Globe and Mail culture reporter Kate Taylor has a flair for the dramatic, which she proved again one evening when she made a rather perplexing analogy: a respectable film critic should possess the same omniscient authority as celebrity handyman Mike Holmes.
She was speaking at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall, where a group of respected critics and journalists gathered last spring. In front of a packed audience of arts producers, consumers, bloggers and lecturers, Taylor discussed “Arts Journalism: Staying Critical in the Digital Age.” Joining Taylor on the panel were Canada AM heartthrob Seamus O’Regan, and former Globe theatre critic and Ryerson journalism assistant professor Kamal Al-Solaylee. Serving as moderator was Bronwyn Drainie, editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada. None of the panelists represent the forefront of online arts journalism. But they were all concerned about the fate of their profession. Game-changing technology has not only threatened the jobs they have or once had, but has also thrown into question the value and nature of criticism itself.
Staying critical in the digital age? The panel, sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, might have been better dubbed “Staying Defensive in the Digital Age.” The discussion focused largely on how traditional media could protect itself from the marauding, destabilizing influence of the Internet. Moderator Drainie, editor-in-chief of a publication with a website that’s not much more than a reduced digital facsimile of its print edition, strongly implied that in the raucous web, with its incessant roar of often amateur, occasionally uninformed opinion, it’s hard to find serious critical work. She claimed that her senior writers were reluctant to write exclusively for online publications, and that they still craved the full-circle satisfaction of seeing their work in print. Taylor went one step further. She told her Globeeditors that arts reviewing is best left to those with real training and experience—just like home renovation. To illustrate, she rolled up her sleeves and did her best Mike Holmes impression. “Step aside, lady,” she said, “Let a pro take over here.” O’Regan bemoaned a critical culture devolving into mere yay-or-nay consumer reports: “It’s all thumbs up, thumbs down,” he said. Al-Solaylee suggested that “digital natives”—the ever-growing cohort that has grown up with Facebook and Twitter—isn’t necessarily concerned about the loss of lengthy, Anthony Lane-style movie reviews. But if we’re not aware of it, and if we don’t try to work with it, he warned, then we will lose the highly respected print critics for sure.
But “we” are not losing highly respected critics at all. Contrary to the stubborn, self-protective resistance of large segments of the traditional media, the Internet has spawned a more complex, interactive and varied proliferation of well-regarded critical voices—both professional and amateur, mainstream and underground, writing in both short and long forms. More significantly, the conversation has become two-way; readers and viewers still look to critics for guidance and wisdom, but they want their own voices to be heard as well. For the most part, the rise of the “citizen critic” has led to more frequent—and arguably much healthier—criticism. Enormous media institutions might fear the erosion of their hegemonic authority and the consequent dip in revenue and influence, but how many readers and viewers share that fear?
As newspapers shrink and disappear, daily cultural coverage shrinks along with them, being replaced and supplemented by thousands of websites and online publications devoted to that same coverage. Many of these are labours of love, run by unpaid, self-taught enthusiasts. But several others are produced and staffed by the same critical voices that once populated the mainstream media, and the line separating the two is becoming increasingly blurry, even irrelevant. Still, the subtle panic exhibited by Taylor, O’Regan and Al-Solaylee did raise a significant point. While online access has made it easy to be a critic, being a critic has never been an easy (or especially lucrative) job. And it’s more difficult than ever to make a living from it. Therefore, the real question for both old-school critics and burgeoning bloggers isn’t “Is the Internet destroying criticism?” but rather, “Who’s going to make any money off it?”
Fifteen or 20 years ago, the career trajectory for becoming a critic was somewhat straightforward: aspiring film reviewers studied humanities, maybe got a degree in English or philosophy; worked for the student newspaper; secured a newspaper or magazine internship after graduation; toiled as a freelancer, possibly writing movie reviews for 50 bucks a pop. If you were lucky, you did this for a while and then—at last! Your big break!—landed a regular gig, even a permanent staff position at The Globe and Mail or The Georgia Straight or CBC. You might eventually write a book, or two or three.
But being an arts critic in 2011 requires no formal education, no dues-paying, no institutional support, and really, no big break. All you need is passion, a WordPress account and—if you want readers beyond your mom and boyfriend—a modicum of talent. Or better yet, a talent for provocation. This is why, in the early days of the Internet when the word “blogger” only conjured confusion or elicited derisive laughs, the self-appointed critics who emerged were viewed with suspicion—or dismissed outright.
In 1992, James Berardinelli, a New Jersey-based electrical engineer, began writing about movies as a “pure hobby” to kill time after completing his graduate studies. In 1996, he launched ReelViews, one of the earliest non-professional sites devoted entirely to movie reviews. With so much free time on his hands, Berardinelli wrote around 250 reviews a year and started to attend film festivals as an accredited critic. “We were not respected in the ’90s,” he says. “The publicists dismissed us. Getting accredited was a long and painful process because nobody in the studios understood what it meant to be online.” In 2001, however, Berardinelli received the imprimatur of arguably the most famous film critic in North America. In a review of Saving Silverman, Roger Ebert, who met Berardinelli in 1997 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), called him “the best of the web-based critics.”
“He actually recommended me for a couple of newspaper jobs,” Berardinelli says of his Pulitzer Prize-winning pal, who is still eager to boost the credibility of online critics. “It was at that point that I started to realize that, especially [for] film, criticism in print was a dying art,” says Berardinelli. He says the salaries newspapers were offering were barely enough to sustain a recent graduate still living in his parents’ abode.
2001 was a long time ago. Today, Rotten Tomatoes, the American movie-review aggregator site with a fruit-based rating system, includes almost 500 critics. “Web-based critic” is a pointless distinction; the web teems with film critics of all stripes, and well-established critics, who made their reps in alternative weeklies, big-city dailies and trade publications, have joined amateur enthusiasts. Maclean’s film critic, Brian D. Johnson, supplements weekly print features with his blog Unscreened and occasional on-camera movie reviews. In the U.S., The New Yorker’s Richard Brody and The New York Times’ David Kehr maintain blogs as scrupulously composed as any essay they’ve published in print. After venerable Variety critic Todd McCarthy was let go from the trade bible last year, he blogged for the film news website indieWIREbefore being snatched up by former rival publication, The Hollywood Reporter. The New Republic recently tapped David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, among other books, to be a critic on the new movie section of its website. More significantly, many of the most influential film writers to emerge in the last decade or so—Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, Slate’s Dana Stevens and Movieline’s Stephanie Zacharek, to name a few—write for online-exclusive magazines.
And it’s not just film critics; all manner of cultural journalists have settled into new homes in cyberspace. In January, Matt Zoller Seitz, a contributor to The New York Times and The House Next Door (Slant magazine’s influential arts blog), made the move to full-time TV writer forSalon, while legendary music critic Robert Christgau has a new music-review blog on MSN called Expert Witness. The recently launched East of Borneo, a site based in L.A., is a model of astute art criticism with elegant design and feature writing by both academics and amateurs.Pitchfork is perhaps the most obvious example of a website morphing from fan blog to cultural arbiter; for indie rock, it’s arguably the most influential music magazine published today.
While it’s increasingly difficult to talk about national cultures in the borderless digital realm, there are numerous examples of robust online criticism closer to home. Film critics like Jason Anderson routinely shuttle between print (he’s a regular reviewer for Eye Weekly and theToronto Star) and online (he writes for CBC News Arts & Entertainment and Artforum’s website, and his reviews are archived on his blog, The Andersonesque). Even poets run their own book industry websites, such as George Murray’s Bookninja. Cultural journalists and artists produce singular digital catch-alls that cover every incarnation of creative activity, like Back to the World, a provocative site produced by music critic Carl Wilson, freelancer Chris Randle and painter Margaux Williamson. CBC News Arts & Entertainment serves as an online general-interest arts magazine, a long-endangered, if not extinct, species on newsstands. Similar to a Canadian Slate, its arts features and reviews are enriched with embedded links that contain video and music clips, guiding readers to other stories. Each pile on layers of background information that would be impossible to replicate in print. “I think people have to get their heads around the idea that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to link to other websites,” says its former senior editor, Andre Mayer. The site freely curates links from movie websites, YouTube and other news organizations.
Sophisticated technology like the iPad—what New York Times cultural reporter David Carr called the “wing man” of long-form narrative—is helping to rekindle a love affair with lengthy online features, say, 3,000-word film essays, for slumped-back-on-the-couch-style reading. But as it stands, short, bite-sized capsules work best for readers sitting at their desks. Mayer predicts that fully-loaded online stories will eventually surpass the value of a magazine feature—and maybe even become the new standard. Postmedia’s veteran film critic, Jay Stone, sees this as a natural technological enhancement: “The basic job of what I do is kind of the same, it’s just the presentation that becomes different.”
Financially speaking, progress has stagnated. For Friday night’s beer money, a 200-250–word book review for THIS magazine nets $25, and some of those journalism school grads with a film studies minor are eagerly donating content for bylines. Blog networks on sites likeindieWIRE operate under a revenue-sharing payment style; critics, part of an extended pool of bloggers, are required to drive traffic to their blog, and if numbers are consistently strong, they can then dip into the company’s profits. But with facts and figures like these, critics are knowingly taking a vow of poverty. “It’s a good second job,” Berardinelli says as a solution, unless you marry into wealth, “Then you can sort of sponge off of them for a little bit.”
In 2006, Dennis Lim, then film editor/critic for the Village Voice and one of America’s most respected critics, was fired. He’s number seven of 55 on a chronological list of ousted critics maintained by The Salt Lake Tribune film critic and blogger Sean P. Means. Since then, Lim’s freelanced for The New York Times, among other outlets. More pertinently, he is the editor ofMoving Image Source, an invaluable film site hosted by the New York Museum of the Moving Image, where weekly reviews are often accompanied by film clips and intriguing links.
Lim thinks film criticism is in no danger of dying out. Rather, he sees many of the students he teaches at nyu forging careers by creating content for both larger and niche arts publications. “I think the concept of [film criticism] as an occupation might well have shifted,” he says. “But there’s probably more of it happening today than there was 10 years ago.” indieWIRE’s editor Eric Kohn echoes this sentiment: “Whatever the model is, it’s in constant evolution. There are a million different ways to do it right.”
As criticism has evolved, so has the job description of the critic—it’s more fluid and provisional, and generally speaking, while there’s more opportunity to be published, there’s less money to be made. But even in the glory days of pre-Internet mainstream media, when every city in North America had several newspapers and a stable of regular film, book and music reviewers at those papers, the career was rarely associated with job security. Even critical authority figures like Pauline Kael, Jay Scott or Philip Marchand—who retired as the Toronto Star’s full-time literary critic in 2008, the last to hold such a position in the country—were rare, influential voices in their reviewing heydays. Most likely, the career of the critic today is cobbled together from various gigs: freelancing, teaching, ghost-writing. Always a writer but never a staffer, Jason Anderson has been Eye Weekly’s star film critic since the Toronto alternative weekly debuted in 1991; he freelances for the paper, as well as for the Star, the Globe and several other publications. “I’ve kind of given up the idea that there will be that job,” he said. But floating between numerous gigs has its perks. “I’ll end up writing about almost every single movie that comes out,” Anderson says.
Out of financial necessity, and in the face of so much competition, even the few remaining staff critics must work harder—producing content for several platforms at once, working social media and promoting themselves on TV and radio. While the Toronto Star employs 15 staffers, along with freelancers, to cover everything from theatre to visual art, Peter Howell is the paper’s only full-time staff movie critic. He cranks out reviews for four or five of the seven films he sees per week, occasionally while still in the theatre lobby—a process he calls “BlackBerry spanking.” He routinely interviews celebrities, writes a weekly column and updates his Twitter feed while in his seat, waiting for a movie to begin. “We’re publishing stuff all over the place,” he says. “The moment you’re writing them—boom!—they’re already online.” The round-the-clock work schedule of today’s lucky-to-be-working critic has become an expected industry practice in a predominantly online world, now bound by the constraints of both online and print deadlines. “It’s just so much extra work,” he confesses. “I’m starting to wonder how I’m going to cope with all this stuff.” The fragmentation of Howell’s critical output mirrors the kind of experience readers and users now have with critical writing itself. No longer do they simply consult a single news-paper’s authoritative review section; rather, they dip in and out of websites, scour aggregator feeds and pick-up information from Twitter and Facebook.
Roger Ebert has embraced the brave new world of online criticism with more gusto than any other writer of his stature and generation. This has, in part, been due to necessity. Thyroid cancer and nearly fatal post-surgery complications robbed Ebert of his ability to speak, effectively pausing his television career in 2006. But as of late January this year, Ebert’s back on the air with his repackaged Ebert Presents At the Movies show and even speaks on a regular segment, Roger’s Office, using computer technology. Online, however, Ebert’s voice is one of the loudest; he’s still a regular reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, maintains an active blog, which Time called one of the best of the year, and tweets dozens of times a day to his couple hundred thousand followers. If anything, the web’s given him a larger platform, and, more crucially, provides him with the opportunity to interact with his readers, as he routinely responds to comments on his blog. As well, Ebert’s been a valuable cheerleader for lesser-known writers in the blogosphere. Since his fruitful career nudge to Berardinelli in the ’90s, Ebert’s championed many other aspiring young critics by featuring their reviews in the Far-Flung Correspondents section of his blog.
Ebert is, of course, a big name and a big draw. But he’s also—at least in serious cinephilic circles—not the most esteemed critic. Indeed, the kind of quick-and-dirty consumer guide reviews that some complain dominate online criticism could be said to have originated with him. After all, what are Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic but more expansive refinements of the thumbs-up-thumbs-down approach Ebert popularized on his long-running TV show, At the Movies? But the fact that the Internet provides an environment where endless styles of criticism—service, movie-buff, traditional—by a vast array of critics can happily co-exist with the now rare highbrow essays found on Moving Image Source (or Senses of Cinema or Rouge; the list goes on) is surely a sign of the profession’s good health. Conventional fears that serious criticism is being lost, or has already been lost, are unfounded and unimaginative. Sure, significant swaths of the web swell with erroneous and ill-considered opinion—if everyone’s a critic, then no one’s a critic—but the Internet is hardly the only medium guilty of that. “Everybody’s always been a critic,” mused David Poland, editor of the L.A.-based website Movie City News. Readers are as discerning and intelligent as ever; the only significant difference now lies in where they will go for guidance—whether they will continue to seek out established, institutional voices or wade through the plethora of online opinion. More than likely, they’ll hop between both. The distinction reverts critics to their most basic intentions: “The only thing I can offer people is my insight and my credibility,” says Howell. And while the search for an expert is arduous, the quality of their work speaks for itself.
Editor’s correction: In “Thumbs Down,” by Ava Bacari, Eric Kohn is identified as the editor of IndieWIRE.com. He is in fact its lead film critic.