Media Notes: Are newspaper critics old hat amid the flood of online critics?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; C01

In the broad sweep of media history, the cancellation of "At the Movies" may simply mark the end of a program that had passed its sell-by date.

Or the demise of the old Siskel & Ebert vehicle may, in the words of current co-host A.O. Scott, reflect the triumph of "self-credentialed commenters," who "snark and snipe" online, over "a remnant of over-entitled old-media graybeards."

Scott is a full-service film critic for the New York Times. But are he and his colleagues -- who opine on cinema, theater, television, books, music, art, restaurants and the like -- now dinosaurs?

As a reader, I love some critics and love to hate others. They conduct a running conversation with their followers, who may take their advice or defy it. And maybe that marks me as a relic of the Paleozoic era as well.

The explosion of online opinions -- amateur filmgoers on Rotten Tomatoes, ordinary readers on Amazon, casual diners on Yelp -- is fun and entertaining. It can be revealing to find out what people like you, uncredentialed as they may be, think about the new Meryl Streep movie, Philip Roth novel or noodle joint down the street. But why does that supplant the need for full-time reviewers?

"We're all critics," says blogger, veteran editor and onetime critic Jeff Jarvis. "If I were starting Entertainment Weekly today, it wouldn't be a magazine, and it likely wouldn't hire critics."

Jarvis, who was the magazine's founding editor in 1990, says publications insist on employing their own critics for one reason: "Ego. Is the 87th critic writing the 87th review in Topeka going to be better than A.O. Scott? Probably not. We can't afford repetition in journalism anymore."

Terry Teachout, a Wall Street Journal drama critic, lauds the way the Web is "enabling new voices." But, he says, "there will always be a place for literate, well-informed drama criticism about performances taking place in Chicago or L.A. or St. Louis. You can't outsource that function."

With the newspaper industry shrinking, Teachout says: "I fear that generation of critics is not going to be replaced. It's not enough to have a reporter who says the local museum has bought a new Picasso. It's also necessary to have someone on your staff who knows whether it's museum-quality and is worth $5 million."

The debate was rekindled last month when longtime Journal restaurant critic Raymond Sokolov resigned after the paper asked him to write about food trends instead. As blogger Josh Ozersky observed on "When you like a critic, you trust his judgment not because he has a doctorate in food letters, although such things do apparently exist. He's proved himself over a long period. You know what he likes or dislikes. You get him. . . . When you're looking at getting a babysitter and maybe dropping three bills on dinner, you need to minimize risk."

A few short decades ago, critics ruled. Whether it was Craig Claiborne at the Times or Pauline Kael at the New Yorker, they were part of an elite corps of tastemakers. The culture has changed, the five-star reviewers are less influential and the masses have stormed the gates.

Some of the coveted print jobs have simply vanished. The shuttering or shrinking of newspaper book sections has meant fewer reviewers. Variety stunned the industry by laying off its chief film critic and its theater critic. Ruth Reichl was one of the last towering food critics, but Conde Nast closed her magazine, Gourmet, last fall.

Newspapers and magazines were built on the smorgasbord model, serving a little something for everyone. But in the age of Google and Bing, growing hordes of people simply search for precisely what they need. That has pushed the pendulum toward a word-of-mouth arena in which anyone can play.

Take Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates all kinds of print and online reviews. The Sandra Bullock movie "Blind Side" scored an average of 6.3 (on a scale of 10) when the Web site evaluated what 25 "top critics" had to say (those who write for the biggest outlets or who are included "based on their influence, reach, reputation, and/or quality of writing"). But when calculating 2,799 reviews by the "RT Community," the score jumped to 7.9. One-click shopping; why bother reading the actual prose?

There are also countless blogs such as Connie's Movie Reviews, maintained by a librarian in Lebanon, Ind. And people get lots of film feedback from their friends on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, two Silicon Valley researchers told the Los Angeles Times that they can predict with as much as 97.3 percent accuracy how a film will perform in its first weekend based on the tenor of the tweets.

But isn't there room for coexistence? I happen to like pizza blogs such as Slice, but I also read Tom Sietsema's Washington Post restaurant reviews. I like that critics know far more than me about how chefs assemble dishes or directors assemble movies.

The notion that the blog culture has rendered critics redundant is ultimately an argument against specialists. And that debate stretches from the world of culture to the nature of journalism itself -- and whether its practitioners, who poke and probe on the public's behalf, have outlived their usefulness.

In a piece on the Daily Beast, former Post gossip columnist Lloyd Grove questioned whether the White House press corps is becoming irrelevant. After all, he reasoned, the Obama administration has all these new-media tools at its disposal "without relying on third parties" -- including 1.7 million followers on Twitter and 500,000 fans on Facebook.

But news organizations have the same tools, and the president's constant stream of interviews shows that he understands their continuing clout. Yes, Obama could have tweeted his new nuclear warfare strategy, but he chose to unveil it last week in an interview with the New York Times.

The litmus test, then, is whether the journalist or the critic, by virtue of his expertise or connections or digging or sheer writing skill, adds significant value -- that is, value beyond what a reasonably intelligent political junkie or foodie could produce in his spare time. Those who can will survive; the rest may be swept out by the online tide.

"If Roger Ebert says it, does it carry value? Yes," Jarvis allows. "But how many Roger Eberts are out there, and how many do we need?"

Meet the set

The look is ultramodern: floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a pair of huge video screens with a White House backdrop, a small, circular glass table as well as a larger, rectangular one.

David Gregory is excited about the "striking" new set for "Meet the Press," which debuts May 2. "This is part of the evolution of the program," he says. "For the Gregory era of the program, there's a visual piece of that. It doesn't limit me to one position. It allows me to use technology in various ways. I can even stand."

Gregory has hung onto the No. 1 Sunday spot since succeeding the late Tim Russert, averaging 3.5 million viewers this year to just under 3 million for "Face the Nation" on CBS and 2.6 million for ABC's "This Week." The ABC program has been hurt by rotating hosts while waiting for Christiane Amanpour to take over in August. But accepting a challenge from New York University's Jay Rosen, interim host Jake Tapper has arranged for the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact site to fact-check what "This Week" guests say after each program.

An "interesting idea," Gregory allows, but not one the NBC show will be emulating. "People can fact-check 'Meet the Press' every week on their own terms."

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