Dec 8, 2008

Another Great Invalid

I once wondered, in a weak, self-doubting moment, how I had ended up invested in, or on the side of, what felt like so many lost or disrespected causes: mainline Christianity, mainstream liberalism, arts journalism, musical theater, theater in general. To those seemingly-always-losing-ground concerns, I might add music (as a business, at least) and journalism/criticism in the age of the Internets. As much as I feel invigorated by the trends I've highlighted here and here, I can't deny that to make ends meet, I've mostly had to think outside the box of the actual journalism industry (and the cratered music business, for that matter). Though he's mostly stating the obvious, coming from blog optimist Andrew Sullivan, this pre-mortem has an especial sting. His diagnosis:
The problem here, however, is that online advertising, while growing, is not growing fast enough to replace print advertising. It almost certainly will one day, but the distance between the print sinking ship and the online life raft was always perilously long. And now the recession has whipped the waters between into hurricane turbulence. I have a feeling that if and when the storm ends, there will be few ships left and only a few survivors clinging onto small but buoyant dinghies.

And he concedes the most damning retort to media optimists:
The terrifying problem is that a one-man blog cannot begin to do the necessary labour-intensive, skilled reporting that a good newspaper sponsors and pioneers. A world in which reporting becomes even more minimal and opinion gets even more vacuous and unending is not a healthy one for a democracy. Perhaps private philanthropists will step in and finance not-for-profit journalistic centres, where investigative and foreign reporting can be invested in and disseminated by blogs and online sites. Maybe reporter-bloggers will start rivalling opinion-mongers such as me and give the whole enterprise some substance. Maybe papers can slim down sufficiently to produce a luxury print issue and a viable online product. There’s always a hunger for news, after all.

My question, then, is what to do about this state of affairs, except wring our hands? Shrinking space, particularly for arts coverage, has been a recurring theme since I started in print journalism nearly 20 years ago. But as my own reading and consuming habits, and those of the generation coming up behind me, have migrated inexorably to the Web, I have found access to more, not less, arts coverage and criticism, and my writing has arguably reached as many if not more readers through the Web than it ever did in print (the line blurs a bit here, since though I've essentially left the journalism-industrial complex for my living, I still freelance for a number of print publications with a much bigger Web presence and legitimacy than I've got on my own; that Sullivan's blog beats major news organizations in Web traffic is a glaring neon sign of the times).

In one of the few ink publications I still tote around for subway reading, The New Yorker, I came across this speculative analogy, in Adam Gopnik's recent piece:
Samuel Johnson arrived in London in March of 1737, at the age of twenty-seven. He...had no luck in his dream, of becoming a London writer and wit, for a very long time. He had the misfortune to have arrived in London in a time not unlike this one, with the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media barely paying. The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money from publishers, was not yet in place. The only way to make a living was to publish, for starvation wages, in the few magazines that had come into existence. Johnson worked as a miscellaneous journalist, carrying his clips around and begging for assignments.

Sounds like fun. And here's a tart little cautionary aside that may also seem relevant to our time, particularly in the blogosphere:
The new order had also produced a permanently bitter and underemployed class of writers, who had meant to be Popes but were left to be merely beggars in the square outside, and they made their living working for penny-a-line pamphlets and cheap gossip tabloids, creating a constant mouse scream of malice that runs in counterpoint to Johnson’s grave sonorities.

A final meat for the stew: the Web's lack of space restrictions blessedly allows Playgoer to write 5,480 words about a recent disgrace at the Times (the public editor's kowtowing to the Catholic League over Jason Zinoman's review of Corpus Christi). Garrett has some ads on his site, but I doubt he's making serious bank for writing that long, and that passionately, about something he cares about—nor does he have an editor pressuring to him to temper or trim his views.

In short, our current cultural moment, in which unpaid or barely paid self-publishers and freelancers can have their say and reach an audience with a minimum of investment and no limits on expression but their own imagination and stamina, may soon enough be a moment we'll look back at with a wistfulness rivalling our current eulogies for the newspaper business—either that, or this new-media moment of simultaneous scarcity and opportunity is a small eddy that will swell into the wave of the future. We can't know, but as for me, I'll keep looking forward as much as I look back.


Lindsay Price said...

If Blogging is a now medium as Sullivan points out, we should live in that now. I too was amazed by The Playgoer's recent extensive piece and more power to him.

I suspect that blogs are on a wave. The generation coming up is going to take social media to a whole new level - sure the form of the blog will change but so it should.

And I can't fathom why people need to toll the death of everything. Less death knell-ing (hmmm nice word choice) would be awesome.

RLewis said...

Not to continue the search for death knells, but maybe this is just a phase. I mean, in the 3 yrs I've been following theater blogs it's easy to see that they peaked and are already dieing out or transitioning into more multi-topic current events. They require an ongoing fresh-meat mentally that I admire anyone who can keep one going.

Maybe the critic-o-meter and the re-improved theater web are more like the future, but probably only if they find an advertising base, cuz isn't journalism just filler for ads?