The Playgoer: Print Criticism: End is Nigh?

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Monday, November 27, 2006

Print Criticism: End is Nigh?

"Reviewers, in general, are canaries in the print journalism coal mine, the first to go. Classical music, books, visual arts and dance are dispensed with, or free-lanced off the bottom-line."

So writes Orlanda Sentinel film critic Roger Moore (on his Sentinel blog), sounding the alarm we are hearing all too much of these days in the frantic downsizing going on in the print media world.

Here's some other depressing highlights from Moore's informative survey of the field. Moore's primary concern, of course, is film criticism, but he also notes the pattern across the board.

An old friend whom I ushered into the business commented on this blog a few days ago about my now "warning" aspiring high school and college movie reviewers away from this profession. Movie reviewing at daily newspapers has always been a job on the thinnest of ice, a luxury item, many publishers decide, when they're shuffling deck chairs during newspapering's periodic bursts of down-sizing.

Then, came news that the guy who replaced me at The Winston-Salem Journal, Mark Burger, was laid off...

In Winston-Salem, a city loses an arts advocate. Mark Burger's job included covering a very lively theater scene, a prestigious drama program at a state school for the arts (Parker Posey, Mary Louise Parker,Tom Hulce, Jada Pinkett Smith are alumni), a film school, plus the The National Black Theatre Festival, a regional Shakespeare Festival, and ongoing efforts to attract film production there. You can cover some of this with freelancers, but not much of it. And there's no consistent voice there. Critics are like baseball umpires, and readers can't judge the strike zone if you don't have the same person making the calls, week in and week out...

The big thing in almost all these layoffs is the loss of warm bodies to go out and watchdog this part of our local world--the closing of this beloved landmark theater, possible misuse of that stage company's funds, cash problems at this arts group or that one, unethical efforts to use state property for private film production...

To me this last point is key. The difference between a mere reviewer and a critic is that the latter has a real beat that he or she can cover widely on a regular basis. A critic's voice is not just contained to 200 words on one particular event, but can provide the kind of regular, consistent coverage readers rely on in other areas--sports fans know how important that is, for instance. Same with, say, a political journalist like David Sanger in the Times.

But also, as Moore stresses, a critic with a real job (never totally secure of course, but better than a freelancer) can flex some muscle and speak out, speak to the local community, spotlight something behind the scenes that's really affecting the performances and exhibits that the readers go see. To cover the arts with just a thumbs-up/thumbs-down is like having a sports section made up only of box scores.

And just when you think Moore can't get more pessimistic, how's this for a send-off:
It's a great job, as anybody who meets you is quick to tell you. But as professional movie reviewing fades away and we all think long and hard about our fallback careers (or live in denial), my advice to every kid who emails from high school, or calls from college, or who angles into doing unpaid reviews for this website or that college paper, is the same.

Don't even start. Don't try this at home. It'll break your heart.

Yikes. Thanks for telling me now, Roger...

2 comments:

ctg said...

Thanks for gathering this information. I'd say of all the canaries in the critical coal mine, the film critic is the sturdiest and would be the last to die. In my neighborhood – Southern California – they seem to die in this order: art, dance, music, theater, books, pop music, television and film. This is based on the fact that advertising dollars increase in the same order. On the other hand, syndicated reviews are also more readily available the further you go up the ladder. Perhaps a ray of hope can be found in the idea that if, as Moore states, "a critic with a real job can flex some muscle and speak out," a critic without a job really has nothing to lose. The challenge there is to maintain a steady critical "strike zone" while working in obscurity. Those of us who take this watchdog pursuit seriously, probably need to support one another, and comment as often as possible to give a blog-pat on the back. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

This is part of why newspapers need unions. The Newtimes weeklies have busted theirs. That's how it became easy for them to dump staff critics and rely on (lower-paid, no-benefits) freelancers. Not to say freelancers are scabbing, but they have no muscle -- and maybe not even inclination -- to try to speak out. It's all atomized in this "ownership society" and if you can't buck the tide, might as well get your clips.