How to Reinvent the Role of the Music Critic

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In the intermission feature (above) from WQXR’s recent broadcast from Carnegie Hall, we consider the role of the music critic against a rapidly changing media environment. Steve Smith, the music editor of Time Out New York and a classical music critic for The New York Times, discusses his beat and addresses the question of expectation: what do readers, editors and performers want in their daily review columns?

Smith describes his job as part reportage — helping to ensure that posterity will have a record of our culture's higher achievements — and part advocacy. "It's not my job to sell tickets," he noted, "but I am interested in furthering the health of this art form that has nurtured me for long before I started writing about it."

Not everyone believes that music criticism serves such lofty goals. In the past seven years, more than half of all arts journalism jobs have been eliminated in American newsrooms due to buyouts or layoffs, according to an analysis by ArtsJournal.com editor Douglas McLennan. Meanwhile, the entire newspaper industry lost about 30 percent of its job force between 2000 and 2009, according to a 2010 Poynter Institute study. In the last year alone, newspapers in Montreal and Toronto have reassigned their critics or moved them to freelance status, following similar moves in Atlanta, Minneapolis and other American cities. 

If a newsroom has to slash costs, arts coverage is more likely to see the budget ax than politics or sports reporting. It's true that newspapers are hardly the only voice in arts criticism, thanks to the explosion of blogs and social media. And yet, as McLennan observers, the old media still carries weight: "Institutions signify their support by where they choose to put their resources. And the inescapable truth is that these institutions (newspapers) for the most part don’t support the arts.”

Recognizing this fact, the Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) teamed up last year to launch an eight-city competition seeking new models for local arts journalism in the digital age. The idea was to rethink how traditional media systems function, harness the latest tools and technology, and devise an arts criticism model that is sustainable over the long term.

Last week, three winners emerged from 233 applications in the eight communities, each of which would receive up to $80,000 to launch their ideas. The projects are:

  • Art Attack (Philadelphia): a partnership in which the Philadelphia Daily News is to increase arts coverage by sourcing staff, students, faculty, and journalists affiliated with Drexel University. Courses in arts journalism will be offered at Drexel University by critics-in-residence throughout the academic year.
  • The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, (Charlotte, NC): a collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and five major media players in the region (print, radio, television and online). The idea here is to provide specialized training for aspiring citizen journalists under the guidance of the university.

  • CriticCar Detroit (Detroit, MI): perhaps the most unusual of the three, this project consists of a van that will appear at local performances and exhibitions in Detroit, soliciting reviews and opinions from attendees that will be collected on a Web site (watch out, Mister Softee truck).

As the arts journalist Lara Pellegrinelli notes on NPR Music, these projects won't remake arts journalism overnight, and they certainly won’t bring critics' jobs back to newspapers. Yet the fact is, audiences still want to read and debate what they experience in the concert hall, as witnessed by (controversial) phenomena like "Tweet Seats" or live online chats. The Knight Foundation's project is a localized effort but perhaps it can stimulate discussion on how to best create future models for music criticism and reporting.

Weigh in: Do you think the Knight Foundation's project can work?