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May 14, 2006

Is Blogging the Panacea?


Embracing the blogosphore as the savior of arts j ournalism seems to me a case of misplaced passion -- or maybe just wishful thinking.
The Web is fantastic for stimulating the free-flow of information and opinion -- political, cultural, scientific, et al. And as another outlet for good writers. And as a means to connect with the growing sector of readers who spend a good portion of their lives online.
But why is this an either/or, baby/bathwater issue? There are sound reasons why newspapers and other conventional publications need to be saved and strengthened. And why their arts critics should still have a voice in the cultural conversation, if not necessarily the last word.
For one thing, newspapers and magazines are edited. For another, they are usually subject to standards of accuracy and basic fairness which are pretty arbitrary on the Web -- as in, the assumption that "saying it's so doesn't make it so." And getting facts straight, and correcting errors, are essential to a writer's credibility. (And, by the way, to a functional democracy.)
In mentoring younger critics, I've been surprised how many downplay fact-checking. Or don't realize that ad hominum attacks on artists (or gushing, unsubstantiated praise for them) can not only be hurtful, but runious.
According to recent survey stats at our paper, traditional news media still get far and away the most hits from people who seek their news and information online. Why? Along with the great adventure blogging can be (especially if you have unlimited time to graze), they still want the "branding," the reporting, the standards that such pubilcations promise. And guess what? Some of the writing ain't so bad either.
My main concerns in this discussion are: how can we, as Doug suggests, endeavor to make the standard media more fresh, lively and essential on the arts pages? And how can the field at large encourage the cream of the blogging crop, while urging those entering the game to couple zesty opinion with responsible journalism? I'm for both/and, not either/or.

Posted by at May 14, 2006 12:01 PM


Well, one of the ways newspapers and magazines can keep their arts pages fresh is to keep hiring some of these new writers -- I've been a proud member of Terry's blogroll for nearly three years, and I'm glad to say I've had the experience of coming to the arts pages of several newspapers and magazines recently, largely on the strength of the writing on my blog.

But a few issues to correct in terms of print media, Misha, with all due respect. First, over the last five years, scandals at The New Republic (Stephen Glass) and The New York Times (Jayson Blair) have demonstrated that the oft-cited fact-checking strength of the print media may be more illusory than supposed. Second, print critics are just as prone to exuberant praise or condescending abuse of shows that really deserve neither.

For the moment, what the best cultural bloggers provide is extended attention to events and trends for which there is little space in the print media today. They offer aesthetic context. In recent weeks, as "documentary plays" like "Stuff Happens" and "My Name Is Rachel Corrie" have made the news, I've written 750 words on Peter Weiss' "The Investigation," a documentary play from the mid-1960s that has been all but forgotten, but provides an example of the form proving that it's had a very long history in the theater. And Weiss's artistry demonstrates the supple qualities of this form besides.

Blogs also offer, through the links and community possible through the Internet, a larger, self-correcting community that only 20 years would have been unthinkable. Alison Croggon and Chris Boyd, both of whom either have been or are print critics for Melbourne daily newspapers, are halfway around the world, but in the discussions on our blog, and in linking to each other from our entries, we invite a continuing dialogue about the health of the art we care about -- theater -- that welcomes comment from the world, and unmoderated comment at that. It also keeps us on a day to day basis informed of international trends in this art, something we've got only occasionally in the Sunday arts sections.

Just because the Web sites of newspapers and magazines can boast an astronomically greater circulation than any individual blogger (or, for that matter, group of bloggers) does not mean this is where the best can be found. Some of it is very good indeed. The effort to encourage the cream of the crop is somewhat hobbled by accusations of irresponsibility. Though I must say I don't mind being "zesty" either. And I don't mind that the blogosphere also gives me the chance to write about trends in art and music that tangentially affect the form I've chosen as the discipline in which I want to spend my creative and critical career.

And maybe regular references, in print, by print critics, to our writing would help to dissipate some of this cloud of illegitimacy. Terry's been very good about this for many years. How about the rest of the print media? I still await a regular listing of cultural blogs in the Arts -- or, for that matter, the Circuits -- section of the New York Times.

Posted by: George Hunka at May 14, 2006 1:00 PM

Oh, and an "Editor's Note," as a print publication would have it: Alison Croggon's "Theatre Notes" is at http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com , and Chris Boyd's "The Morning After" is at http://chrisboyd.blogspot.com , so you can see for yourself.

Posted by: George Hunka at May 14, 2006 1:20 PM

Thanks for the plug, George, though the links have superfluous commas - Theatre Notes and The Morning After.

Writing in any medium, I believe fervently, creates its own legitimacy. Or not. I started my own blog as an experiment: could I, by offering the kind of discussion that is not available in our daily papers, create a legitimacy without the huge economic machine of the print media to back me up? The answer, in a small way, is yes, of course it's possible. I work more or less as any other critic, as part of the press; I get the press releases and tickets and so on. The only difference is that I don't get paid.

Australian newspapers and news magazines don't have fact checkers, which are a peculiarly American phenomenon, but we do have sub-editors; I've worked as one myself. And, yes, I have to do my own subbing, and sometimes I do wish I had a copy editor to pick up the typos and errors that I miss on first reading. The up side is that I am unhampered by how much space is available for the arts today (according to how much advertising has been sold) or by an editor's perceptions of what arts coverage ought to be, ie, more consumerist, less interested in the art itself. I have the luxury of taking it seriously.

The blog also allows me to inhabit a space between critic and artist (I am a novelist and poet) in a more ambiguous way that is, for me, much more interesting than the conventional pose of a critic. A blog by its nature is dialogic, open-ended, in progress. This openness of form has its downside, of course. But, as George points out, the structure of print media is no guarantee either against poor, un-disinterested or plain inaccurate criticism.

Posted by: Alison Croggon at May 14, 2006 4:16 PM

George, thanks for the mentions of some interesting blogs, including yours which I've just had the pleasure of checking out and will do so again.

A list in my paper on good theater criticism blogs (as opposed to info sites, which I routinely mention) would certainly be worthwhile, and I'll propose it.

But the two other links you provided in your comment got me nowhere in cyberspace -- is it just my home computer screwing up, or are the addresses off?

thanks -- Misha Berson

Posted by: Misha Berson at May 14, 2006 7:11 PM

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