Monday, October 27, 2008

The day the newspapers died

The death of newspapers has been predicted for some time now: the culmination of a long, slow, bloodless decline brought about by the rise of the internet as an increasingly preferred source for both real-time news and candid opinion, particularly among younger people, for whom newspapers appear both anachronistic in form and hopelessly late in delivery of content. Philip Meyer, emeritus professor of journalism and author of The Vanishing Newspaper, says: "It is now clear that [the internet] is as disruptive to today's newspapers as Gutenberg's invention of movable type was to the town criers, the journalists of the 15th century." In a much-repeated (but slightly misleading) meme, a day in the first quarter of the year 2043 has been calculated to be "the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition".

According to The Economist, newspaper readership has been falling for decades in western Europe, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. In this country, daily newspapers have cut back hard on the employment of journalists and editorial staff, and have increasingly turned over their pages to columnists (who as independent contractors are cheaper than a stable of in-house writers), buying in syndicated features, and adding life-style sections, which require fewer resources than "old-fashioned" investigative journalism. Meanwhile the advertising money has followed the readers to the internet: Trade Me has sucked up garage salers while New Zealand's corporates are defecting to online campaigns and are direct marketing to prospective targets.

Several journalists were laid off last week at the Listener, whose once-incisive current events pages increasingly read like excerpts from a self-help manual while the magazine itself looks as if the janitor laid it out in his or her downtime. The latest casualties of the editorial axe at a New Zealand newspaper, however, are the Dominion Post's visual art reviews -- ironic in Wellington, a city which styles itself as New Zealand's cultural capital. But then, newspapers these days are primarily run as a business, not a social good: the role of the Fourth Estate in keeping society's elected representatives honest looks increasingly shaky, while its role as a champion of excellence in cultural matters seems likewise a relic of the past.

It strikes me that Mark Amery, recently let go as the DomPost's art reviewer (and interviewed by Radio New Zealand's Kim Hill yesterday morning), will find another outlet for his criticism, much as John Hurrell has. (Or at least I hope so: he's too good just to unplug the keyboard and walk away.) In the deep distant past, John Hurrell reviewed art for the Christchurch Press: he is one of a long line of fiercely independent art critics employed by the paper including now prominent curators William McAloon (Te Papa) and Justin Paton (Christchurch Art Gallery). Despite using a blogging platform to regularly record his impressions of the art shows he visits, swap banter with his readers, and promote his public appearances, Hurrell protests that, all appearances to the contrary, he's not a blogger: "For me the term is too linked to the diaristic and petty gossip to be applied to this site." (Sounds like he thinks blogging's a job for girls...)

I disagree with Amery and Hurrell at least as much as I agree with them, but consistently I'm interested in what they have to say. More than that, I like the ways in which they say it. I've come to appreciate the online personalities of both writers (although Amery wrote for the newspaper, I read his pieces online, through the Lumiere Reader or occasionally The Big Idea); manifest in such factors as the sense of goodwill both critics exude towards the project of criticism, the enthusiasm for the ideas they're writing about, the sense of disappointment when what they're reviewing doesn't cut the mustard, and the ability to dispense rough justice when the circumstances warrant it.

In New Zealand, art criticism's always been a love job. Sure, you get paid a bit for it; but what you're paid is entirely incommensurate with the amount of time, effort and expertise you need to put in, as well as the argy-bargy you get from disgruntled artists who've been the recipients of a negative review. Art critics certainly couldn't live on what they're paid by the newspapers; writing art criticism in New Zealand needs to be a second, or even a third, job. As a cost-cutting exercise for a newspaper, getting rid of art critics is negligible. It's more a case of signalling a new direction; the move away from newspapers as a source of intellectual debate and towards the publication of general interest items with a consumer focus.

Yet long-term, this may not be the most sensible direction for a newspaper to take: media economist Richard Picard suggests that by trying to appeal to everyone, newspapers are spreading themselves dangerously thin. Currently, newspapers:
"keep offering an all-you-can-eat buffet of content, and keep diminishing the quality of that content because their budgets are continually thinner. This is an absurd choice because the audience least interested in news has already abandoned the newspaper."
Instead, suggests Philip Meyer, newspapers should concentrate on content that makes them relevant to their local communities -- primarily evidence-based reporting -- and aim their pitch at well-educated "news junkies" who appreciate being able to argue from a basis of fact, and reading well-argued analysis of topical issues -- the very readership, I would suggest, who turn to the paper for the art reviews, but will now need to go elsewhere. In Wellington, at least.

When John Hurrell received a grant from Creative New Zealand to start up eyeCONTACT, he was the butt of a lot of ribbing on New Zealand art's free-for-all all-in-wrestling forum, Artbash. Hurrell's CNZ grant (or targeted investment, or whatever they're now calling the money they hand out) was the first occasion, I think, on which the practice of art criticism was nationally supported. With the retrenchment of art reviewing by local newspapers signalled by the DomPost, the decision to fund Hurrell's independent enterprise seems extremely prescient. More power to his arm should he go back for another dip in the public pot: and maybe next time with a bigger grant he could also look at securing the services of, or syndicating the writings of, other well-informed critics such as Amery, Andrew Paul Wood and Jamie Hanton (because art criticism shouldn't be an unpaid love-job when it's being done at that standard), as well as publicising his site more widely to pull in more readers.

I suspect online art criticism's the way of the future. Whether or not one likes to think of oneself as a blogger.


Anonymous said...

A comment on eyeContact (Hurrells blog) really bemused me. He was talking about blogging identities "it is their existence off-line that counts - as a test of commitment to whatever positions they might have". If you say the online forum is the way of the future - I wonder what that means

Cheryl Bernstein said...

I guess as an art critic, John's wanting to weigh up the words against the deeds, the theory against the practice, the catalogue essay against the exhibition, etc. He can't stop himself. I think Marnie Slater makes a good point about how virtual identities become legitimised over time. And when you think about it, there will be plenty of people who only know of John's online existence, no matter how available he may make himself for "chatting at openings and parties"!

Anonymous said...

We'll I've never met him - not that that means much. I liked what Marnie wrote as well.

Anonymous said...

How intriguing, I did not know JH did not consider what he did blogging. I've been to his blog a few times and commented once but he seems obsessed with everyone using their RL identities, something I don't quite understand. Its the same thing that put me off Artbash (which I thought Hurrell was behind)...

I don't consider my virtual identities any less valid or authentic as the ones I deploy in the course of my everyday actual life. But it seems John has a marked bias for what he considers RL identity (singular).

In any case, its nice CNZ saw fit to support his blog... As you say, with the demise of print criticism, paid alternatives would be most welcome to facilitate more online writing and criticism.

John Hurrell said...

Contrary to Marnie's view, virtual identites can never become legitimised over time. Without an offline identity they remain unstable and fickle,gaseous murmurings that drift in the aether but never touch ground.
I think it is common for RL identities to be plural (as in clusters). That is usual is it not? But there is always a RL corporeal anchor or core that gives them credibility.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Gaseous murmurings in the ether sound most unpleasant, John! But as to credibility, surely it is not so much conferred by the identity of the speaker as manifest in the content of what is said? Or am I being naieve?

John Hurrell said...

But the substance of what is being expressed can't be floating free - it has a context, and is matched for consistency with other statements from the speaker, just as we do with the words we are using. They too are embedded in a bigger picture through which we learn to speak, and so their usage is constantly compared.

How much energy would you devote to discussing an issue with someone using a false identity if you knew they were winding you up for their own amusement, and who weren't at all sincere. You'd lose interest because you would have assumed up to that point that by conversing with them that they stood behind their argument and that it was not trivial. Their words, you would have assumed, were embedded in the context of their overall thinking patterns outside of a couple of exchanges on a blog site. Such exchanges must be part of an outside scenario to have any meaning.

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in your last comment. If a person was blogging using their real name but you had never met them or spoken to them in any other format and they did not write any where else, how would that be different to using a u? How would you know the "context of their overall thinking patterns" even if you knew their real name?
CB - sorry for hijacking this...

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of the recent conversation has to do with mis/understandings of the ontological status of the virtual?

"virtual identites can never become legitimised over time" - JH

But a close look at a variety of virtual identities to be found in say MySpace (check out Jeffree Star or 'Forbidden' aka Christine Dolce) provides evidence to the contrary.

Proust wasn't of course referring to the Internet but nevertheless put it the best when he wrote of the virtual as "real without being actual".

Is JH any more sincere because he chooses to focus on a congruence between his actual and virtual identities?

John Hurrell said...

There would be no discernible difference between a person using their 'real' name and a person using a fake one. In conversation though we make assumptions about the truth of what people tell us, part of the social contract within that verbal exchange.It is part of the logic of language itself, that we take it to be true and consistent, and it is part of an area of research opened up by philosophers like Donald Davidson, somebody championed by artists like Robert Morris.

Anonymous said...

Even if I do not use a 'real' name, the substance of what I am expressing may be "matched for consistency" here -

In the rather insular art circuit in New Zealand, as one can imagine, everyone knows everyone else and not surprisingly precious little is to be found in the form of rigorous art criticism on any of the circuit's major players. In pre-Internet days, publishing and circulating criticism on the arts was rather tightly controlled through mechanisms such as editorial gatekeeping and tight old boys networks. Then, there was little question of anonymity of course, and even less question of individuals investing sufficiently to publish and circulate opinions at an individual scale (imagine the sheer effort and cost). With the advent of the Internet however, it becomes possible for anyone to publish anything on anyone, anonymously or not.

I believe the explosion of opinion sharing and contentious conversation opened up by the Internet is on the whole a positive and productive thing. Without a doubt there are costs involved... and some of these costs are precisely what John Hurrell mentions - personal abuse, waffle and shameless self-promotion. On the whole however, viable communities appear to function well, and trolls tend to be socially contained by peers. On the other hand, the benefits of free conversations for society are tremendous, and it is for this reason that civil liberties organizations such as the EFF fight for fundamental rights for bloggers including the following:

Bloggers are entitled to free speech
Bloggers have the right to political speech
Bloggers have the right to stay anonymous

In a community like Blogspot (or even the wider 'blogosphere'), self-regulation works basically like this. If I post something offensive, the post will likely be ignored or attract feedback. If I persist in posting abusive or waffling content, the ignoring will continue, and I may even gain a bad reputation or worse, a reputation for a boring blog. There are of course exceptions, such as the host of Swedish teen girl bloggers such as Blondinbella or Kissie, who defy the odds to build mass audiences precisely through shameless self promotion and sometimes social antagonism. But there are always exceptions, and they have blond hair and youthful looks on their side.

John Hurrell said...

Of course bloggers have the right to remain anonymous, along with freedom of speech. The problem arises when they get so deluded they think they have credibility as well.

I'm not advocating concentration camps for pseudonym users or anything, just saying they shouldn't be taken seriously. (Mmm,now that I think about it...)

Sometimes the urge for bloggers to entertain, shock or be adversarial can be destructive, for the truth is often infuriatingly boring - and not good for hit rates. That is one of the unfortunate aspects of the medium; it attracts noisemakers. Often more careful and considered thinkers avoid it.

Anonymous said...

"People who use pseudonyms shouldn't be taken seriously". Are you really being serious here? I suppose nothing here should be taken seriously either then?

In any case, its unfortunate perhaps, but 'real' Christian names even are no guarantee against social fraud and deception as the abominable case of Godzone's dirty little snitch Rob Gilchrist shows.

John Hurrell said...

I am serious.If you were attempting a conversation with someone and during the process they refused to make eyeCONTACT with you - or wore sunglasses or a mask - the occasion would collapse. They are revealing a refusal to take the event seriously. Wasting your time.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

Hmmm. I'm entirely with Pareidoliac on this. John, I really think that credibility is built up -- earned -- over time, whether in the real world or the virtual one. Relationships between people are constructed in the same way. In terms of conversations, discussion and debate, it's not so much a matter of who you are or the real-world status you hold as what you say, the style in which you say it, and the position you consistently adopt. At least, that's what interests me about the interactions which arise from blogging and reading other people's blogs.

Intellectual relationships are perfectly possible to establish between virtual identities, because clearly there is a real person operating behind the blogging handle. If the person attempting to engage in online debate is plainly an idiot, then just as in real life, one would simply ignore them and not provide them with a platform from which to spout off. I don't actually know in real life several of the people who regularly comment on my blog, but over time I've come to know and respect their virtual identities, which are surely just another reflection of their real-life personas.

Obviously some people need to remain anonymous or write under pseudonyms because of their employment status, or whatever personal circumstances, and that's fine by me -- and it's of no interest to "unmask" them. On the other hand, some might argue that those people using their own given RL names to post and comment are actually engaging in "shameless self-promotion" of the sort precluded by your own blog rules. By contrast, pseudonymous bloggers are far more modest. Don't you think?

Anonymous said...

John, I suppose you don't respond to the points I raise because you feel its a waste of time. Oh well... that's your prerogative.

I reiterate them here in any case.

1. So, all the anonymous submissions to Wikileaks, these people are simply not taking things seriously and wasting our time right?

2. Rob Gilchrist - so someone uses a real name and identity to socially defraud another - in this case getting another to fall in love with him... but he's totally taking the encounter seriously and should be taken seriously? Right? Can you explain to me how in your world a RL identity guarantees against social fraud and time wasting? I can think of several people IRL who waste my time using their 'real' identities, and even some who have socially defrauded me.

Cheryl, thanks very much for your comment.

"On the other hand, some might argue that those people using their own given RL names to post and comment are actually engaging in "shameless self-promotion" of the sort precluded by your blog rules".

Exactly what I was thinking.

Tangentially related, Artforum's new essay by Lynne Tillman is worth a read on issues of virtuality.

"The easy acceptance by the public and the media of this novel authority—after some initial “Where’s the president?” “Nowhere”—attests to the way people live today, in online encounters and communities. They connect as if they were face-to-face."

John Hurrell said...

I admire courage and despise sneakiness. Pseudonyms encourage cowardice. I dislike that aspect of the artworld where people only say what they think in whispers.Let's behave like adults for Chrissakes. Make the scene healthy.

Bloggers and whistle-blowers are worlds apart. The first should be about debate and finer points of argument. The second is about power and the circulation of information - and in some ways, quite different and far more serious.It is not abstract but a life world situation where a lot more than opinion is at stake.It seems very odd to me to mix the two up.

John Hurrell said...

That some people like Gilchrist are devious using real life identities is a red herring surely. I'm not saying 'proper' names guarantee integrity.It is just a strategy to help minimise deceit, to discourage it. That there are lots of ratbags using their family names doesn't mean anything.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding John. I think pseudonyms sometimes can encourage cowardice. But your stipulation of a real Christian name sparked off an association today. I recall that the Catholic church in fact used anonymity as well as vows of secrecy to encourage more not less honesty / authenticity.

Perhaps pseudonyms do not necessarily encourage cowardice, and maybe sometimes they even allow things to be said that would otherwise not be said in everyday face to face conversations because of the usual censorship that is to be found there?

(PostSecret and SecretTweet incidentally use the very same tool - anonymity - to encourage more not less honesty).

I'm not sure that blogging and whistle blowing are necessarily worlds apart. I think debates about art can sometimes be all about power and the circulation of information, and all about dis/information and the circulation of power. I think art, discussions about art and whistle-blowing can all be extremely serious and concern life or death matters. I also think that discussions about art can be art and perhaps should be treated like art from time to time. I love mixing things up.