I’m about to fly back from the Opera America National Conference in LA. In between an inspiring social media seminar (seriously) and Achim Freyer’s Die Walkure, there was a session titled “Critics, Bloggers, and the Changing Media Landscape.” The panel was moderated by Sherry Stern, editor of the LA Times Culture Monster blog, with guest speakers Anne Midgette of the Washington Post, Mark Swed of the LA Times, Tim Mangan of the OC Register, and Brian Holt of Out West Arts. Needless to say, Anne, Mark, and Tim all have my deepest fanboy admiration and collectively, their writing has played a serious role in my musical education. Education might sound strong, but if a writer fosters your discovery of new music and challenges how you listen, I don’t know what else to call it.
So what happens when three of the top classical music writers in the country, plus one self made blogger, come together to talk about the beast that is “the changing media landscape”? Apparently nothing deeply revealing, but there was the occasional gem, so here’s a little recap:
Brian Holt was underused on the panel, and he seemed slightly reverential to the other writers, rejecting Anne Midgette’s insistence that he too is a capital J Journalist. Yet in response to the question of why he started blogging, he accidentally let loose a zinger: “I started blogging because there wasn’t anything being written that I wanted to read.”
Mark Swed played the role of the scholarly curmudgeon. As a self proclaimed anarchist one might think he would have a natural fondness for blogging and its implications, but he prefers his news slow to fast and feels freer with an editor. He compared himself to John Cage and Marcel Duchamp, artists who managed to be revolutionary from within the confines of the establishment. Mark believes “we need a filtering system” and he has resisted social media, saying he isn’t a self-promoter. But he did start a Twitter account, only to discover that “Haiku is difficult.” He has since forgotten his password.
Tim Mangan, like Mark, has resisted social media (he doesn’t have Twitter or Facebook accounts), but he is of course a prolific blogger. In many ways his enthusiasm for blogging felt very 2005, which was refreshing. Blogging has allowed him to write for an international audience, break important news, and create in-depth series for a niche audience beyond the general public his print reviews are geared toward. He also was not afraid to say that “we count every hit.” One gem from Tim, which he attributed to a friend, regards Andrea Boccelli: “The blind singer for deaf people.” When it comes to crossover acts, he takes a more “anthropological approach.”
Anne Midgette, though slow to hop on the blogging train, is the most obviously adapted to the “changing media landscape.” She Tweets and is on Facebook, and seemed passionate about elevating the status of bloggers: “We all lose if you start shutting out bloggers.” She said her blog “is like a notebook,” and that those who feel blogging represents some sort of anarchy are misguided. The analogy she used is that of the 1950s small-town critic, who presumably could write whatever he wanted and it would get printed (lesson being that the uninformed have been writing forever.)
Which brings me to some of the common themes here. All agreed that the web is neutral. It is a new technology but the hierarchy and realities of information dissemination are the same (IMHO, this is wishful thinking). Anne feels that certain arts organization mistakenly view the web as either savior or satan: it’s neither, so stop thinking each Tweet is the golden ticket to young audiences (agreed).
Another commonality on the panel was the feeling that blogging at newspapers has put arts writing in sharper relief to pop writing. Editors and publishers are counting every hit, and Britney Spears brings in a heck of a lot more traffic than Olga Kern. That readership now has a hard number attached to it has everyone a little scared, and editors are getting pushier about content on syndicated classical blogs. Still, Culture Monster has been a huge success story for the LA Times, and Mangan’s blog has long been a staple at the OC Register. Many attendees I spoke with feel that Ms. Midgette is rightly becoming the national voice of classical criticism, and many more were not yet aware of her blog, so Classical Beat readership surely still has room to grow. None of this applies to Brian Holt, the only unpaid blogger in the session, who like most of us gets a kick out of good numbers but doesn’t give a crap about bad numbers.