Arts Journalism: Staying Critical in the Digital Age

Three arts journalists discuss criticism, gossip and why box office stats don’t matter. Mira Saraf reports.

Last week, the Canadian Journalism Foundation hosted a panel discussion with Kate Taylor, columnist and feature writer for Globe & Mail (currently on leave), Seamus O’Regan, co-host of CTV’s Canada AM, host of Arts & Minds and The O’Regan Files and Kamal Al-Solaylee, Assistant professor of Journalism at Ryerson University. Bronwyn Drainie, editor of the Literary Review of Canada, moderated the discussion. Check out the webcast here.

In March, Hollywood trade publication Variety Magazine let go a number of staff members, including chief film critic Todd McCarthy and chief theatre critic David Rooney. Later that month, Disney cancelled their At The Movies show after a three-decade run. The face of arts journalism is changing. 

Kate Taylor and Seamus O'Regan
Globe and Mail columnist Kate Taylor (L) and Bravo! Arts&Minds host Seamus O’Regan discuss their roles as arts journalists in the competitive blogosphere. They appeared on a panel along with Ryerson journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee at the CJF Forum “Arts Journalism: Staying Critical in the Digital Age”.

The panellists spoke about the changing role of arts criticism in today’s media. What does the shift to the Internet mean for the future of arts journalism? What steps can be taken to ensure that it continues to thrive as an avenue for people to earn a living?

The first question raised to the panellists was whether or not the critic has become obsolete. Today anyone can visit a theatre, update their blog and become a “critic”. Although all three panellists agreed that there was a definite quality difference between mainstream media criticism and opinions and those you find across the blogosphere, Al-Solaylee pointed out that members of the younger generation don’t place the same value on legacy media that older generations do.

While blogosphere criticism may not feel authentic today, this could change. Al-Solaylee noted that his students were very adept at moving between digital and lived culture, and most importantly they still recognized the importance of real-life cultural interactions, like face-to-face communication. O’Regan pointed out that when TTC chairman Adam Giambrone’s young lover came public, she chose legacy media to tell her story, not the Internet.

The panellists discussed the fact that much of a film’s success is now measured from box office results, rather than the critic’s opinion, which shows a major shift in the value placed on criticism. Taylor spoke of a disagreement a colleague had with an editor, who had written a headline describing a movie as a “hit”, when the critic had written an article about how terrible it was. What has caused box office numbers to trump quality? Al-Solaylee blamed the shift on a lack of editorial leadership in Canadian newspapers, and said many editors don’t value the arts.

The panellists lamented the lack of time to engage audiences via the Internet, a la Roger Ebert, and the arts section’s shift to gossip and box office stats. Taylor admits to arguing with her editors about playing up celebrity gossip stories. This puts a publication in direct competition with…everyone. What can a Canadian paper possibly add to the discussion? “We don’t have a correspondent in L.A.,” she points out, which means a lot of the coverage is neither original nor Canadian. The only real “value-added” content a publication like the Globe can produce is Canadian content, she says.

A writer from Mondoville, a blog that covers Toronto events, wrote a blog post before the event that was addressed during the discussion:

“None of the four old-school speakers — including Canada AM co-host Seamus O’Reagan — has apparently ever filed a piece of arts journalism customized for said digital age. But does anyone want to know about an alternative with no clear path to dividends? More intriguing are those remaining arts journalism workhorses who are still assigned to process every screening, concert or volume that passes their desk — especially those which have already been picked over in New York or L.A. Do they think they are providing a necessary service anymore? Why doesn’t their web desk just throw up a page with a video embed, quotes from more authoritative first-hand sources, and maybe a copy-and-paste press release? Most full-time critics never offered anything discernibly different from that, anyhow.”

The panellists argued that nobody would want to watch clips of people leaving a theatre and commenting on their experience. They made the point that traditional journalists aren’t all that technologically ignorant; many have blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts. If old media and new could work together and learn from each other, everyone could benefit.

Towards the end of the discussion they touched on the issue of making a living through the Internet. Would establishing yourself in the blogosphere and having readers pay a subscription fee work? How about charging for access to a specific critic’s column? What is the role of personal branding online?
So far there seems to be no clear answer to these questions, mostly because we’re all still waiting to see how the future will unfold. The industry is closely watching Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as he attempts to start charging for online access to various publications, including the Wall Street Journal.  The important thing, the panellists point out, is to continue the conversation: what form will arts criticism take in the coming years, and are you willing to pay for it? As O’Regan said, “there are going to be way more questions leaving this room than answers.”

The Canadian Journalism Foundation’s next panel (May 2010) will be about the role of public editors.

Mira Saraf quit her full-time 9-5 job in November 2009 to pursue a dream that had lingered in her mind for nine years: to be a writer. She is currently a continuing studies student at the University of Toronto and an intern at EYE weekly where she is working to build her writing portfolio.