Bloggers as New Arts Critics?

Yesterday I mentioned the idea that with the reduction of staff and space devoted to the arts in newspapers, bloggers might become the new performance critics. In preparation for holding forth on this idea, I wanted to see if anyone had written on the issue of bloggers and online journals replacing newspapers as information sources.

Some Context

As luck would have it, I came across an excellent article called Blogosphere: the Emerging Media Ecosystem: How Weblogs and Journalists work together to Report, Filter and Break the News . In this and three ancillary articles, (Are Bloggers Journalists?, Borg Journalism, and More on Blogging and Journalism) the author, John Hiler, really does an excellent job discussing how bloggers and journalists differ and how their existences are interrelated.

Among some of the points he made were: “Mainstream” Journalists don’t regard bloggers as journalists because of the subjectivity of their work. Bloggers don’t make any claim to objectivity and regard journalists as hypocrites for claiming they are. Most bloggers feel journalists have their own agenda, don’t adhere to their own code of ethics, and are frequently inaccurate in their reporting.

Some of the strengths and weakness of blogs that Mr. Hiler mentions are: They are good at realizing the implications of points and extending them to their logical conclusions; they are good at debunking stories, but not good at summarizing or correcting errors; there is a built in peer-review system.

To quickly explain-The first point is very encouraging to me since my whole purpose in writing this blog is to study the implications of things I have read on the arts. The second point, Hiler illustrates with some examples of how bloggers have quickly exposed money making scams where people make pleas for money and sympathy for their debilitating diseases. However, he also cites examples of bloggers mischaracterizing what people have said while summarizing articles. (The irony that I might be mischaracterizing him by summarizing his ideas is not lost on me.) He also gives examples of people linking to and citing controversial information like mad, but not doing the same when a correction was made the next day.

The last point about peer review is related to the debunking issue. One of the reasons journalists minimize the value of blogs is because there is no editor present to keep bloggers on course and reined in. However, Hiler cites examples of tens to thousands of bloggers contacting writers to point out errors.

Blogger as the New Arts Critic

Having read all this, I have a better idea of how a blogger could operate as an arts critic. What I envision happening to a lesser or greater extent is a paper really cutting back on coverage and an arts organization gradually becoming aware of people who are writing about their attendance experience. The arts organization contacts the people who write best and probably least critically of them and extend free tickets to them as they do the newspaper critic. (Though many newspaper critics do pay for their tickets) Then the arts organization begins quoting the reviews and directing people to that writer’s website.

There are, of course, benefits and pitfalls to this situation. First of all, the person doing the writing has to be seen as credible. They must write well, have a fair bit of expertise in the subject (rather than having taken an appreciation course in college), and certainly has to have a very limited conflict of interest (perhaps is a long time subscriber, but not on the board or a relative of staff).

Many newspaper critics are mindful of a code of ethics and will avoid any appearance of impropriety such as accepting benefits that the general public don’t receive. An individual who hasn’t been exposed to journalistic training might find themselves on a slippery slope of favor currying if they aren’t careful about what they accept.

Another thing that might detract from a blogging reviewer’s credibility might be the narrow scope of their experience and venue attendance. If the writer only attends one arts organization and has done so for the 15 years, they can only talk about how good the shows are in relation to past shows at the same venue. In the best of worlds, the reviewer would begin to receive invitations to ply their craft at other venues out of recognition of their excellent writing. There is a chance though that organizations will cultivate “pet” reviewers who are sympathetic to them alone.

On the other hand, audiences often crossover to different venues and can create a demand for reviews by the person whose opinion is most aligned with their own. This is where the strength of blogs comes into play. I had cited and article in an earlier entry that talked about how blogs are places where opinion leaders can state their thoughts and people can easily access them. It is the same in this case. If people come to respect a reviewer, a demand to have them review in many places can arise. Also, people who don’t agree with a review have the opportunity to post a review of their own possibly making them an opinion leader for another segment of an audience who shares their tastes. People also have the opportunity to write to the critic and support or disagree with what was written. This may keep the writer honest or it may make them conform to the loudest opinions to keep the hate mail away. Certainly, the blog writer has to have the thick skin of his/her newspaper counterparts.

The biggest danger could be that good writers might find themselves in trouble if a demand for their skilled services takes them away from their family and jeopardizes their positions at their day jobs. They may have a little more leeway than the newspaper reporter who often rushes from curtain call to make a deadline. However, there is certain to be some pressure by arts organizations and readers alike to produce a review quickly so decisions to attend can be made and tickets sold for the most days remaining in a run. Businesses may not look kindly upon their engineers and managers using work time to write reviews.

It certainly isn’t viable for organizations to pay for the reviewers’ time since those with the most money can get more frequent and perhaps better exposure. The solution, ironically might be to have a centralized organization/clearinghouse which insures the quality of writing and then assigns writers to shows on a rotating, as available basis. Hmm, this sounds like a newspaper! Truthfully, since it is doing little more than calling up a pool of reviewers, the clearinghouse could be the local arts council. The clearinghouse could charge a nominal fee to the participating organizations and host a centralized website where the reviews appeared so audiences didn’t have to hunt down the sites of the different reviewers. (Or the central website could link people to those individual’s review sites.)

The upside is that an organization gets well written reviews and stories. The writers aren’t called upon so frequently that they don’t feel the effort they are expending for free exceeds the value of the ticket and experience they are receiving. Since the writers aren’t working for the clearinghouse merely getting a call, they retain their independence.

A huge benefit of having bloggers write about your organization is that they don’t have the space restrictions newspapers have. They can do indepth advance analyzes of every aspect of your show and do a thorough critique of the performance/exhibit. (It would be great if newspaper reviewers could note that more complete versions of their stories appeared on the newspaper website as a number of magazines do.) Since they don’t have as strong a requirement to be objective or detached from what they are viewing, a blog writer may also be more apt to discuss nuances that particularly touched them personally or present an alternative dissenting view offered by a companion or even admit they might be wrong in their view as the audience seemed to enjoy the show where they had not.

It seems to me that a well organized relationship with blogging writer can yield greater rewards than a good relationship with a newspaper writer. I would bet that some variation of what I have suggested here will eventually emerge as the dominant fashion through which people receive information about arts organizations. The players might be different, but I believe the process could be very similar.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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