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Critical Mass: Taking Buyouts

Critical Mass: Taking Buyouts

In the past few days, I’ve received news that two more Atlanta-based film critics are leaving positions at their respective papers behind.

The Alias Man?

Bob Longino (who also allegedly wrote under the pseudonym Alan Smithee for a know-it-all-answer man-reader-mail column) informed me by email in which he reported, “I am one of 73 people at the AJC who accepted buyout offers…I flipped-flopped for days back and forth over the decision … but I’ve also seen the movie staff dwindle here from three writers to just me so it felt like the right time to go.”

Less than a year ago, the AJC’s other two film critics, Atlanta stalwarts Eleanor Ringel and Steve Murray were among those affected by earlier rounds of downsizing.

In the months since, the AJC’s once vital Movies and More section has become a shadow of its former self. 100% of the film reviews that run in the paper come from wire services–meaning we are treated to reviews by Chicago’s Roger Ebert, Washinton’s Ann Hornaday, Orlando’s Roger Moore and others.

Bob Longino’s coverage has centered on the film scene, interviews, and local coverage. Because of the seriousness with which he approached film culture, the Atlanta Film Festival has thrived in recent years. Coverage in the paper of record is invaluable to a non-profit event such as ours. Since we cannot afford to buy ads on par with a studio or commercial distributor. By running photos, stories, articles, interviews, and recommendations the AJC elevated a slate of “unknowns” to the level of commercial and studio releases. Without a full time critic with the history, knowledge, and critical acumen of a Bob Longino on staff, I fear that festival coverage will suffer mightily. Making it all the more difficult to reach out to the masses. Coverage in the paper lends credibility, respectability, and legitimacy to smaller indie works. Without it, such projects will suffer without mainstream coverage.

On behalf of the Atlanta Film Festival, and as a resident of Atlanta with a serious interest in the health of the film-going community, I am devastated by this news.

Now that Bob is leaving,what motivation is left for someone like me–an Atlantan with an interest in film culture– to subscribe to the AJC? If the Movies and More section will now run nothing but national wire feeds, why should I bother to subscribe? More puzzling to me is the lack of understanding of the value of their own Web site…in other words, what reason to I have to visit it? If all they are running is a cross section of national critics, why wouldn’t I just go to Rotten Tomatoes. I now have NO reason to visit AJC.com for film since every single review is available elsewhere.

The critical staff at the city’s free weekly, Creative Loafing, is in flux. Longtime reviewer Felicia Feaster took on a position as a Senior Editor at the upscale Atlantan Magazine, while editor David Lee Simmons tells me he was recently laid off “along with another senior staffer due to some serious budget cuts.”

Such losses are not unique to Atlanta.

Three months ago, one of the greatest papers in the country announced More than 100 Post Journalists Take Buyout

Among those who knew when to walk away are film critics Desson Thomson and Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter who joked, “I realized about a year ago I no longer had to be the film critic. Part of it was New York Avenue fatigue, part of it was movie fatigue, part of it was CGI fatigue,” he said, referring to digitally rendered movie special effects. “I’m doing what The Post would not do: I’m firing myself for being too old.”

The capable Ann Hornaday is the sole film critic left at the Post. Good thing for those of us in Atlanta. We’ll be treated to her reviews as well. She’s the closest thing to Atlanta’s sole critic, too.

The film industry faces an uncertain future. At the same time new technologies have radically impacted the distribution landscape, newspaper publishers are dealing with challenges of their own. They are panicking about dwindling readership and the rise of the Web.

Unfortunately, most papers have done such irreparable damage to their own staffs that they have all but sealed their fate–declining readership has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The big question is: Is it curtains for critics? In a thoughtful, and predictably cheeky piece in London’s Guardian, Jay Rayner reflects:

“Across America it’s a different story. Paid newspaper critics from a number of disciplines are being laid off or redeployed, their judgment deemed superfluous to requirements in the age of the net. Book review pages are becoming increasingly skinny. Television sections are disappearing. In April, Sean Means, the film critic of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, used his blog to publish a roll call of his movie-reviewing colleagues who, since the spring of 2006, were no longer in the opinion business: ‘Steve Ramos, Cincinnati CityBeat, position eliminated … Jami Bernard, New York Daily News, contract not renewed … Michael Atkinson, Village Voice, laid off …’ At that point it ran to 28 names across the US media but since then it has stretched inexorably on.

Others soon started taking notice, with both the entertainment industry journal Variety and the Los Angeles Times publishing large pieces on the death of the critic. As Patrick Goldstein put it in the LA Times: ‘Critics are being downsized all over the place, whether it’s in classical music, dance, theatre or other areas of the arts. While economics are clearly at work here – seeing their business model crumble, many newspapers simply have decided they can’t afford a full range of critics any more – it seems clear we’re in an age with a very different approach to the role of criticism.’

It appears that consumers no longer feel the need to obtain their opinions from on high: the authority of the critic, derived from their paid position on a newspaper, is diminished. Opinion has been democratised.”

Why buy the cow?

With the proliferation of bloggers, critics, and the like, willing to give the content away for free, why should papers continue to maintain professional staffs?

Why should we be alarmed by this development? (And isn’t it ironic that I am writing a blog about it?)

1) Democratised of opinion does not always lead to clearheaded critical voice. If anything, it reflects what is popular.
2) A respectable publication adheres to journalistic ethics and standards. While blogs and other online critics are not subject to same editorial vetting. If anything, those without reliable paycheck might be susceptible to corruption; Wired referenced the proliferation of “Fanboy Junkets” designed to cater to this new brand of critic when covering the Fantastic Four marketing plan.
3) Critics are paid to watch everything. They are committed toy to watch not only the good films, but also to endure the bad ones. As such, they approach the task of criticism with a refined palate, and an elevated presence of mind that others can’t fully appreciate.
4) Critics devote significant time, energy and thought to the process of analyzing of the work, fitting into a larger overall context. Because they are paid (and expected!) to do so, their output is prolific. This is not a hobby, it is a vocation.

With paid positions for professional critics endangered, the question arises: Now what?

One strategy is that blogger/critics will continue to proliferate, filling the void left behind in the wake of so much downsizing and out-buying and pink-slipping and off-laying.

In the future, everyone will be a freelancer. How will critics find revenue streams to support their writing? Personal sponsors? Add revenue from online ad sales? Paid subscribers? Medici-like benefactors? Those who can’t find support, will continue to give it away. They shouldn’t quit their day jobs. But they also shouldn’t give-up their life of blogging, should they?

Back in May 2007, Anthony Kaufman posted a blog delineating the relative value of Bloggers and Cloggers.

Judging from the litany of masturbatory self-congratulatory comments by readers of his blog, the cloggers have swallowed the Flavorade.

There is something to Anthony’s question that deserves serious consideration:”who are these people?” (When one clogger answers “‘who are these people?’ is easily answered if you read the blogger’s ‘about’ page…and any blogger’s writing will quickly reveal itself to be a waste of time or not, what a ridiculous reason to fret…all i see in this post is more of old-media’s attempts to view new media in old-media terms…”)

The cloggers feel they are up for the task of toppling the Ivory tower. Over a year later, the downfall of serious professional criticism is all but inevitable. It’s not a matter of if…it is a matter of when.

Question: once they’ve toppled the “old-media,” do the cloggers have a reconstruction strategy? Or will chaos ensue?

I think perhaps the solution lies here, in the words of, ahem, Anton Ego, the critic in the film Ratatouille:

His words (my bold added):
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

This self-reflexive bit of writing, contains the two keys to why critics matter:

1) But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Because a professional critic has a sustained body of work, when a critic makes a true discovery, their opinion actually matters. The fact is criticism is NOT democratic. Nor should it be. This does not mean all critics agree…that’s the beauty of it. A great critic brings a consistent worldview to their work which illuminates the subject. Their perspective often tells you new things not only about the work itself, but about the world at large.

2) In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.. This is the escape hatch from the elite, ivory tower, argument. To paraphrase, In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Sujewa”s famous motto: Anyone can be a critic. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great critic, but a great critic can come from anywhere.

It is for this reason that I lament the downfall of the professional critic. For once the papers and Web sites no longer pay critics to ply their trade, where are the truly great critics to go?

One blogger I know asked: “Why do we blog?… I write blogs to express myself, but in all honesty, I guess I’m hoping someone will read it and be amused, or touched, or mad, or whatever… I think I actually need to know that someone knows how I feel or think–be it pathetic or not. In the end, I think blogging serves as some sort of indirect way to validate existence and assigns meaning to your life, thoughts and feelings.”

I blog, therefore I am.

Will bloggers simply live to write? Or can they write to live? Will cloggers be left facing the sad prospect of paid work, and hobby writing?

Can cloggers and the new generation of critics make a living as writers?

If they can’t, what are the long range implications?

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