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The Arts Critic Brain Drain


by Jerome Weeks 5 Jan 2009

Food critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille An arts-savvy city like Seattle feels the loss of critics from daily newspapers. So says City Arts:: As the meltdown continues, certain values [in newspaper layoffs and decisions about coverage] become clear: the most basic of these is that breaking news is more important than anything else. This breaking-news […]

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Food critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille

  • An arts-savvy city like Seattle feels the loss of critics from daily newspapers. So says City Arts::

    As the meltdown continues, certain values [in newspaper layoffs and decisions about coverage] become clear: the most basic of these is that breaking news is more important than anything else. This breaking-news panic is a product of Blogosphere Fear – terror that the blogs will get the story before the newspaper gets it. And since most newsrooms operate under the unexamined, cultlike belief that sports coverage must be preserved, arts coverage is what’s targeted for elimination. The logic goes something like this: How many people go to all these little plays anyway? How does someone looking at paintings translate into web hits, dollars, an economic stimulus? Yet as Farr pointed out in her Times farewell essay, U.S. museumgoers outnumber sporting-events audiences by more than six to one (850 million vs. 140 million). . . .

    By pushing out distinguished writers whom readers trust, the dailies are sinking themselves, warns the great chronicler of the media crisis, New York Times columnist David Carr. “Having missed the implications of the Web and allowed both their content and their audience to be scraped away by aggregators and ad networks,” writes Carr, “newspapers are now working furiously to maintain audience, build new ad models and renovate presentation. But they won’t stay relevant to readers with generic content ginned up by newbies with no background in the communities they serve.”

    The “newbies” Carr refers to are of two tribes: (a) low-paid staffers too young to have costly families on the health plan, or (b) freelancers with no health plan and little stature. Brave souls who work for cheap, hustle a dozen pitches at once and only get paid on publication, freelancers are awash in work as unemployment soars – and they’re still broke.

    • And then there’s the utter devaluation of critics’ judgment through the manic medium of the movie ad blurb. It has been made even more apparent these days because of the Oscar nomination push:

    I think the problem is that studios have so thoroughly destroyed the credibility of blurb ads by using junket critics (known in my profession as “quote whores” for their willingness to offer blurb-worthy praise for any dreadful new film) and nonprofessionals that when it comes time to attract attention for more serious films, they can’t simply stick a few blurbs at the top of the page from real critics and expect potential moviegoers to notice the difference.

    For some time now, blurb ads have had less to do with which critic praised a film and more to do with what adjective best captured the marketing message for the film. “Bedtime Stories,” for example, has two critics at the top of its ad from outlets that you’ve never, ever, heard of–Insight Cable’s Bryan Erdy and Fox-TV Las Vegas’ Rachel Smith. But it’s not who they are that matters, but what they said: Erdy called the film “Hysterically Funny!” and Smith said that it’s “Perfect Family Fun!” Those adjectives perfectly embodied the focus of Disney’s marketing campaign, the message being that “Bedtime Stories” is a comedy you can take your kids to see.

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