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.


  1. Writing reviews is hard. Not many people talk about that when they are discussing criticism's death or vitality.

    It is a craft with some pretty rigorous guidelines and it is deadline driven. (So unappealing.)

    The last theater review proper I wrote on Mirror Up To Nature was in March for Educating Rita at the Huntington. I wrote a movie review of Super 8 on my Gate Dimension site. I find though, I don't have much to contribute more than is already touched on by most critics

    Actually, most of our major critics in this town, (Carolyn Clay, Terry Byrne, You, Bill Marx,) who write with some type of frequency have a very extensive background.

    However, with column inches continually shrinking for Clay, Byrne, Acouin and company, the "burden of past experience" which you talked about in one of your recent reviews is pretty much rendered useless.

    Only you and Bill have room to play with.

    My prediction is that the print areas will continue to decline until there are ONLY freelancers reviewing infrequently, even at the Globe. Of course, it may be that they cut it all together.

    There is a hunger out there though. The most recent Porgy and Bess review at the Globe was filled with comments about the style of the review, some were definitely wanting more.

    I'm not sure the Long Tail will provide enough, as you say, to earn even a modest living. But then again, artists have a hard time doing that, too!

    We film moguls though, well, we'll just keep an eye on the foreign box office!

  2. To be fair, unlike anyone else mentioned above, my own blogging had always been primarily focussed on documenting my own activities. To the extent that I conducted any "criticism," it has typically been because I find myself drawn into a controversy (say with my writings on Bread & Puppet founder Peter Schumann's crypto-fascism), and so I'm often more an "embedded reporter" than disinterested critic, and to the extent that I irregularly contribute to The Arts Fuse, so much is determined by what it is that I am sent to review. If it's the latest J.T. Rogers fiasco, I can play hardball, but if it's a classic Goldoni work, I can only discuss the competence of the ensemble-- and there is the additional problem (shared by Art) of being a practitioner as well: I cannot review a show by a Small Theatre Alliance of Boston member company without the appearance of a conflict of interest: as I sit on the Events Committee.

  3. Yes, a number of local writers have extensive backgrounds and experience - but what good does it do them, really, even with more column inches in which to expound their views? Marx can write as long as he likes now, but I don't see any deeper thoughts coming out of him. (Do you?) And take Carolyn Clay - people are often surprised by my contempt for her, until I ask them: Where is the legacy of her thirty years of critical writing? What is her theory - or what are her reservations regarding theory? Where is the influential article (or book!) you might expect to find in the three-decade-plus career of a Nathan Award winner? In five years of blogging I must have eclipsed her thirty years of published reviews by some exponential factor. And at even a deeper level - where is there any consistent sense of advocacy in her work? A critic can't really be a critic without being an advocate, I'm afraid. But Clay's intellectual history is utterly scrambled, and typified by a ditzy, if witty, pursuit of approval from whoever she thinks is in charge. But then most of these people, even those with extensive critical backgrounds, flee the responsibility of advocacy. They think they can cover that base with an award given at the end of the year that nobody really pays much attention to. (If only!) And so they're entirely reactive, basically supine before the hidden critical decisions going on in the academy, or behind closed doors in local board rooms. The web, it was once hoped, might change all that. But I'm afraid it hasn't.

  4. Your post has the odor of death about it, which would suck. Are you preparing your readership for the demise of The Hub Review? I would only try to talk you out of it for selfish reasons, because I enjoy reading it. Given all the realities you cite above, one can only speculate that the end might be near, and if you do continue, you'll do so only because you like doing it. And how much longer can that last?
    I agree with many of your statements in the post. I have had those same thoughts myself and continue to have them. The future of blogs is clearly murky, much like the American Theatre itself.

  5. I wonder if the various indy Boston theatre bloggers and/or critics would consider pooling their efforts into one central site. Take a look at for a look at what it could be; a central repository for news, reviews (their own as well as links to print media), etc., that gets enough traffic to merit selling ad space to theatres. (Perhaps what Larry's site could be with professional web design)

  6. Of course, another possible outcome of the demise of both print and blogospheric criticism is the rise of cultural reviews in the Yelp realm.

    Theaters might then be crying for the likes of Frank Rich and John Simon, no?

    Think of it: "The poster made it look like there were going to be boobies, but instead it was a bunch of idiots in leotards pretending they were 0n a ship. And $3 for a frickin'ghiardelli square! The one girl playing the fairy was hot though."

  7. To Ian - Sorry if my post sounded like an attack, it wasn't meant as that. There's certainly nothing wrong with blogging about one's own activities, or promoting one's own shows! The general issue, I think, arises when we begin to imagine that kind of thing can substitute for actual discussion. And just btw, when you do set down to write a think piece, Ian (as you did in your articles about "Henry V" and "Merchant of Venice") you come up with some of the most in-depth writing around.

    To Tom Loughlin - thanks for your comment; there are still about 600 or 700 people who feel the way you do - or at any rate they read me consistently! And no, I'm not trying to prepare anyone for the demise of the Hub Review, but at the same time I have to admit the thought of putting an end to all this effort has occurred to me more than once, and as I'm looking for a job right now it has also occurred to me that the blog probably counts against me (nobody hires anyone opinionated or articulate). So the future is, as you say, murky, but not completely dark just yet.

    To John - ideas like yours have been batted about for some time - back when I was with the IRNEs, I suggested putting such a site together at least a dozen times; but it seems to have taken most local critics a loooong time to get comfortable with the idea of publishing on the web, and of course we are a fractious lot. And as a side note, it's worth mentioning that TimeOut's foray into the Boston scene - which was a lot like the site you describe - seems to have collapsed, or at any rate it looks pretty dormant these days. Still, perhaps someday we will actually be able to cooperate on the kind of coordinated calendar-website you envision!

  8. Tom:

    I didn't take your comment as an attack. I saw it as your wish that I would write more think-pieces-- and I appreciated it greatly. I was merely explaining why I can't always be as prolific as you might like!

    I have seen the DC Theatre Scene website of which John speaks and it really is a terrific resource when I am visiting family.

  9. I will add a few thoughts about how such a site, backed by the IRNEs, could survive and perhaps even flourish.

    But key to such a vision, I think, is the spectre of - yes - money, i.e., donations. Criticism as a charity??? you cry, When theatre itself often goes begging??? Well, it's kind of a hard sell, I agree - but then ask yourself, can theatre survive long as a real art form without real criticism? Your mileage may differ on that question, but my answer is "no."

    And a donation structure for local criticism could free up reviewers from the constraints that are dogging them these days. The IRNEs could tell Kati and Shawn - or anyone else who felt they "deserved" better reviews than they were getting - to go jump in a lake, for instance, whenever they threatened to withhold tickets from established critics, if there were a fund to support tickets for those out of favor. (One obvious rule, btw, that should be in place at the IRNEs is that theatres should be disqualified from any awards if they attempt to harass or silence critics over their reviews.)

    Of course donations and grants often come with their own strings attached - look at the example of the Arts Fuse, for instance, which has won grants to support some of its writing. Alas, most of those articles have turned out to have all the critical thrust of a wet noodle; indeed, they have often amounted to little more than re-formulations of the assumptions of the organizations that have sponsored them. So this is hardly a panacea.

    On the other hand, it might not take much to keep a volunteer organization like the IRNEs going (and keep it truly independent, too). And with a coordinated, single forum, the organization might develop a more structured and comprehensive review and award process as well.

    This, of course, would require a genuinely independent mindset from everyone - as well as a new esprit de corps, if you will, and a deeper commitment to cooperation. And there are folks for whom this kind of freedom and autonomy could be a little frightening, I think. But I feel the path forward to a genuinely flourishing critical scene will require a thorough consideration of those issues.

  10. Regarding your decline in daily pageviews - I've switched to almost exclusively reading The Hub Review through my rss reader, as I'm sure many others have. It may not be that your readership is down so much as the way they are accessing the content has changed.

  11. Maybe! Thanks for pointing that out; let's hope that's it! ;-)