Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Remember when blogs were supposed to be . . . well, the future of arts journalism?
It wasn't so long ago - and yet it feels like a different era, doesn't it. When I began writing The Hub Review almost five years ago (yes, it has been that long, hublings!) the print press was in crisis, its revenue model undermined by Craig's List and its distribution model made obsolete by the rest of the Internet. The size of the city papers had begun to shrink, and therefore the ranks of the critical profession had collapsed in tandem (and most of the major magazines had all but eliminated their performing arts reviewers long ago). Meanwhile cultural blogs seemed to be popping up like mushrooms, largely because, well, everybody's got an opinion, and it cost nothing but time and effort to publish yours in a blog. No one was sure where this brave new world was headed, but it was widely believed that, one way or another, the print establishment was going the way of the brontosaurus.
But those brontosauri slimmed down, shedding their union contracts and distribution costs. And technology began to evolve in a way that undermined the "open range" version of the original Internet. Personal digital devices - rather than computers - began to roam cyberspace and tailor its content into marketable packages. And the print behemoths of old managed to hang onto their brand hegemony in a reduced form as they used their name recognition to build new presences on the Web.
What's more, no viable revenue model materialized for the blogosphere - as I predicted years ago, in my article "The Future Will Not Be Monetized." Contrary to the breathless promises of Google, et. al., the advertising economics of the Web required that a blog find an enormous audience to sustain itself - which meant that culture, or at least serious culture, wasn't going to make the cut. You could launch a blog by basing it on national politics, as Andrew Sullivan and Arianna Huffington did, or on celebrity sleaze like Paris Hilton, or by tailoring its content to some national niche audience, like the parents of twins, or fans of Julia Child. But you couldn't do it based on critiques and thought pieces concerning events that, in the end, only a couple of hundred people would ever see.
And then there was - to put it bluntly - the problem of critical talent, and seriousness. It turned out that most of the people capable of keeping up a worthwhile blog had already been tapped in one way or another by the traditional media (yours truly included; believe it or not, I once wrote for the Globe, which I now so often ridicule!). Shockingly, it became clear that critical talent is far rarer than artistic talent - indeed, it may be the rarest talent of all; in Boston, for example, there are dozens of talented actors, and probably hundreds of talented musicians and artists. Yet how many critics are worth reading? Maybe a dozen - if that! - among all genres and fields? Local actors who had their feelings trampled by harsh reviews sometimes grumbled that writing a blog post was easier than toasting a frozen waffle - but reality shouted the opposite; as the years wore on it became clear that there is no vast untapped reservoir of critical talent out there.
Stranger still, it slowly became clear that the limited, middlebrow musings of the print press were, indeed, all that the local population wanted to hear about its high culture industry. The average Bostonian, I think, wants to have a high-culture industry - because that's what a "world-class" city should have. But he or she doesn't want to know all that much about it - much less about the troubling ideas, or political issues, that a genuinely thriving arts scene inevitably provokes. Thus the issues and questions surrounding our arts community are relentlessly tamped down by our editors and reviewers. For make no mistake, the past few years have been tumultuous ones for the local scene: the BSO has seen its artistic leadership collapse in slow motion, even as two major artistic directors of the theatre scene were ousted from their positions for reasons unknown, while another transformed a leading non-profit's second stage into a personal cash cow. Over the same period, a major university attempted to sell off its world-class art collection, while a scandal emerged in the leadership of the city's largest performance space, and various local organizations flirted with financial disaster. The past five years have been a very rough ride; but while some of these stories have received substantial press coverage, most of them haven't. And it seems that the print critics have either been censored from discussing them in their reviews, or have known better than to even try. Thus their "evaluations" inevitably exist in a kind of vacuum, and political discussions are limited to essentially settled (even dead) issues like sexism and racism (which, tellingly, are now critical obsessions).
What's most depressing is that the blogosphere hasn't done much better on these counts; the decline in critical courage has taken its toll on the screen as well as the page. I can't think of any blogger but myself who is unafraid of courting controversy - and indeed, when Bill Marx, formerly known as the most aggressive critic in the print press, finally built his website, the Arts Fuse, it turned out to be more toothless than any print organ he'd ever written for. And the rest of Boston's bloggers don't even dare to go as far as he does.
Of course it's easy enough to see why this should be so; the power in the critical relationship has largely shifted to performing arts organizations, who control the tickets and the advertisements. Bloggers don't have the political weight of a newspaper; and thus, ironically enough, despite the lack of editorial censorship on the Web, bloggers are generally forced to self-censor to print standards anyway; they generally color within the lines set down by the print press editors, who are themselves controlled by ad revenues and the social connections of their managers. And when that doesn't happen, look to the performing arts organizations themselves to make their move - witness the long campaign against me by the A.R.T. and Company One at the IRNEs; the A.R.T.'s attacks lasted two years before they bore fruit (longer than it would have taken at the Globe, let me tell you!), but still, unrelenting threats and pressure inevitably had their effect.
So it's not surprising that many critical blogs, like Leonard Jacobs's Clyde Fitch Report, have closed up shop (as Big Red and Shiny did in Boston), and that many of the city papers have shuttered their performing arts blogs, too; meanwhile newcomers have had trouble gaining any kind of public traction. Even well-known figures like Joyce Kulhawik have pretty much failed at creating a profile for their blogs - and my stats, which used to consistently chart above a thousand readers a day, in recent months have shown a slow, but steady, decline to about two-thirds that. Of course there are still some lights on the local scene - the indispensable Greg Cook is still holding forth on the visual arts, and one classical site, the Boston Musical Intelligencer, seems to have maintained its audience (although it feels like a kind of academic in-house effort, with professorial friends of friends reviewing yet other friends - and while it's certainly erudite, you couldn't call the writing compelling). Meanwhile my friends Art Hennessey and Ian Thal still post, although they're generally more into being film moguls or mimes, respectively. Nevertheless, it's hard to fight the impression that blogging is, in the end, a losing game - there's no revenue in it, and no power, either - and often little differentiation from what's available in print, to boot.
What's left, therefore, are the self-promotional blogs, like Parabasis, or all those playwrights' blogs - more disguised advertisement - or the occasional effort by a recent college graduate, who averages two or three posts a month. It's really not much, but something tells me it's more than we're likely to see in the future.