This Is What It Sounds Like When Critics Cry


We live in a world in which a full-time theater critic and a full-time film critic are no longer viewed as indispensable necessities at Variety, the venerable entertainment-industry trade publication.

And you know what? The wider world beyond the insular, catty, chatty, clubby, self-referential and self-reverential entertainment industry doesn’t give a damn. That’s a shame. But it’s true.

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Now, please don’t misread me. The ouster of chief film critic Todd McCarthy and, especially for me personally, the ouster of my very fine colleague, chief theater critic David Rooney, is disturbing and depressing. Even before I was downsized as national theater editor at Back Stage, it was clear to me that a catastrophic media bloodletting was underway. This is just the latest treatment. The side-effects are obviously brutal.

But we also need to be realistic about the patient.

The idea that some media gurus are pushing — that advertising dollars will bounce back with the economic recovery — is so much horse hockey. Of course there will be advertising dollars. Will they flow once more so as to fatten the pages of most print publications? No. I think that’s truly over.

For as other media gurus have said for several years now, the situation illustrates the publishing industry’s total failure to anticipate and respond to fundamental shifts in the creation, promotion and dissemination of news and information. Publishing continues to grope for a coherent macroeconomic business model that will permit it not to survive — which is the sad prognosis that passes these days for healthy — but to thrive, which is the real measure of recovery.

It was no accident that the L.A. Times, in its coverage of the story, put the money quote (pardon the pun) from Variety president Neil Stiles in the lede graph — the decision to axe McCarthy and Rooney was “economic reality.”

Later in the L.A. Times piece came the possibility of a takeaway from the situation:

…it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be writing another obituary for another respected critic. As an art form, criticism should be placed on the endangered species list. Dozens upon dozens of critics have been laid off or taken buyouts at newspapers and magazines in the last several years. And the ones who have survived have less influence than ever before.

Also true.

But what the pseudo-takeaway doesn’t tell us is the answer to a more seminal question: Will anyone serve as a cultural arbiter in the future?

I believe the answer to that question is yes.

For I do believe that society wants assistance in terms of what to buy, what to sell, who to follow and, as it pertains to the arts, culture and entertainment, what is worthy of its coin. The difference between yesterday, today and tomorrow is that the identities of those arbiters will not going to be determined solely by what we might call legacy-media brands — more precisely, the individuals to whom media-legacy brands once conferred solemn power. Bloggers and tweeters and FourSquarers — inevitably the connectors, mavens and salesmen Malcolm Gladwell outlines in The Tipping Point — will emerge from the chaos to help fill the critical chasm. I believe those individuals will develop business models in the fullness of time, however imperfect they may be, to let them scale their influence.

Here is another axiom that will upset legacy-media critics: the more relevant the evaluations of cultural arbiters to the lives and sensibilities of the public, the more influence in the market they will exert. That’s right: the rarefied critic will go the way of the Whig. You can call it a race to the bottom, a triumph of lowest-common-denominator mentality. But at the same time, if the arts, culture and entertainment bear no, or fast-shrinking, relevance to the public, what good is it? “Because I say so”? That just isn’t going to be good enough.

I would argue that there’s a remarkable opportunity here for critics, regardless of discipline, to make their case. Why are they needed? What indisputable social benefits flow from their criticism? Does their criticism consistently embody those benefits? Why should the public care what they think, who they are, what they say, where it is that they say it? Answer those questions directly and without ego and their position will remain secure, as much as anything ever is.

The number of nontraditional cultural arbiters is going to rise — actually, it already has. I know a woman with 470,000 followers on Twitter; if she sees a film, raves about it and one-tenth of one percent reads her tweet and acts according to her urging, she has exerted her influence on 470 people. That’s not a bad batch of tickets. (I’ll address writing quality at the end of this post.)

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Still, I do not believe the market can sustain over the long-term a pool of cultural arbiters very much larger than the one that used to exist solely in legacy media. What has happened is that a new class of influencers has come to school — the established students are being forced to share locker room, desk, gym and cafeteria space. Kinder and wiser kids, to extend their power, would welcome them, teach them the ropes. Threatened kids prefer fists.

And that means there are going to be some fights in the schoolyard.

I believe in universal selection and the market — in this case, they will jointly determine which cultural influencers are most enduring and which are fleeting, tweeting gadflies. How we’ll measure their influence will also be redefined. It will matter, at times, how many friends or followers one has, or how effective influencers are at pushing their networks to act on their lead. It may also be a more local, more balkanized power. It may as acceptable to tweet, “OMG, I’m at a dance concert at community college” as “I’m at the opening of American Idiot.”

It means the idea of treating the mass-market as a malleable puppet is passe. And that is hardly news.

Speaking of schoolyard fights, my perennial arch-nemesis, Time Out New York critic David Cote, is back in pugilistic mode. “Eliminate Theatre Critics at Your Peril” cries the headline of his latest piece for the Guardian, which presumes publishers would weep for critical deficits before they weep for fiscal deficits.

Now, I don’t blame Cote for manning the ramparts of a proud, once-mighty ship. Certainly I would in his position. But I suspect that a winning strategy, if there is one, is not blaming those without full-time critic positions in legacy media.

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“New York theatre critics have been disappearing from the payrolls, replaced by a parade of jobbing freelancers with little experience and even littler clout,” Cote wrote. Ouch. That’s like attacking a raggedy street-corner apple seller in 1933 for underpricing the expensive nearby grocery.

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Cote’s aim becomes more accurate later, when reflecting on the ever-shrinking pool of critics:

In both the short and long term, the trend is disturbing. From a strictly corporate view, however, it’s expedient. The brand remains prominent, but the particular voice of the critic becomes negligible.

Even here, he doesn’t quite score a bull’s-eye. It’s the voice of the legacy-media critic that becomes negligible. In any event, Cote warns of the critical cataclysm to come:

…if this trend continues, only the stupidest among us will believe a critical rave. We’ll know that reviews are just part of the marketing arm of a movie studio, theatre producer or TV programmer.

But the idea that reviews are super-powerful ticket-sale drivers is already in doubt. No one I know thinks legacy-media reviews exert anywhere near the influence that used to. Since the turn of the 20th century at least, reviews of any kind — and here, let’s distinguish reviews from criticism — were crucial word-of-mouth agents. Today, the word of mouth is still crucial. How word of mouth is generated is the question. That cultural power is no longer exclusively wielded by legacy-media gatekeepers has been true for at least the last five years. All that has happened is that reality has arrived.

Thus is drawn Cote’s line in the sand:

We critics, reviewers, consumer reporters – call us what you will – are the dung beetles of culture. We consume excrement, enriching the soil and protecting livestock from bacterial infection in the process. We are intrinsic to the theatre ecology. Eliminate us at your peril.

Hate to say it, Colonel, but the truth is publishers are doubling down their bets and calling the bluff. Neither publishers nor the public fears or weeps for annihilated critics. And let’s forget sympathy from artists, who, in their foolishness, see the situation as removing the single greatest obstacle to making their work accessible and salable. Or so they think.

But let me elaborate on something Cote alludes to: writing quality. Whatever the medium, even one of 140 characters, good writing is good writing. The question now is whether legacy-media critics will accept the newcomers to school and whether, by insistence, teaching and example, will demand smart critical standards — not to mention those old devils the young like to moon, such as good grammar and fact-checking.

If legacy-media critics accept the newcomers, distinctions between them will fade over time. What will matter is the delivery system. Eventually, there won’t be much in the way of distinctions there, either.

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If legacy-media critics do not accept the newcomers, if they do not teach them the ropes, distinctions between them will fade over time — as legacy-media succumbs to its own hubris. That’s when I’ll cry for critics.

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