Who killed the critics?

Who needs critics anymore? Wall Street Journal movie critic Joe Morgenstern bemoans the state of his world today, when he sees a report that studios are releasing more movies without showing them to critics. That could be because there are more bad movies today. But no, it really illustrates a fundamental shift in the dynamics of pop culture thanks to the internet. The Being-Reasonable bloggers write at Forbes.com:

The tactic of skipping advance screenings is taking hold now because the dynamics of movie marketing and pre-release publicity have changed. Like other professional arbiters of taste, movie reviewers just don’t matter quite as much as they used to. Once upon a time, they were the point of origin for popular opinion. In an age of ratings Web sites and consumer-generated content, they are just one voice of many.

Pop-cultural criticism is, if not doomed, on a severe decline for a few reasons:

The first is that we are all now critics. You no longer have to wait for the friend you trust — who, I’ve long said, is the best critic for you — to see a movie, you can now find friends online or watch the aggregate opinions of people online or go write a review yourself. And it’s not just movies, of course. Amazon’s audience is everybody’s critic for everybody’s product. (Who needs Consumer Reports is another question we may be asking eventually.)

The second is that in the failing economics of big, old media, critics are dispensible.

And there’s this: As media explodes with more and more choice, one critic or one publication simply can’t keep up with it all. That was efficient when you had one-screen theaters and three TV channels and no internet and no tools that let anyone create media.

I shocked Howard Kurtz when I suggested that newspapers could get rid of their own critics and help their audiences share their own opinions instead.

If I launched Entertainment Weekly today, I hope I’d have the sense not to propose starting a magazine by hiring a bunch of critics. Oh, I might have a few of them, if they’re really worth reading. But I’d turn Entertainment Weekly into Entertainment Whenever, an online event that brings together opinions on entertainment, big and small, from anywhere, and I’d use technology to help you find the critics you trust.

The truth is that criticism isn’t dying. It’s opening up now that everyone is a critic.

  • First off, I really like your idea for how you’d start EW now. I was among the charter subscribers and liked what it was but the world now is different. The problem is I don’t think magazine publishers realize that.

    As far as the critics mattering in decision making, I do think there’s still a place for the “professional” critic. The problem right now is that they have walled themselves off from the rest of the community so efficiently that they’ve only succeeded in marginalizing themselves. If critics were to take down those walls, start hyperlinking in their online posting to others and join the conversation that’s happening around – and right now without – them, they’d have at least as much voice as anyone else. But by maintaining the attitude that they’re the only opinion that counts they’ve failed to evolve, a move that will be their downfall.

  • Jennifer

    Really? When you’re looking for a good book to read, you consult Amazon’s legions over the New Yorker?

    A truly fine reviewer — including those employed by big newspapers and other major periodicals — provides information the masses can’t. Even your friends generally can’t capture that essence that the best reviewers convey. I don’t necessarily consult reviewers for their opinions, per se, but for their characterizations, a fine point that helps me know whether a book/movie/play/whatever is likely to be what i’m looking for intellectually, emotionally, tonally, etc.

    Sure, I’ve got more sources (bloggers and such) for that now. But I still have to find the ones I trust; I don’t have time to read them all. The imprimatur of the L.A. Times isn’t likely to stop mattering to me.

  • aslfan

    that old dude ..Roger Ebert. why don’t he get out of his newspaper
    and tv shows and start his own . get rid of that roper guy.

  • Hi there; my name’s Dirk Deppey, and I’m the Managing Editor of The Comics Journal, a trade magazine and literary review for comics and graphic novels. I used to write the magazine’s weblog before taking over the print side of things, and have long been aware that the web had empowered some fresh and interesting voices on subjects that we once had little competition in covering. Since I assumed my current job two years ago, we’ve reached out to comics-oriented webloggers whose opinions we found interesting and asked them to write criticism and columns for us. It hasn’t always worked out — a few of the people whom we’ve commissioned to write have found themselves suffering from one flavor of stagefright or other when writing for us in print — but it’s brought in several new voices that have helped diversify the magazine tremendously. The web doesn’t have to be some strange and unknowable competition for print; it can also be a fertile breeding ground for exactly the sort of writers editors need to keep things fresh.

  • I like the idea, but Entertainment Whenever sounds a little lackluster. “You want to read about entertainment? Okay, we’ll get around to it… whenever.”

  • Perhaps its because most newspaper and TV critics get co-opted by the industry they cover. If you are going to really pan films on a regular basis you will not be invited to be part of the inner circle.
    Most “reviews” are just PR for the film and the stars aided by handouts from the studios and arranged interviews. This isn’t reviewing it shilling.

    The only person who could consistently pan the majority of things he wrote about was theater critic John Simon.

  • Vermont Neighbor

    Critics are similar to bloggers. If you find an interesting voice, you’ll stick with it. I’ve been reading Rex Reed for years, and while I don’t agree with his politics it’s like checking in with an old friend. Also, he writes the best reviews on flops and disasters.

  • T.

    Part of the problem, to me, is that too often the major magazines act as sounding boards for the publicists to the point you can barely trust the neutrality of anything you read, and the critics seem less trustworthy in their opinions as well. I often find blogs to have better commentary and analysis and neutrality anyway, plus they’re often better-written without needing to be politically correct, so it makes sense they’d start taking precedence over critics.

    Johnny Triangles

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  • Kathryn

    I like your idea about Entertainment Weekly, and allowing readers to express their own opinions in an online setting. It’s true that everyone is a critic. In fact, I believe that everyone always has been a critic, but now-a-days the internet allows people to speak their opinions to a larger audience. This fact has perhaps changed the role of the professional critics by adding competition. I do read online reviews at websites such as imdb.com and amazon.com; however, in my mind these do not replace professionally written reviews. One reason for this is writing quality. The other, is that I have more trust in the factual accuracy of a professional critic writing for a paper or magazine, than I do in a non-professional writer on the internet. Allowing anyone and everyone to voice their own opinions is great, but still no replacement for a professionally written review.

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  • P.Radhakrishna

    audience feedback would become vital in the sense -there is space for sharing offtrack opinions or views as well as unpopular views which may not get any space in print media.

    also there is need to know if there is someone in the world thinking on samelines or unlike the author.
    catalysts -opinion makers can always change the tide in favor or against some direction of news makers, leaders of different sections.

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