On the British Film Institute’s website, critic Nick James outlines a recent wave of layoffs and retirement that has cut through the ranks of British film critics, somewhat belatedly following a well-established trend in the U.S. Veteran critic Phillip French stepped down this summer after 50 years at the Observer, and the Independent on Sunday dismissed all its arts writers, including film critics Jonathan Romney, in one fell swoop.
The economic imperatives behind these moves need no reiteration: Revenues drops, budgets follow, and everyone gets a mandate to do more with less. But as James points out, the winnowing can be self-defeating:
[I]t seems many publishing outlets around the world have forgotten that their brands were built on the quality of their writers, and that if you remove quality writers to trim budgets, your brand will suffer.
Shifting to a freelance model doesn’t ipso facto mean “remov[ing] quality writers,” especially since with fewer jobs to go around the pool of writers without a steady gig grows ever-larger. But James suggests that the lack of security also affects the way those writers write, contrasting the current crop with “the notorious Evening Standard critic” Alexander Walker.
[I]f critics have become less important it is partly because of the climate of fear the lack of jobs creates. Walker, for instance, was often outrageous and unforgettable in his views. Hardly anyone risks their reputation that way now.
Given that there are entire publications built around the idea of bucking conventional wisdom, I’m not sure that the freelance model encourages groupthink so much as shallowness of thought. (That is unless you’re a quote whore whose opinion goes wherever there’s a free meal.) Contrarianism gets click-throughs, but few publications pay enough to allow people who write for a living to spend much time on an individual piece, let alone do the kind of background research that makes for especially insightful criticism, and the pace with which new content goes up on the web leaves little time for the editorial back-and-forth that might hone an argument to a fine point. It’s a shoot-from-the-hip world. Publish or perish.