn't sound like a problem. That emerged when it became clear the heads of Ballet Savannah were obsessed with staging "The Nutcracker." They had hired the new director, one with fine credentials and a clear vision, but then hired another when the first couldn't make the transition fast enough to lead a staging of Christmastide ballet.

Hiring two artistic directors is weird. I know this. Dancers know this. It's not unheard of, but for a fledgling group with little identity, little momentum and no infrastructure, two is bad. It means the administration -- in this case a husband and wife with a daughter involved in ballet -- doesn't know what its doing. Incompetence isn't a crime by any means, but incompetence does mean that readers shouldn't take Ballet Savannah seriously.

Which is, of course, just what the husband and wife -- two wealthy, prominent citizens ubiquitous in Savannah's upper crust society -- wanted. They wanted the spotlight but not the scrutiny that comes with being in the spotlight.

As a reporter writing in the genre of objectivity, what to do?

I thought about my experience when I read Jay Rosen's comments in Steve Outing's Aug. 28 column, "Stop the Presses," for Editor & Publisher. Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, said that objectivity was an invention of the early 20th century. It was not a means of communicating impartially but of "limiting liability."

"Part of the problem is that journalists don't realize what objectivity was in the first place," says Rosen. "From the beginning it was a way of limiting liability, and allowing journalists to take a pass when it's hard to figure out who's right and what's really going on. From the beginning it was meant to dull the knife edge of the press. It was meant to 'de-voice' or defang the individual journalist, so that more people would be comfortable with the product [my italics]. But the costs of that system have built up over time.

"One of the most insidious and deceptive things about the system of objectivity is how it persuades journalists that the alternative to it is 'subjectivity.' From this angle, to relinquish objectivity means to surrender to partisanship, opinion, bias. Not very attractive, that. But what if the real alternative is truthtelling itself?" Rosen adds.

In other words, perhaps my hunch was right: that objectivity was a genre of writing. It was a way of writing, not a way of thinking or behaving, that allowed reporters to dodge inevitable charges of bias, slander and sticking his nose into places it didn't belong.

Through the years, objectivity as a way of writing became conflated with objectivity as a way of thinking and behaving. It follows logically that the opposite of objectivity would then be subjectivity, which is still taboo in mainstream journalism.

But what if it weren't so taboo, asks Saul Friedman in an insightful column for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism? The blog is called the Nieman Watchdog and I plan to read more of it.

Friedman makes the case that justification for the Iraq War would have been challenged more aggressively if reporters had been unchained by the conventions of objectivity. He writes that investigative reporters knew what the truth was, but adhered to the obligations of journalism (i.e., the genre rules of objectivity) fearing of being called partisan by partisans in the White House.

Here's a pattern he saw much of:

One or two investigative reporters were probing for and finding holes in the administration's claims. But the news of each day came out of the Pentagon and White House and they led the paper, day after day, straight stories quoting administration officials or the president or the defense secretary. Only occasionally, did the reporter write, "But critics say," or "some Democrats say." It was the obligatory throw-away line to show the story was fair and balanced. Maybe it was, but it was also wrong. Many of the reporters knew the nation was being led into war and that the reasons were questionable, but they hung onto the bandwagon of war because all they could do with their brand of journalism was to become, in Lenin's words, a "transmission belt."

Later, on the charges of partisanship . . .

Telling truth, with good, solid reporting, will be called partisan by those who disagree with the conclusions. That has always come with the territory. Howard Kurtz quoted blogger Arianna Huffington: "too many in the Washington press corps want to pretend they are leaving the question of 'what is truth' to their readers -- refusing to admit there is such a thing as truth ...The administration has faith that, because of the way too many in the press operate, all it has to do is sow doubt." Thus we are forced into writing, in effect, "on the other hand, the White House says..."

As for Ballet Savannah, I was forced to write a straight news story for fear (not mine, but my editor's) of being branded a maverick, muckraker or whatever. It was all bullshit.

In the end, though, no one really found out Ballet Savannah shouldn't be taken seriously. They didn't, that is, until they bought tickets to see "The Nutcracker." Only then did some patrons tell me -- this is true -- that I had deceived them into thinking Ballet Savannah was more than it is. They said they wished I had told them not to take the company seriously.

Given the rise of opinion journalism, advocacy journalism and interpretative journalism, perhaps now would be a good time for daily newspapers to challenge objectivity as the pre-eminent genre of writing.

September 20, 2007 3:57 AM | | Comments (4)

Correction: Thanks to ever-eagle-eyed Lee Rosenbaum, I'm issuing my first correction. She points out that the Newspaper Death Watch post I cited today was linked to a 2005 article in the Boston Globe. Therefore, the Times Co. announcement to cut 500 jobs is old news. And the Knight-Ridder Inc., which is now sold to McClatchy, is not cutting jobs because, um, there are no more jobs with Knight-Ridder. Just goes to show that bloggers should check out the sources of other bloggers. Thanks, L.R. -- J.S.

A new twist on the old "death by 1,000 cuts" cliche . . .

The New York Times Company to cut 500 jobs (Wrong).
• 35 in the Boston Globe newsroom
• 45 in the New York TImes newsroom

Knight-Ridder Inc. to cut jobs, too (Nope, incorrect).
• 100 in Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News newsrooms
• 25 percent of the newsroom will be cut at the Boston Herald

(Thanks to Newspaper Death Watch for the heads up)

September 19, 2007 11:59 AM |

Making it free means we're devaluing the product? Um, no.

"From the beginning, there has been tension within the industry as to whether to charge," said John Morton, a leading newspaper analyst. "Free access pretty much won the tension. With so many other locations for newspaper readers to go to, charging just drove people away. Volume of readers is what advertisers pay for."

Quoted in Joe Strupp's article yesterday reporting that the New York Times was discontinuing its online subscription program TimesSelect because it diminished advertising revenue.

September 19, 2007 11:38 AM |

That is, a dozen one-time-only performances. Far cheaper than paying for a full-time orchestra and 130-plus services per season.

I'll explain. Some years ago, I wrote a story for the Savannah Morning News about outsourcing classical music in Savannah.

It was late 2005 and the Savannah Symphony Orchestra by that time had been bankrupt for two years. During the interregnum, a few former board members were doing a couple of things that undermined fledgling efforts to re-form the symphony.

They were busing themselves to experience concerts by orchestras in Charleston, Hilton Head Island and Jacksonville. They were busing in those same orchestras to perform in venues around Savannah.

In the story, I called this "outsourcing" even though, strictly speaking, this is not quite accurate. Bringing in people to perform concerts of classical music isn't really like sending labor offshore.

But the use of the term in a business and economic sense was the same: in the absence of an enterprise (a hometown orchestra) to serve local costumers (patrons) their need for a product (classical music), a group of contractors (the former board members) were outsourcing the supply to out-of-town concerns (orchestras in Jacksonville, et al.).

Bottom-line: Just as outsourcing textile manufacturing to Pakistan is cheaper than hiring unionized American workers, so too is outsourcing classical music to out-of-town orchestras cheaper than organizing, administrating, managing and directing a unionized hometown orchestra.

It cost $3 million a year to run the Savannah Symphony Orchestra (that includes the cost of administration, salaries, benefits, insurance, library maintanence and upkeep, artists' fees and so on). On the other hand, it cost very little to contract the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra. It cost Savannah only the price of admission (in fact, Savannah made money since the JSO had to pay to rent the Lucas Theatre; ticket sales merely offset the travels costs for the orchestra).

The point is that in strictly economic terms, hometown orchestras can't compete with cheap. And they can't really compete in terms of quality. The former associate concertmaster of the Savannah Symphony told me that there's a negligible difference between the SSO and other regional orchestras. One is as good as the other. So you're getting the same thing, only one is far, far more inexpensive.

Which one would you choose if the choice is narrowed down to sheer cost?

A possible escape from this conundrum, as I found in the course of writing the story, is less focus on economics (yes, economic impact studies are all the rage, but there's more to music than fueling the local economy) and more on the people who make up arts organizations.

As I say in the piece:

Orchestras are civic institutions made up of people who provide cultural knowledge, teach private lessons and maintain an artistic presence in the community.

"How much impact does the Jacksonville Symphony have after the concert is over?" said Ken Carter, director of the Lucas Theatre for the Arts here in Savannah. "It has no impact."

The difference between a visiting and resident orchestra, Carter said, is like the difference between renting and buying a house. When you rent, you get convenience and short-term cost-effectiveness, Carter said. But when you buy, you get an asset that increases in value and provides greater future returns.

"We have to ask ourselves do we want to rent or do we want to own classical music," Carter said.

September 19, 2007 8:20 AM |

Is it time for daily newspapers to go the way of PBS and NPR? . . .

Why not nonprofit online newspapers serving their communities--Orlando or Akron or San Francisco--supported by local citizens and area foundations, or perhaps in association with local colleges and universities? Or, beyond the local scale, if five million people regularly coalesce as subscribing members of a National Geographic Society, why can't other serious journalistic entities draw such numbers in a digital world, across borders? And beyond daily news coverage, is there a way to regularly generate high-quality, investigative and international reporting as a syndication service or as a "viewers like you"-supported Web destination? Such things are absolutely possible, and absolutely sustainable, with the right combinations of people, resources, and timing--and they are certainly needed.

From "The Nonprofit Road: It's paved not with gold, but with quality journalism," by Charles Lewis for the September/October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.

September 18, 2007 11:20 AM | | Comments (2)

The 14 Messages of New Media
By Robert K Logan via MediaShift

1. two-way communication

2. ease of access to and dissemination of information

3. continuous learning

4. alignment and integration

5. community

6. portability and time flexibility (time-shifting), which provide users with freedom over space and time

7. convergence of many different media so that they can carry out more than one function at a time and combine -- as is the case with the cameraphone

8. interoperability without which convergence would not be possible

9. aggregation of content, which is facilitated by digitization and convergence

10. variety and choice to a much greater extent than the mass media that preceded them and hence The Long Tail phenomenon

11. the closing of the gap between (or the convergence of) producers and consumers of media

12. social collectivity and cooperation

13. remix culture which digitization facilitates

14. the transition from products to services

Read much more here.

September 18, 2007 10:08 AM |

What the founder of USA Today has to say about the quality of most blogs . . .

Quoth Al Neuharth: 'Interesting Bullshit'

He also reads blogs -- "more than I'd care to mention" -- but doesn't have a particularly high regard for them. "Most of them, when I read them, I say, 'This is a lot of interesting bullshit,'" he says. "But what bothers me about bloggers is there's a growing sentiment that maybe the government should exercise some control over them. I'm totally opposed to that." He likens today's bloggers to the pamphleteers whose incendiary writing helped bring about the American Revolution.

On the other hand, he reads more blogs "than I'd care to mention." Hmm. From Jeff Bercovici's blog post for Portfolio magazine.

September 18, 2007 9:53 AM |

For those looking for new items today, we're sorry. There's an adundance of life change here in Flyoveristan. One of us is rearing a newborn baby. One is writing, like, four books concurrently. The other just got married. And I'm in the middle of relocating for a new job.

On that note, I've talked a lot about the brain drain in daily newspaper journalism. Now I'm a part of that trend. Many of my colleagues, peers and friends here at the Savannah Morning News have defected from newspapers entirely. Here's a list, written off the cuff, of places people have ended up going to.

• One reporter has gone to direct an education nonprofit in New Orleans
• One editor has gone to head up an economics and poverty nonprofit in Savannah
• Another reporter left to become the PR flack for the city of Savannah
• Another editor left to write for magazines on the West Coast
• A reporter quit to be a communications director for a Midwestern think tank
• A web designer resigned to work for a marketing firm
• Another web designer left for another marketing firm
• A designer quit newspapers to design for a scuba diving magazine
• Another designer quit to work for the PGA
• And a sportswriter quit newspapering to work for a local TV station

There are two reporters and one designer I can think of who have gone on to other daily newspapers, but that's it. Most have left the industry completely, likely not to return.

For me, I'm taking a different route. Effective Oct. 17, I'll be the arts editor for the Charleston City Paper, the indepedent weekly newspaper of news, issues and the arts in Charleston, S.C.

It's a newspaper that requires creativity, innovation, intelligence and good narrative writing.

It's a newspaper that has a tradition of speaking truth to power, saying what needs saying and analytic journalism, a concept I've written about numerous times.

It's a newspaper that puts the arts at the center of its editorial mission -- and that means reviewing, reviewing, reviewing in the mode of literary criticism, not propaganda writing.

It's a newspaper that provides an informed, critical, educated and dissenting point of view, whether the issue in question about art or politics or the proper way to prepare, serve and eat Lowcountry Boil (a hash of shrimp, sausage, potatoes, corn and spices -- required eating around these parts).

It's a newspaper that is postmodern in the sense that it makes room for all kinds of writing styles, points of view, subject matter and whatever -- as long as it's good, which is the point at which it breaks from the school of postmodern thought.

It's a newspaper willing to make a judgment, take a stand, stake out the moral, ethical and aesthetic high, middle and low ground, draw a line in the sand, say that this is good and this isn't and here's why and what do you think, dear and valued reader?

It is a newspaper that aims for solidary with the community more than authority over it, though it is not naive enough to think for a second that it doesn't have authority of some measure. That authority, however, comes not from standing watch over the gates of mass media but instead from earning it with our collective creativity, sense of humor, intelligence and sweat.

Another way of putting it: It's a newspaper that sees the necessity of someone sticking his dick in the mash potatoes.

One should always be cautious about the extent to which one's personal experience reflects larger social currents. But I can't help thinking that this brain drain and my move to a newspaper that reflects in its editorial mission all the many things we've talked about here in Flyover -- thinking smaller, thinking local, engaging the community while leading it, fearless and informed criticism, investigative and narrative pieces, valuing what's good without the Pre-Hippie hang ups about "unreconstructed" privilege and socio-economic difference -- are prescient.


There are so many changes happening in the daily world. Hopefully, after the dust settles and everyone can see more clearly, daily newspapers will pick up on some of these ideas and ways of thinking. MinnPost is already going in that direction. Meanwhile, I can't wait for things to change. I have a life to lead. Maybe someday I'll return to dailies, but I suspect it won't be for a while. Till then, I'll write to you from Charleston.

September 18, 2007 7:56 AM |

In 2020, opportunity knocks for the new intellectuals? . . .

... whatever erosion takes place [in the newspaper industry] -- be it the physical paper, classified ads, editors or equity of old news brands -- I believe the importance of the individual reporter, or voice, will inversely rise. And it all comes down to trust and accessibility ...

... I believe if we are in a long-term period of eroding trust in what's big and institutional, then we're bound to enter a period of intense consciousness and value over what's small. What's small is accessible, tangible and compatible with "us people."

When it comes to consuming what's newsworthy, the individual reporter and people brands will become more important ...

I believe the investments and scale that big news brands achieve will remain important in 2020. However, they will need to reconcile with the eventual, dominant attribute we now call small.

Regardless, this period will bring tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurial, independent, innovative thinkers to shape what does become the news business. The big's monopoly on the ability to shape the future of the news business -- or push the status quo -- is declining rapidly.

From "The Future of News Is Small" by Max Kalehoff, VP of marketing for Nielson BuzzMetrics, a company that works with consumer-generated media. He wrote this for Media Post's "Online Spin."

September 14, 2007 2:16 PM | | Comments (2)

Another way of looking at Old Media v. New Media . . .

One of the ways people still seek a seal of quality is through brands, and those may be the bastions of quality that have always been in place (whatever you believe those brands may be). But the point is that the decentralizing of news doesn't mean that the "old media world," but certainly a shift in how that old media functions. It's big benefit is that the brand already has a reputation with its audience.

This all takes me to a recent editorial in The Boston Globe by Sven Birkerts. Sven, an art critic, writes:

For as exciting as the blogosphere is as a supplement, as a place of provocation and response, it is too fluid in its nature ever to focus our widely diverging cultural energies. A hopscotch through the referential enormity of argument and opinion cannot settle the ground under our feet. To have a sense of where we stand, and to hold not just a number of ideas in common, but also some shared way of presenting those ideas, we continue to need, among many others, The New York Times, the Globe, the Tribune, the LA Times, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

While I don't think that we need any of those institutions in particular, in that it is no given that these news sources will inevitably be here a century from now, the point is that we do still care very much about the validity and reputation of a news source, and even when you move away from print, the brand behind news and commentary still matters very much.

From the blog for Convergence Culture Consortium, a media studies think tank affiliated with the Massechusetts Institute of Technology. This entry was written by Sam Ford.

September 14, 2007 11:27 AM | | Comments (1)

Update: I couldn't find this link before writing the post below about outsourcing journalism. Now I have. A community newspaper in Pasadena has outsourced coverage of Pasadena's city council meetings to two reporters in India. The move got a lot of play in Newsweek and the LA Times. Here's a helpful link from the New York Times' Freakonomics blog.

I'm very worried about small-town newspapers. The Savannah Morning News, where I am the arts and culture reporter, is down to 16 reporters (plus seven non-executive editors; if you take away three features and three sports reporters, you have 10 in metro) since the beginning of the year. There are now two reporters covering arts and entertainment.

Make that one. I tendered my resignation Monday.

Morris Publishing LLC, which owns the Morning News, reported last month that income was down 49 percent compared to this time last year. The company cut 60 jobs from its flagship paper, the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

The news came as other publicly traded newspaper chains reported second quarter results that were worse than expected (expectations were already negative): McClatchy, Gannet, Tribune, Dow Jones all saw revenue fall by about 20 percent.

According to Media Life Magazine, more than 900 newsroom jobs have been slashed since April. 2007 may end up being a turning point in the history of American journalism. That, of course, presumes that things have gotten as bad as they are going to get. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise.

As newsroom jobs are cut, there's more talk about "hyperlocalism" or "citizen journalism" -- the first is the idea that unique and valuable stories can be found on a local level, as opposed to just running pre-packaged wire stories; the other idea is that a community benefits when its members share their knowledge, skills and expertise. It's the Wisdom of Crowds Doctrine.

I think both ideas have merit. I like Steve Yelvington's description of hyperlocalism as a means for individuals to connect with the place in which they live. In a wired world that's virtually connected, the importance of being connected to a place and the people there will become more desirable.

I like the way citizen journalism is practiced at the New Haven Independent, where a small staff of motivated and passionate editors and reporters provide the leadership needed to create a participatory web-based newspaper that truly aims to amalgamate the collective wisdom of its high-educated crowds.

Hyperlocalism and citizen journalism are schools of journalistic thought that aim to benefit society. They are ideas born in the absence of marketplace concerns. They are a means to an altruistic end: serving humanity.

But, like a lot of good ideas, hyperlocalism and citizen journalism are being co-opted, I fear, by corporate managers who hope to press them into the service of the marketplace, not humanity. In others words, why pay a staff to write about communities when you can invite people to write about what's happening for free.

Consider what's happened to the Sudbury Star in Ontario, Canada, just north of Lake Huron. Its website appears to have transformed into a citizen journalism portal that's a mishmash of staff reports, wire copy and bloggers from around the community. The featured blogger today writes about "Taking Photos as Special Events" and notes about the local hockey league.

To their credit, these bloggers don't seem consumed by narcissism. But in the end, all of this effort, while charmingly reflecting the interests and character of the local community, is much text without context, much information without knowledge.

In other words, it's no replacement for the daily, dogged and determined reporting of a traditional newsroom.

Cast in a different light, citizen journalism done like this is another name for outsourcing. Newspapers are already outsourcing ad production, but blogging by writers writing for free could be seen as yet more outsourcing. In a climate that fetishizes profits, outsourcing journalism, like outsourcing income tax preparation, tech support and x-ray examinations, makes sense.

I don't think newrooms will be replaced at larger newspapers, but smaller papers are more vulnerable. As I said, the newsroom reporters at the Savannah Morning News are down to 16, minus one (me) next month. We're bleeding to death thanks to superior classifieds competition from Craigslist and a stalled housing market. At the same time, there's more talk from corporate about "hyperlocalism," "mojo journalists," "reverse publishing" and "reader-generated content." I don't think this is coincidental.

Good hyperlocalism and good citizen journalism require a newspaper to lead the cause for adding to the overall knowledge base of a community. But it can't be done right if the traditional roles of editors and journalists are outsourced. A newspaper's leadership requires it to ante up the resources needed to make hyperlocalism and citizen journalism good for humanity.

September 12, 2007 10:28 AM | | Comments (1)

More from Seabrook's "Nobrow". . .

Part of the appeal of taste was that it felt incontrovertible: it was like a fact, somehow beyond argument. I said something about taste being a metaphor and about the importance of distinguishing, as Kant did, between taste as an act of judgment and taste as an act of sensing--the difference between that which pleases and that which gratifies. According to Kant, the man of taste can't judge adequately unless he has a full belly ("Only when men have got all they want can we tell who among the crowd has taste or not"). But this argument lacked the moral force of the graduate student's position, which was that no one has a right to judge as long as other people are hungry. For, after all, taste was based on privilege.
September 6, 2007 9:34 AM |

How do critics apply judgment in a world like this? . . .

Fanship, brandship, and relationships are all a part of what the statement "I like this" really means. Your judgment joins a pool of other judgments, a small relationship economy, becoming one of millions that continually coalesce and dissolve and re-form around culture products--movies, sneakers, jeans, pop songs. Your identity is your investment in these relationship economies. Investments in certain tried-and-true properties are virtually risk-free but offer little return (saying you like the Rolling Stones resembles buying thirty-year Treasury bonds), whereas other investments are riskier but potentially more lucrative (such as saying you like Liz Phair: are you investing in her image as a strong rock chick, which is cool, or are you standing up for an indie sellout and CK jeans model, which would be uncool?). The reward is attention and self-expression (your identity is in some way enhanced by the culture product you invest in); the risk is that your identity will be overmediated by your investment and you will become like everyone else.

From John Seabrook's must-read article and book, "Nobrow."

September 6, 2007 9:27 AM | | Comments (2)

That niche is people who read, not people who don't read. And they're failing us so badly that we're now turning to fake news shows for literary coverage. Not TV news; fake TV news.

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article noting the growing intensity of competition among book publishers to get their writers on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and its spinoff, "The Colbert Report." As reporter Julie Bosman wrote:

Publishers say that particularly for the last six months, [the shows] ... have become the most reliable venues for promoting weighty books whose authors would otherwise end up on ''The Early Show'' on CBS looking like they showed up at the wrong party. Television programs that devote significant attention to serious authors have practically gone the way of the illuminated manuscript, publishers lament. Brian Lamb's long-running ''Booknotes'' program on C-Span was permanently shuttered in 2004. ''The Charlie Rose Show'' doesn't generate as much buzz as it used to or translate into higher sales after an author appearance, some publishers say.

Remember: this report came out in February. That was before Teresa Weaver got whacked as the full-time book review editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her dismissal sparked a firestorm of panic and speculation about the future of newspaper coverage of books, literary culture and intellectual affairs.

Imagine the pressure to be funny with Jon Stewart now.

Since the beginning of the year, as eminent critic Morris Dickstein noted in a guest column for the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, we have seen the following book beatings:

• The Associated Press closed its book review desk

• The Raleigh News-Observer eliminated the post of full-time book review editor

• And cutbacks at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review

Unfortunately, there's more, according to the cover story of this month's Columbia Journalism Review.

The author, Steve Wasserman, writes about time spent as editor of the LA Times Book Review. He begins by reminding us that disappearing literary coverage is old news; it's been happening slowly for the 20 years. Only now, with newspapers losing money on one side and readers on the other, is the book crunch really being felt hard and fast. A hit-list addendem:

• The San Francisco Chronicle folded its book section into its commentary pages in 2000 (it was eventually restored amid reader complaints)

• Ditto for the Boston Globe a year later (there was no restoring this one)

• Jerome Weeks (aka book/daddy) took a buy-out as book critic from the Dallas Morning News

• The Orlando Sentinel and Cleveland Plain Dealer decided to go without book editors

• The Chicago Tribune moved books from Sunday to Saturday

Wasserman's article is a must-read for anyone who cares about serious books and serious discussion of them by serious critics. He raises questions that need to be raised, for instance the maddening rationale voiced by publishers of doing away with book coverage because book coverage doesn't make any money.

That's a big-ole red herring.

Reviews, criticism, reporting about books -- none has ever made money. Wasserman cites an informal chat he had with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the then-new publisher of the New York Times, taking over for his father in 1998. Sulzberger told him, in essence, that if the Times Book Review had ever made money, no one in his family had told him about it.

I don't want to paraphrase too much (you should go read it yourself), but there's much to consider. For instance, a point that hardly gets the attention it deserves: that there's money to be made in covering them there books. I would add arts, culture and ideas, too. Someone just has to figure out how.

These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for newspapers waiting to be seized [my italics].

Whether in print or online -- the medium doesn't matter as much as the message. People who read and care about what they read, and how what they read is written, don't care about petty squables over print or online. Is it good? if so, they'll read it. That's what matters.

The debate over the means by which reviews are published--or, for that matter, the news more generally--is sterile. What counts is the nature and depth and authority of such coverage, as well as its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readers find it on the Web or on the printed page matters not at all. Content rules.

It's almost too obvious to point out: Newspapers should cater to people who read. People who read are likely to be better educated, have better jobs, have more money and value more the world of ideas, writing and civil exchange. They are a niche market not being served.

Among those suffering from the blood-letting of newspaper critics this year is Michael Anthony. He lost his job as classical music critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He told the New York Times that his corporate managers just didn't get it.

"They didn't fire me," said the critic, Michael Anthony. "They fired my job." He said the paper had yet to announce how it would deal with classical music, although it planned to rely on stringers.

"The audiences are large and fervent, and moreover they're readers," Mr. Anthony said. "I don't think the management knows a lot about local culture, and that's one of the reasons they cut the job."

It's common knowledge inside newsrooms that newspapers have been trying to get people who don't have regular reading habits to read the newspaper. It's as if the Rolling Stones tried to attract more fans by releasing a hip-hop album. Wasserman discusses the earning potential of serving people who read.

Among the paper's most well-off and best-read demographic cohorts--whose members arguably make up any book review's ideal readers--the Sunday Book Review was among the more favored of the weekly sections of the Los Angeles Times. ... in 2004, some 1.2 million people had read the Book Review over the past four Sundays out of 6.4 million readers.

If newspapers properly understood such readers and the lifestyle they pursue, they would, in theory, be able to attract advertising from a diverse array of companies, including movie companies, coffee manufacturers, distillers of premium whisky, among others.

I was convinced that because readers of book reviews are among a paper's best-educated and most prosperous readers, it might be possible to turn a cultural imperative into a profitable strategy. Such a strategy would require commitment and vision from the overlords of the newspaper--qualities that, if history is any guide, are always in short supply.

Not knowing much about local culture, as Michael Anthony notes, is the result of newspaper being run like corporations: with editors and reporters being treated like interchangeable parts, moved around from city to city, encourage to be generalists who can be mobile instead of specialists tied to a place.

Is it any wonder how some people can feel they don't know what's happening in their own cities? Is it any wonder a weekly newspaper like the Charleston City Paper, in Charleston S.C., which generates all of its own coverage of that vibrant city's arts, culture and literary scene, never once using a wire story, is kicking the ass of the daily newspaper (the Post & Courier), which is laboring, like every other daily in the country, with staff cuts, filling in where a staffer's byline would ordinarily be with AP copy?

By the way, the City Paper has a circulation of 40,000. Its motto? Independent, local and free. Kinda sounds like the new MinnPost and new book review in New Haven, don't it?

Wasserman is brave in airing another point that does not get enough air: a strong anti-intellectual ethos operating in most of the country's major newsrooms. I would add that among people who value facts, suspect power, nurture sources et al., the admittedly indulgent practice of reading and thinking and coming up with insightful commentary seems alien.

The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections to turn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation's newsrooms that is--and, alas, always was--an ineluctable fact of American newsgathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barely disguised contempt for the bookish. Even for those few newspapers that boasted a separate book section, book reviewing was regarded as something of a sideshow. It simply wasn't at the beating heart of the newsroom. Careers were advanced by shoe leather, not by way of the armchair. The suspicion was strong among reporters and editors alike that anyone with enough time could read the pages of a book and accurately report its contents. Such a sedentary activity, however, was a poor substitute for breaking news and getting scoops.

Wasserman doesn't make the connection, but I will: The anti-intellectual ethos goes hand-in-hand with the urge to serve that 20th-century spector, Mass Media. It dictates who gets written about. It dictates how, when and why. According to the logic of Mass Media, few people read books, so why bother covering them. Mass Appeal is a utilitarian rule-of-thumb that does a great job serving the many, but fails to serve the few -- the engaged, educated and influential few -- who are starting to take their reading habits elsewhere for the journalism they need.

As for anti-intellectualism, newsrooms aren't going to change. Wasserman isn't saying they should. But the mentality of Mass Media is changing and it's changing in ways that newspapers seem unwilling to face. Over the next 13 years, by the year 2020, according to this prediction by Dave Morgan of the marketing firm Tacoda, newspapers will learn there is no profit in being geared toward a mass market in a media world redefined by Web 2.0.

• Consumer attention will continue to fragment. Our news and information products won't be large, comprehensive and "averaged" for mass consumption as they are today in a newspaper. Consumers will get best-of-breed information services from many different providers.

• News and information applications and services will be more important than underlying data and news. Discovering, editing, synthesizing, analyzing news and information and advertising is what will attract and retain consumers. Sending someone to a city council meeting for three hours to file a four-paragraph recitation of events will be worthless in 2020.

Perhaps in the coming years, as the velocity of media change slows and we're able to look back more clearly, we'll see that the marriage of books and newsgathering during the 20th century was a troubled marriage after all.

It's not a stretch to imagine, with the establishment of publications (digital or analog) that have figured out how to make money writing about books, arts, culture and intellectual affairs, that it didn't make sense for newspapers -- and their anti-intellectual newsrooms -- to cover such ineffable things.

While the newsroom, to paraphrase Wasserman, has always been a place that values "faster and shorter," a publication devoted to the arts will naturally value "slower, longer and smarter."

And there will always be people interested in that -- on a national levee, in big metropolitan areas, even markets as small as mine (Savannah, the Jewel of the Georgia Coast). The world is getting smaller. New interests will arise. As Wasserman writes:

I also suspected, as The Wall Street Journal would report in a front-page story in 1998, that America was "increasingly wealthy, worldly, and wired." ... The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything. ... Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people.

An addendem
More on the brain drain. According to this Aug. 14 brief by Media Life Magazine, more than 900 newsroom jobs have been lost since April. Sounds like someone somewhere has a golden opportunity to hire folks to start a truly new kind of newspaper.
(Thanks to MediaFade for pointing this out)

September 2, 2007 8:24 AM | | Comments (1)

A fever that has broken? . . .

Has much changed over the past twenty-five years? Many things have, and in ways whose consequences cannot be known. For example, theory in academic literary criticism seems to be playing itself out by the sheer force of its deep inner uselessness. Not a single significant book, nor any dazzling essays that I know of, have been produced in American literary criticism that are owing to their author's adaptation of one or another kind of critical theory, imported or domestic, from deconstruction to queer theory. Such stuff continues to be taught, as it was taught to the people now teaching it and who themselves consequently know little else to teach. But one senses that the day of the predominance of theory in English departments is coming to a close: the fever has abated, the flame is guttering. Derrida and Foucault are no longer fighting but yawn-inducing words.

No one today expects universities to contribute much in the way of importance to literary life. Most writers go to college; some hang around a bit longer by attending the writing programs at places such as Boston University, the University of Iowa, and Stanford University. But the result of the triumphs within the university of multiculturalism, literary theory, feminism, and political correctness has been to drain the humanities and social-sciences sides of university education of their seriousness. Literarily, universities are now chiefly useful as the subjects of comic novels, but for little else.

From "'The literary life' at 25," a piece by Joseph Epstein in this month's New Criterion, a survey of his regular feature for the arts and intellectual culture magazine for the past quarter century.

September 1, 2007 12:53 PM | | Comments (1)

Update: I thought I'd direct your attention to the series of articles inspired by MinnPost at

There you'll find an analysis by the Poynter Institute. You'll also find a New York Times article that refers to two-and-a-half year old web-based newspaper in San Diego.

The Southern California publication serves as the model for MinnPost. It's called Voice of San Diego and, like MinnPost, it's structured as a membership-based nonprofit, similar to what you find at PBS and NPR.

What I like about these ventures is that they encourage the contributions of readers -- commentary, pictures, news bits and other kinds of information -- but don't rely on them.

These are not citizen journalism sites. These are pro organizations operated by trained reporters and editors who believe in a similar systems of ethics, practice and philosophy.

I agree with Dave Morgan in his prediction of newspapers in 2020 that newspapers in future will see an audience of active participants, not the passive consumers of the 20th century.

That seems only logical given how media technology is changing our national consciousness in ways similar, as I note in this post,to those of the phonograph in the last 19th century. It changed how we hear music.

However, I don't believe future newsrooms will be as collaborative as Mark Glaser describes. In his PBS blog, MediaShift, he predicts that news stories will take the shape of "a tighly controlled wiki," like entries in Wikipedia, in which anyone can offer additions, subtractions or -- inevitably -- slander, lies or worse.

Glaser's thinking is that using wikis takes full advantage of the collective knowledge of the community. It's the same thinking as that kind found in James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations."

Which is to say, it's ideal, but not realistic. While this may be sound philosophy for business, marketing and advertising, I'm agnostic about its being applied to journalism.

A middle way would be more pragmatic: harnessing the power of the community while providing the quality, professionalism and integrity that the community deserves and expects from its media. Newspapers have historically led the way, shaping and influencing local conversation. I don't see any reason for that to stop, even as technology changes how newspapers do it.

As William Powers notes in this piece for the Washington Post, quality still sells. Voice of San Diego and MinnPost seem to affirm that old-time attitude in a new age of media.

There has always been a market for thoughtful reporting and writing, and there always will be. Remember, the great newspapers of today became great during a period when they were competing with tabloids, television, and other relatively cheesey fare. There were no page views then, but quality broadsheets had quarterly income statements -- and a breathtaking profit stream -- testifying to the fact that the public craved what they were selling. Why did so many people choose to read The Washington Post and The New York Times all those years when they could have exclusively patronized the downmarket alternatives? Because they liked and believed in the work. The Web hasn't suddenly turned all of us into Britney-obsessed boobs. Yes, and its spawn draw a huge crowd, but the high-end newspaper websites still pull in impressive numbers. If you really want to see quality thriving, check out the BBC's traffic some time. In a way, the Web is transforming the BBC from a tv/radio operation -- what Marshall McLuhan would have called a relatively "hot" medium -- to a relatively "cool," text-driven one. It's not a private business, but it sure could be a model for one.
September 1, 2007 8:34 AM |

Recent Comments


About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by FlyOver in September 2007.

FlyOver: August 2007 is the previous archive.

FlyOver: November 2007 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.