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February 21, 2011

Do we still need critics?

As jobs for critics at mainstream publications have disappeared and hundreds of thousands of bloggers, Twitterers and Facebookers have taken to the web expressing their own opinions, many are wondering if there's still a role for the professional critic.

I was a devoted newspaper reader in my youth. Devoured the weekly newsmagazines when they came out. Watched the nightly national news and listened to the CBC hourly newscasts. When the Sunday New York Times finally became available in our town at the newsstand, it seemed that it couldn't get any better. But it did come at a cost. Suddenly the local newspaper seemed a bit paler. Just one perspective didn't do it.

Today I still look at the Times. But it has to compete with everything else. I don't look to the Times first when I want to find out the latest. I turn to aggregator sites and feeds that are constantly monitoring seemingly everything, the Times included. If the Times has something interesting, the trusted aggregator sites pick it up. The Times critics are just a few among many, and, sometimes not the most interesting. Nor are they necessarily the most influential.

So how do you find out what's important? Here's a story from this weekend's Observer about how the internet has changed how news is reported:

More generally, technology has improved the processes of identifying stories that are newsworthy. Feeds from social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter provide a snapshot of events happening around the world from the viewpoint of first-hand witnesses, and blogs and citizen news sources offer analytical perspectives from the ground faster than print or television can provide. Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC2's Newsnight, uses these tools to get an angle on what's happening and what's important. "If you are following 10 key economists on Twitter and some very intelligent blogs," he says, "you can quickly get to where you need to be: the stomach-churning question, 'OK, what do I do to move this story on?'"

That sounds about right. It seems to me that with millions of opinions running around chasing one another, the challenge is to sort out which are the interesting ones. Rather than diminish the importance of really good critics, an ocean of opinion ought to make the great critic stand out as even more valuable. I've always thought of critics as also being curators. They define their territory and report back what's important. Today, what's important also includes what others are saying. Jeff Jarvis has a saying: "Do what you do best and link to the rest." That means being aware of what others are saying, synthesizing it and adding crucial insight. 

The best of the new breed go a step further -- they become the means by which people who are interested in a topic can talk to one another about it. In this model, the critic is at the center of a conversation rather than the preacher at a revival meeting. They're essential to a community because they set agendas and help define what's important. Same as critics always did. Except different.

February 21, 2011 12:17 PM | | Comments (1)


Bravo! Many thanks for this - you have articulated a point I make frequently to arts organizations, wellness groups, and entrepreneurs: become a trusted source and resource - by curating (more than creating) content.

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