The “Problem” With Bloggers?

by Smartie on April 21, 2010

A few months ago, a playwright lamented about the (negative) blog reviews that his show had received. The Times had declined to review his show, and he felt that he would rather have a negative Times review show up at the top of the Google search than the negative reviews from the bloggers. The blog reviews, he felt, were uninformed and poorly written. At least the Times’ negative prose would be, I suppose, more mellifluous. Plus, it has authority.

He then quickly admitted that had the blog reviews been positive, he would feel differently.

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading endless articles and posts on bloggers vs. “critics.” It kind of reached critical mass a few weeks ago, when Variety fired its two most prominent critics (one film, one theater), followed by the cancellation of the TV program At the Movies. The outcry in the mainstream press was almost deafening.

And man there’s a lot to talk about with this, so this one post could very well could turn into a series.

This is not going to be a terribly objective post (or series). I love and embrace the bloggers. Now I don’t mean the fly-by-night websites that pop up when someone wants a free ticket (you know, the ones I don’t hear from for a year or more because they only want to see the “hot” show). I mean committed bloggers like Aaron Riccio or Leonard Jacobs (though Clyde Fitch is kind of turning into a mini-empire! Go Leonard!). And I am not sure if nytheatre.com is considered a blog, but according to Google Analytics, Martin Denton’s site is one of the top traffic drivers to a client’s website.

I have no idea what their “unique visitors” are, nor do I particularly care. I know they are writing for a very niche market, so their readership could very well be small. But whoever is reading their blogs definitely has an interest in theater. I want that audience. So, I like having them review my shows.

I suppose we should start with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s outcry in The Guardian about bloggers possibly sending Love Never Dies to an early grave. In the article, David Benedict (longtime London correspondent for Variety) laments what he perceives as the blogosphere’s lack of sophistication and knowledge to make an informed critical analysis.

“Unfortunately, Benedict feels, the egalitarian trend has affected the way professional critics are appointed, with an increasing number of jobs going to writers, rather than to theatre experts.

Here’s my counter-point. Rightly or wrongly (and that’s a whole other can o’ worms), the perception is that the New York Times holds all the critical weight for theater in New York. Most of the reviewing staff did not begin their jobs with the paper as experts.

Ben Brantley came to the chief theater critic position from reviewing films for Elle Magazine.  Charles Isherwood came to the Times from Variety, where he was theater editor, but I don’t know much about his background beyond that. “Butcher of Broadway” Frank Rich was a long-time play-goer and by his own accounts was smitten with Broadway musicals as a teen, but I don’t believe he went to University as a theater major. I believe the only writer there who studied theater in undergrad, and worked in professional theater in New York, is feature writer Steven McElroy. And he’s a freelancer, and not a critic.

Now I certainly do not think that Steven the only one qualified to write about theater. But, according to Mr. Benedict’s assessment, the New York Times has been egalitarian for decades.

Moving on to Time Out New York. David Cote, Adam Feldman and Helen Shaw all, I believe, have backgrounds in theater–University studies, professional experience (heck, Adam is a musical knowledge machine). So, they are certainly qualified to think critically of theater. But they are given such a small amount of space in Time Out for reviews, they are pretty well limited to the thumbs up/thumbs down method of reviewing. Can you fully and completely analyze a performance in 300 words or less? So qualifications are there, but space dictates the Consumer Reports-style reviewing so many decry. Do their backgrounds make them more legitimate for the thumbs up/down style of criticism? The very style often found on the web?

Back to our above mentioned bloggers. Leonard has a hard core background in theater–at the professional level, the scholarly level and the journalist level. nytheatre.com is Martin Denton’s second career, and began as a labor of love many many years ago. I am not sure what Aaron’s background is, but the guy’s knowledgeable.

And you know what I love from those three, regardless of their backgrounds? Their unbridled enthusiasm for what they are doing. When they show up for meet and greets, I always get the sense that they genuinely want to be there. They aren’t asking when they will get out of the show, like sitting through it is a 90 minute prison sentence. That, I believe, allows them to engage in the show with an open mind, and as little baggage as possible.

And speaking of baggage… Charles Isherwood recently wrote,

“…a responsible critic must acknowledge that idiosyncratic predilections may play into his or her responses to a show, and must be careful to separate considered aesthetic judgments from plain old personal prejudice.”

But I have had plenty of “legit” critics excuse themselves from coverage because they didn’t like the genre (solo shows) or the playwright (won’t mention names). In reality, it’s extremely hard to separate judgment from prejudice. Using his farce example, if you truly hate farce, how can you fairly review it? To a farce hater, sitting through it is torture. Can a rave even be possible? (Of course, there is the flip side, favoritism, where the favorite gets a critical pass.)

Phew. There are so many layers to this topic. So, yup, definitely a series, including tackling the “problem” with “I”, considering the very real possibility of losing “legit” press coverage for most of the arts and the influence of bloggers and critics (and does that even matter anymore).

Anything else on this topic you guys want to explore? Thoughts on this 1000  plus word opus? Let me know in the comments!

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The “Problem” With Bloggers Part 2: There Is No “I” In…
June 16, 2010 at 11:55 pm

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Monica Reida April 21, 2010 at 11:46 pm

I think that it depends on the blogger. One blogger in Chicago writes great reviews and didn’t study theater. He’s not “professional,” but he does write good reviews. A lot of bloggers that don’t have a theater background beyond a love for the theater blog because they’re passionate about theater and it is really evident when reading what they write.

I personally have had to step back from reviewing plays for various reasons. I don’t review plays at one theater in Iowa because I received a backlash from my last review that some board members and staff members led. I’m very young so I try to give somethings a chance. After living in Iowa, I hadn’t seen any decent farces until moving to Chicago. I personally don’t like the play Proof, but I just reviewed a production that rose above the material to present a great evening of theater. (Which, in my opinion, a play should be able to do if the script isn’t that great.)

I never view going to the theater as a chore; I miss seeing four plays a week when I lived in Chicago. Only if I’m really sick do I have a hard time sitting through a show because I can sort out my feelings on the way home and then express my frustrations with the show.

I’ve also had to sit between two of Chicago’s major print critics at a play and because of that, I do have more respect for some of my friends/colleagues that mainly write for the internet because they seem more engaged by a play and behave better than some of the print critics do.

Ultimately, I think that it depends on the blogger and critic with their approach to reviewing and press. The examples you give of Aaron, Leonard and Martin are good examples because of how much they put into their websites/blogs. For me, how much effort you put in does show me how much you care.

Christopher Zara April 22, 2010 at 12:17 am

Smartie, this was a thoughtful post on a fascinating topic.

I expect the line between bloggers and critics will only get murkier as time goes on. Still, I think it’s The New York Times, as a brand, that has the real power. When Brantley leaves, someone will take his place. With enough exposure to theater, any moderately talented scribe can become knowledgeable enough to craft a decent critique.

However, I agree with you completely that far too few critics in this town share the enthusiasm of a guy like Aaron Riccio. I’ve worked with Aaron a long time, and he truly does love theater. I figure he would be out there seeing the shows even if he weren’t writing about them, and, ultimately, that’s what makes a great critic.

Looking forward to part two in this series.

Smartie April 22, 2010 at 10:41 am

Hi Monica, I saw that kerfuffle play out on your blog. In a word, the theater was irresponsible to ask you to review the show. It was wrong (not to mention ethically challenged) for them to invite you to review but essentially on the condition that it was good. At any rate, I definitely agree it depends on the critic–be they at a “legit” publication or a blog. I think we kind of need to get over that one is legit and the other not. Plus, with all the media lay-offs, loads of former “legit” writers are heading online. Does that make them no longer “legit”?

Hi Chris, thanks so much for visiting! See my above comment, and yup, lines are murkier definitely. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the Times brand no longer holds as much power as it did, say, 10 years ago. They can no longer close a show (check out Wicked, and now The Addam’s Family). I have a post in draft mode about this, but still mulling it. Because the industry still puts so much weight on their assessment, but the general public? Not as much. What they do have, though, is reach.

And, basically, I kinda wish every reviewer was Aaron Riccio.

Dave Charest April 28, 2010 at 6:42 pm

Here’s what I believe is interesting about all this: We are all critics. We alway’s have been. And we always will be. It makes no difference whether or not we’re ‘educated.’ We all have a sphere of influence.

What’s scary to the traditional types is that now other people have a louder voice. Everyone is a publisher. New media tools give everyone an equal digital ground to start on. And so that sphere of influence grows.

It’s a bit condescending to think people can’t decipher between an opinion they can trust and one they cannot. The real problem is people feel threatened. That’s too bad. Maybe they’re not as great as they thought they were.

Keep them posts coming!

D.

Smartie April 30, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Hey Dave, I missed your comment for a few days! Yes, I completely agree. Based on the stories I have read by critics about why critics are important, I sense a real undercurrent of fear in what they write. And it’s certainly understandable–they are losing their jobs at a bit of a high pace. But I think if they embrace it, they may find more opportunity not less.

And this on the day it was reported that Todd McCarthy (former of Variety) is launching his own blog with the IndieWire network. As Chris pointed out, murkier and murkier.

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