Thumbs down

Some traditional critics would have you believe the Internet is an intellectual wasteland. Ryerson Review of Journalism writer Ava Baccari tells us why they are so wrong.


Some traditional critics would have you believe the Internet is an intellectual wasteland. Ryerson Review of Journalism writer Ava Baccari tells us why they are so wrong.


Globe and Mail culture reporter Kate Taylor has a flair for  the dramatic, which she proved again one evening when she made a rather perplexing analogy: a respectable film critic should possess the same omniscient authority as celebrity handyman Mike Holmes.
She was speaking at the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall, where a group of respected critics and journalists gathered last spring. In front of a packed audience of arts producers, consumers, bloggers and lecturers, Taylor discussed “Arts Journalism: Staying Critical in the Digital Age.” Joining Taylor on the panel were Canada AM heartthrob Seamus O’Regan, and former Globe theatre critic and Ryerson journalism assistant professor Kamal Al-Solaylee. Serving as moderator was Bronwyn Drainie, editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada. None of the panelists represent the forefront of online arts journalism. But they were all concerned about the fate of their profession. Game-changing technology has not only threatened the jobs they have or once had, but has also thrown into question the value and nature of criticism itself.

Staying critical in the digital age? The panel, sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, might have been better dubbed “Staying Defensive in the Digital Age.” The discussion focused largely on how traditional media could protect itself from the marauding, destabilizing influence of the Internet. Moderator Drainie, editor-in-chief of a publication with a website that’s not much more than a reduced digital facsimile of its print edition, strongly implied that in the raucous web, with its incessant roar of often amateur, occasionally uninformed opinion, it’s hard to find serious critical work. She claimed that her senior writers were reluctant to write exclusively for online publications, and that they still craved the full-circle satisfaction of seeing their work in print. Taylor went one step further. She told her Globe editors that arts reviewing is best left to those with real training and experience — just like home renovation. To illustrate, she rolled up her sleeves and did her best Mike Holmes impression. “Step aside, lady,” she said, “Let a pro take over here.” O’Regan bemoaned a critical culture devolving into mere yay-or-nay consumer reports: “It’s all thumbs up, thumbs down,” he said. Al-Solaylee suggested that “digital natives” — the ever-growing cohort that has grown up with Facebook and Twitter — isn’t necessarily concerned about the loss of lengthy, Anthony Lane-style movie reviews. But if we’re not aware of it, and if we don’t try to work with it, he warned, then we will lose the highly respected print critics for sure.

But “we” are not losing highly respected critics at all. Contrary to the stubborn, self-protective resistance of large segments of the traditional media, the Internet has spawned a more complex, interactive and varied proliferation of well-regarded critical voices — both professional and amateur, mainstream and underground, writing in both short and long forms. More significantly, the conversation has become two-way; readers and viewers still look to critics for guidance and wisdom, but they want their own voices to be heard as well. For the most part, the rise of the “citizen critic” has led to more frequent — and arguably much healthier — criticism. Enormous media institutions might fear the erosion of their hegemonic authority and the consequent dip in revenue and influence, but how many readers and viewers share that fear?

As newspapers shrink and disappear, daily cultural coverage shrinks along with them, being replaced and supplemented by thousands of websites and online publications devoted to that same coverage. Many of these are labours of love, run by unpaid, self-taught enthusiasts. But several others are produced and staffed by the same critical voices that once populated the mainstream media, and the line separating the two is becoming increasingly blurry, even irrelevant. Still, the subtle panic exhibited by Taylor, O’Regan and Al-Solaylee did raise a significant point. While online access has made it easy to be a critic, being a critic has never been an easy (or especially lucrative) job. And it’s more difficult than ever to make a living from it. Therefore, the real question for both old-school critics and burgeoning bloggers isn’t “Is the Internet destroying criticism?” but rather, “Who’s going to make any money off it?”

To read the rest of this article, see Thumbs Down at the Ryerson Review of Journalism website.