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Sydney Writers Festival 2011: Is digital killing the print critic?

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The answer? A resounding, ‘Depends.’ Mainly because we were all too busy talking about it to put the matter to a vote.

The voices for the affirmative, food and lifestyle bloggista Rebecca Varidel, film producer Heather Ogilvie and film critic and founding father of Urbancinefile.com.au  Andrew Urban , spoke passionately, with their lives and careers as the main exhibits. Rebecca Varidel has posted them here.

Ogilvie’s main point was that the marketing lifecycle of a new release film runs at such a pace that only digital media can keep up. The film comes out, the word of mouth begins via instantly gratifying social media and within the space of a weekend the fate of the film is decided. Rebecca Varidal spoke of the community-building benefits of digital commentary and Andrew Urban thumped down the brutal reality – “print film criticism has left the building” – citing the fact that the Sunday Herald now syndicates content from his online site rather than retain its own specialist critics.

For the negative were three of a dying breed, if you believe the case for the affirmative — career journalists. Arts Editor at the Australian Matthew Westwood, music critic at the Herald John Shand and writer, academic and commentator Catharine Lumby all looked very much alive but, in spite of slick spiels at least two of them weren’t really up for a fight. Westwood took the most brave position, invoking the ‘p’ word – professionalism – versus the ‘a’ word – amateurism, and reminding us that print criticism is, in the end, for the reader, not the writer or promoter or marketing department.

He has a point. For while I think everyone would agree with Rebecca Varidel’s rejection of the old-style critic, the god-like voice of authority that has the power to send a show to praise or damn, the new plurality of voices which come flooding out to us courtesy of the interwebs can become a cacophony. ‘No-one wants a dictator’, she suggests, but the other extreme, untrammelled democracy, can be just as destructive — witness our current political milieu, mired in chatter. The point is, I think, that while there will always be a place for criticism, the editor or curator, a person who can sort through the dross and offer guidance through the jungle, is key. That’s what Matthew Westwood and Andrew Urban do, and whether they are in print or media is irrelevant.

Westwood’s other important point is about money. Yes, it’s a dirty word, but it’s a very useful one. Most people who are passionate enough about art to want to write about it start out writing for free. It’s not just to get a free ticket, and goodness knows it’s not for the writing fee, which is inevitably going to be zip, nada, nul at the beginning. They write from the heart, to communicate their enthusiasm, their fascination, their experience of how art changes you. But if they are good at it and go on to make a career of writing they will at some point need to earn a crust. So we reach the point where, for example, Alison Croggon, former Pascall Prize Critic of the Year, is now unable to maintain her blog, Theatre Notes, because she is a busy professional writer.

In the words of Andrew Urban, ‘that content is free is a pernicious notion.’ We like to think of everything on the internet as ‘free’, but it all has a cost, whether you count it in taxes, lost sleep, time or Fairfax share dividends. The financial model of providing content is evolving, whether in print or online, and a lively, intelligent, well-informed arts debate will be shaped by where the money goes.

Digital might be killing print, but digital is not killing the print critic. Print critics are doing their living and dying all by themselves, thank you very much. They’re living by being good at what they do, and dying by being irrelevant / overly opinionated / misinformed / lazy and bad at what they do. The fact that anyone can be a critic online, far from killing print critics, is making them raise their game. And as a by-product of being good, the best print critics end up on line, because that is where the readership is.

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

7 thoughts on “Sydney Writers Festival 2011: Is digital killing the print critic?

  1. great coverage of the debate thanks Harriet ~ had I not been debating on an allocated team, there were other things I would have added, such as digital is complimentary to other media, the same view expressed by Catherine Lumby @frombecca

    • Yep, it’s all one big organism, digital and print parts of the whole. I think Geordie Williamson summed it up really well. Texto means ‘I weave’ in Latin. It’s one big web.

  2. Of course there is a big genre divide at play. Is anyone suggesting book reviewing is dying in the print media? Clearly it is not and I’ll warrant there are many who buy the Saturday papers only for their book review sections. But of course the media in general has realised the size of the readership/listenership/viewership patrons of the humble book. Witness the growth in bookclubs in the community, on radio and TV. Popular music doesn’t do too badly in the press either, probably because they can leverage the celebrity angle. Of course a lot of this is just tapping the marketing machines which deliver vast quantities of material in which there will be something to wow, amaze or titillate a readership. Of course they also spend big on advertising as is also the case for film. Even visual arts get a fair run of print reviews which is surprising given the difficulty most have in discussing the subject. This leaves art music and theatre. Notwithstanding the big piece on Lang Lang in the SMH last Saturday (he’s more pop star than art musician) these are the sectors where perhaps the print critics are most likely to be starving in their garrets (Alison Croggon excepted). These are formats that are much more difficult to discuss verbally and in print. The future, thus, may be tough for those who picked the study of art music (and Latin) for a career.
    johnofoz

    • Thanks, John. I think any critics who rely on earnings from print are starving in garrets, Alison Croggon included. I once worked out how much it cost me to go out to the opera — including travel costs, childcare and, what the hell, a glass of wine, but not including clothing allowance. Put my review fee next to the total and it ain’t pretty. It’s a cheap night at the opera, but that’s about it.

  3. Digital is killing a lot of print stuff. But I think a lot of print will stay around for the serendipity of it all.

  4. An excellent précis of what must have been an exciting discussion.

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