The Critics of Free Papers Suck? Talk About Overvalued Stock!

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CriticsOn July 1, the Clyde Fitch Report posted a piece about the review in The New Yorker, by Malcolm Gladwell, of Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. As I wrote at the time,

“Anderson’s argues that because information “wants” to be free, and because anyone can play the role of journalist, information will indeed be free – there will be very little or no revenue streams directly tied to its creation, marketing and distribution. Journalists, writers, editors will all have substantially less value, if any value at all, in the marketplace.”

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Gladwell, in a review that has now become a debating point in media circles, disagreed. As I saw it in July, he

…doesn’t necessarily dispute the existence of a “downward pressure” in the value of content, but he doesn’t necessarily think it leads inexorably toward a new and sustainable business model. His point seems to be that such pressure could well be leading to no business model.

So, why this charming refresher? Because in an Oct. 5 post on the ArtsJournal blog Slipped Disc, “What happens to the arts when a newspaper goes free?,” Norman Lebrecht, former assistant editor of the London Evening Standard, wrote about the Standard becoming a free paper. Bottom line: not good news! Lebrecht writes:

The public does not, on the whole, value unsolicited opinion – which is to say, opinion for which it does not pay in some way. And the arts industry does not turn to freesheets for response, quotation and stimulation. In the decade or so of Metro’s existence, its arts pages have had no discernible impact either on public debate or on box-office activity.

I would counter — and this argument can be found amongst the comments at the bottom of Lebrecht’s post — that paid content, in the form of a newspaper, magazine or even a website, imparts no more value to readers than free content. That is why the Gladwell vs. Anderson debate is spicy: the dueling philosophies couldn’t be clearer. This is also why the debate remains so thorny.

LebrechtNorman Lebrecht

Let’s consider the matter from a New York theater viewpoint. It was well more than 10 years ago that The Village Voice went free. Michael Feingold, whom I consider the gold standard in American theater criticism, has proven himself capable of stirring public debate when he wishes to. In terms of “box-office activity,” well, that’s another matter: it’s unclear whether any arts journalist anywhere, regardless of how eloquent their yea or nay words are, can influence consumer spending on culture. Sticking with the theater theme, Broadway commercial producers still say they’d like to have a rave in the New York Times. Well, of course — one doesn’t look askance upon the New York Times. But theater in New York, particularly when produced at a very high level, is more and more critic-proof; the critic’s words, as it turns out, are only one of various factors plugged into the consumer’s decision-making equation. This is why producers and marketers are examining the blogosphere (or, in this case, the theatrosphere) with such intensity. I believe this dynamic applies across geographical areas, disciplines and genres. Bottom line: the days of the cultural gatekeeper are over, and they have been over for some time. And that’s how it should be.

Why? Because the whole notion of the cultural avatar is inherently bad for art — it concentrates too much tastemaking power in too few hands and hearts. Whether a publication in today’s media world is free or not, or in print or online, is fundamentally secondary to the idea that a critic can still contribute meaningfully to the cultural equation, if he or she is good, without insisting on determining whether people’s wallets are open or shut.

What Lebrecht is mourning is really not the death of a business model, but the demise of a power center.