‘Dumbing Down’ misses the point: Critics don’t need newspapers anymore

by Jason Preston on January 30, 2009

artTwo readers have asked me now to comment on the recent piece from City Arts called The Dumbing Down of the Dailies, a piece which largely complains about the fact that art and theater critics are being dropped like unprofitable portions of a newspaper.

Here is an example. In the article, Emily White (the author) writes:

And since most newsrooms operate under the unexamined, cultlike belief that sports coverage must be preserved, arts coverage is what’s targeted for elimination…yet as Farr pointed out in her farewell essay, U.S. museumgoers outnumber sporting-events audiences by more than six to one (850 million vs. 140 million).

I would love to take the cheap shot and point out that 850 million is more than double the population of the U.S., but I assume those numbers include, say, foreign travelers looking to do “cultural” things. Instead, I’ll point out that this neatly sidesteps the question at hand, which is not “how many people go to these plays and museums?” but rather, “how many people want to read about these plays and museums?”

And the answer, quite clearly, is “fewer than the number of people who want to read about sports.” The numbers are inarguable. Ask anyone in your internet department.

Misplaced anger

This is one example of what I call misplaced anger. I always cringe when I hear people say things like “blogging has ruined newspapers,” because it’s patently untrue. It’s probably more accurate to say “not blogging has ruined newspapers.”

The article goes on to make a case against us evil bloggers:

But the blogosphere is not a place that produces great, careful writing. Perhaps this is because bloggers don’t genreally craft and revise their work: it’s all about back-and-forth discussion, diary entries, lists.

I couldn’t reach Emily to comment for the post – but I think that there’s plenty of decent writing that happens on blogs. It can be a little hard to find it if you’re not looking in the right places (that’s an entirely separate problem), but I hardly think that the medium inherently someone make write bad (get it?)

It’s just a false argument to say that someone who writes well in print would, by definition, produce inferior content on a blog.

Conflating the product and the medium

This is also a pretty classic case of forgetting to split the medium and the content. Just because something is written on a blog doesn’t mean it isn’t good. The same holds true in reverse: just because it’s printed on wood pulp doesn’t make it good (or even true).

The article opines about the trust given to an established critic, unlike “the random blogger.” Trust is absolutely essential. The problem with leveling that argument about some blogger critic is that she has her own set of followers who have been reading her work and do trust her, just the way the newspaper critic has built their trust over time—except in a different medium.

It is both incredibly difficult and unbelievably important to get past the preconception that something published online is inherently less good than something that sits in ink on real paper. In fact, the internet is a far more meritocratic medium than anything ever before it: unlike anywhere else, your work stands for itself.

If you think that the paper made a mistake in dropping you, then you prove them wrong.

Do it yourself

The inevitable result of a flailing economy and a medium that fundamentally lowers the administrative cost of running an organization (called the internet) is that you’re going to end up with a much larger number of much smaller shops.

Newspapers bundled sections together because the whole was worth more than it’s parts. People would get the whole newspaper for just the comics. Now, if people want the comics, they just look at the comics (online).

The trouble is, and I realize it makes me look really uncool to say it, the market doesn’t care . Everything that had a free ride in the bundled economy is now on the cutting block.

This is not all bad news. Up until now, newspapers have been losing the evolutionary race in finding ways to run an online business. More often than not, subjects (like art criticism, which has a vibrant and enthusiastic readership community) are cut not because they can’t work, but because the paper sucks at doing things online.

Critics don’t need newspapers to give them a voice anymore.

This is a golden opportunity to do it yourself. Start one of these annoying blog-things. Who knows? Your audience might follow you there.

Picture taken from Stephen Poff on FlickR, Licenced with Creative Commons

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{ 3 comments }

1 Thomas Schmitz 01.30.09 at 3:58 pm

Here’s another possible contributor to that 850 million. Many, if not most, not-for-profits like to report gross visits as their visitor, user or client count instead of unique visitors. It looks more impressive.

2 Dana 01.31.09 at 9:37 am

Great post, Jason. I couldn’t agree more. Very well said.

3 Michael J 01.31.09 at 12:07 pm

Nicely said. Just the other day I did a post titled:
What most of the news sucks. Most of the time.
The idea that Print journalism is a gold standard is laughable. Some criticism is good – both in Print and the Web. Lots of it is grammatically correct, with really good spell check, and is superficial and boring.

http://sellingprint.blogspot.com/2009/01/why-most-of-news-sucks-most-of-time.html

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