Friday, July 04, 2008

Critics, Journalism, and the Internet

It's been a bad year for music journalists, with critics losing their jobs left and right, through buyouts, layoffs, and resignations. Some have been replaced; Tim Page by Anne Midgette, Peter Davis by Justin Davidson. Most have not: Bernard Holland, Melinda Bargreen, Alan Rich, and others. Davidson's spot at Newsday was not filled.

Martin Bernheimer has an article in the Financial Times, dated tomorrow, that discusses the role of critics as arbiters of excellence and maintainers of standards, and the trend away from respect for expertise toward the view that everyone is a reasonable critic. Along the way, he mentions the Internet as one reason for the decline of journalism and professional critics.

I think a number of the points he makes are on target, but others are truly arguable. The consolidation of the news media has been going on for decades, since the relaxation of rules on how many types of media a particular company could own in a particular market. Some newspapers are losing money - for reasons including their own failure to move their advertising onto the Web, pronto - but many others are profitable. They're just not making high enough profits for their corporate masters and Wall Street; therefore, their staffs get cut. (Justin Davidson provides some context in a Musical America article. Justin, about that last point you make: San Francisco Classical Voice is independent of both arts organizations and print journalism.)

I have to especially argue with this point in Martin Bernheimer's article:
A primary cause of our imminent extinction must be the internet. An impatient generation is succumbing to the free and easy lure of computer-enlightenment. Not all those who cover the arts in old-fashioned print are paragons, badness knows. Still, most have sufficient education and/or experience to justify their views. On the web anyone can impersonate an expert. Anyone can blog. Credentials don’t count. All views are equal. Some sort of criticism may indeed survive the American media revolution, but professional criticism may not.

Just how familiar is Mr. Bernheimer with the classical music blogosphere? The bloggers I read can be loosely classified as follows (and apologies to those of you I've omitted from this incomplete list):These voices are provide invaluable viewpoints, even the ones I spend too much time arguing with. I cannot say that any of them are in any way "impersonating" experts; the non-pros are perfectly clear about the fact that they're not professionals. I'd really like it if Mr. Bernheimer could point out some people who are impersonating classical music experts or taking jobs away from professional critics. And I hope he'll keep in mind the fact that the blogosphere is more like a salon than like a newspaper: a bunch of people sitting around exchanging opinions with themselves and their readers.

He's not the only critic who has gone astray writing about classical music on the Internet recently. The anonymous bloggers at The Detritus Review had a fine time taking apart an article by Mark Swed. And Out West Arts reports that newly-minted blogger Alan Rich said recently that there are "no important music blogs on the West Coast at this time." Welcome to the blogosphere, Mr. Rich, and check out those of us who've been here a while.

Update, July 5: A.C. Douglas has a few words on the same subject.

11 comments:

Drew McManus said...

Kudos on a fine article Lisa. I have always found the hostility toward bloggers (regardless of their topic) by some in traditional media as puzzling. I'm glad to say that out of all the professional music critics and cultural journalists I've encountered I can count on one hand those who have been openly hostile and/or share Martin Bernheimer's views. Conversely, the vast majority seem to embrace the medium and have no problem "playing nice" with everyone else.

It would be foolish for me to pretend that I have anywhere near the same level of talent, ability, or training as Alex Ross and any reader would be able to quickly identify the quality and value of Alex's writing compared to mine.

Kudos on a fine article Lisa. I have always found the hostility toward bloggers (regardless of their topic) by some in traditional media as puzzling. I'm glad to say that out of all the professional music critics and cultural journalists I've encountered I can count on one hand those who have been openly hostile or have expressed similar views to those excerpted above by Martin Bernheimer. Conversely, the vast majority seem to embrace the medium and have no problem "playing nice" with everyone else.

It would be foolish for me to pretend that I have anywhere near the same level of talent, ability, or training as Alex Ross (or any of the other fine professional music critics listed above) and I suspect any reader would be able to quickly identify the quality and value of Alex's writing compared to mine.

However, what I inferred from your article is the creation of a new communication medium that encourages individuals to actively participate in niche topics is a good thing. It creates a stronger sense of community among those already passionate about the subject and generates a center of gravity that serves to attract those on the periphery.

Ultimately, this expanded community builds a greater demand for everyone engaged in this business in a professional capacity (critics, musicians, managers, etc.). It is an ideal example of how collectivism produces compound results.

Drew McManus

Ultimately, this expanded community builds a greater demand for everyone engaged in this business professionally (critics, musicians, managers, etc.). It is an ideal example of how collectivism produces compound results.

Kudos again on posting such a fine article.

Drew McManus

Marc Geelhoed said...

Lisa,
Have you ever read a negative review by Bernheimer? Do you really want him coming after bloggers with the same pugnacious vehemence and crushing devastation that he metes out to performers? I think it's best to let classical bloggers do their thing without being literarily bodyslammed by Bernheimer. There'd be scorch marks on the internet where those blogs used to be.

pjwv said...

Lisa,
Thanks for the kind mention, and I see that Drew made the point I wanted to make about Bernheimer, which is that he doesn't seem to realize readers are not passive and empty but are able to decide fairly quickly what a writer's opinion is worth (or, more exactly, whether they find that writer's opinions worth reading).

Newspaper critics have a very different audience from the blogosphere, I think; even the readers of the FT, WSJ, or NYTimes are more of a general audience, and they need to be written to differently.

That Alan Rich quotation seems to be destined for immortality. I admit I laughed when I first read it in OutWest Arts, because it's so hilariously, blunderingly tactless (since he was talking to a group of bloggers, I believe). It made me think that Mr Rich doesn't quite . . . get the concept. . . .

sfmike said...

"How dare you invade our turf!" seems to be the subtext of every one of the professional (i.e. paid) vs. blogger essays, whether the subject is music, art, politics or what have you. The tone is always an aggrieved Olympian who is "objective" as opposed to the rabble and all their silly enthusiasms. In truth, it's the other way around. If you're getting paid to write about something, you're already compromised from the get-go, whereas an enthusiast usually puts their prejudices upfront and the reader can judge the voice for itself.

I used to like Bernheimer, but he became so mean and so formulaic in his meanness that he became an utter bore. The only thing that's better about the current Sam Zell version of the L.A. Times is the replacement of Bernheimer with Mark Swed, who really is a great critic/essayist.

And thanks for the "informed listener" shoutout.

Elaine Fine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine Fine said...

Thanks for writing this post, Lisa. Mr. Bernheimer is putting the blame on the wrong people, but the internet is changing the world, particularly the musical world, and I believe it can change the musical world for the better.

For the record I think that Mr. Bernheimer is an excellent critic and an excellent writer. Wouldn't it be great if he could start a blog? If he could get permission from his editors (a big problem for print critics), it would be wonderful to have a chance to read the many reviews he has written over the years in once place.

Drew McManus said...

Kudos on a fine article Lisa. I have always found the hostility toward bloggers (regardless of their topic) by some in traditional media as puzzling. I'm glad to say that out of all the professional music critics and cultural journalists I've encountered I can count on one hand those who have been openly hostile or have expressed similar views to those excerpted above by Martin Bernheimer. Conversely, the vast majority seem to embrace the medium and have no problem "playing nice" with everyone else.

It would be foolish for me to pretend that I have anywhere near the same level of talent, ability, or training as Alex Ross (or any of the other fine professional music critics listed above) and I suspect any reader would be able to quickly identify the quality and value of Alex's writing compared to mine.

However, what I inferred from your article is the creation of a new communication medium that encourages individuals to actively participate in niche topics is a good thing. It creates a stronger sense of community among those already passionate about the subject and generates a center of gravity that serves to attract those on the periphery.

Ultimately, this expanded community builds a greater demand for everyone engaged in this business in a professional capacity (critics, musicians, managers, etc.). It is an ideal example of how collectivism produces compound results.

Drew McManus

The Opera Tattler said...

I read Bernheimer's article over the weekend, and what bothers me the most is his statement that "all views are equal." Just because someone blogs an opinion, uninformed or otherwise, doesn't mean anyone will care or even read it.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Yep. I think bloggers have to earn credibility.

Daniel Wolf said...

There are three issues in the subtext of Bernheimer's complaint. The first is that blogging is unpaid, and in the face of newspapers reducing or shutting down altogether, the professional critic is correct to fear for her livelihood. Second, it is far from clear what determines the "qualifications" of a critic -- if it's academic or musical preparation, most of the bloggers you mention are qualified, even over-qualified. If it's journalistic training or experience, then Bernheimer should really make the case both to us, defining and supporting that training and, to publishers and editors, why papers need to have trained critic- journalists on staff. The third, and most musically substantial, issue is that prior to internet publication, in all but a very few regions, the local music critic was a soloist, and the background against which readers read criticism was tightly constrained by limited channels of information and opinion. The reader now has the potential to encounter competition among critical views as well access to the tremendous reference resources of the net, facilitating critical reading in an way impossible under the old one-town, one-paper, one-critic regime. The great irony in Bernheimer's complaint is that the good old days assumed the worst of readers, while in the future critics must be prepared to expect the best: informed readers reading closely and critically.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Daniel, thank you - that is a great and very thoughtful comment. I agree 100%.