Recently by Douglas McLennan

Journalists know the importance of correct grammar. Even tiny factually insignificant errors can erode the confidence of a reader. One rap about blogs is that because they don't have editors, they can have more errors. So just how important is clean copy in influencing readers? Online retailers have tried to find out. And now they have some quantifiable evidence.

An online retailer noticed that indeed products with high-quality reviews are selling well. So, they decided to take action. They used Amazon Mechanical Turk to improve the quality of its reviews. Using the Find-Fix-Verify pattern, they used Mechanical Turk to examine a few millions of product reviews... For the reviews with mistakes, they fixed the spelling and grammar errors! Thus they effectively improved the quality of the reviews on their website. And, correspondingly, they improved the demand for their products!
In this test, they didn't change the opinions themselves, merely the typos and grammar. Turns out that even if the user review was negative, fixing the mistakes improved sales.

A review that is well-written tends to inspire confidence about the product, even if the review is negative. Typically such reviews are perceived as objective and thorough. So, if we have a high-quality, but negative, review this may serve as a guarantee that the negative aspects of the product are not that bad after all. For example, a negative review such as "horrible battery life... in my tests battery lasts barely longer than 24 hours..." may be perceived as positive by other customers that consider a 24-hour batter life to be more than sufficient.
April 17, 2011 11:02 AM | | Comments (0)
Jeff-Healey-Band-Stuck-In-The-Midd-422856.jpegI love this post by InsideHigherEd's Josh Kim.
Physical things that exist as single-use conduits of information (paper books, paper newspapers, paper magazines) and physical places that are containers or platforms for information delivery (college campuses, bookstores) will persist, and even thrive. However, for these physical conduits and containers to survive, they will either need to move far up-market, or way down-market.

Books made of paper will need to be either really beautiful and offer a superior tactile experience, or they will need to be very cheaply produced on thin paper and be basically disposable. I'll be less price sensitive to a paper copy of the NYTimes or a magazine if real attention is paid to the quality of the design, layout, paper, and printing. Or I'll pick-up a free paper newspaper that I may or may not read, and will be skimmed and thrown away.

What I will not buy is any one-time conduit of information (book, magazine, newspaper) that is somewhere in the middle. Too expensive to easily throw away, but too cheaply made to want to keep in my collection.
Wasn't it ever thus? In the Old World, newspapers were low end and books high. Books were solid and substantial, with nice covers and extravagant paper. Newspapers had crappy paper, lousy print quality and ink that rubbed off on your hands. Newspapers were cheap, timely and disposable; they offered something you couldn't get elsewhere, so we bought them.

Might this idea not also apply to arts criticism in the digital world? Low end is easy; Yelp, Amazon, Facebook. "Like" this, become a "fan" of that. Digg, Stumble, Reddit to identify and elevate the "best" content. The "opinions" are disposable (and often worth about as much). And the high end? Can anyone replace a Hilton Als or Carlin Romano essay or a Jonathan Gold food walk? 

So what about a sustainable middle? There was one - magazines, which had glossy paper, beautiful design and brilliant photos, and we paid more for them than we did for newspapers. But those daily newspaper reviews whose value more often than not rarely exceeded  documentation that a show took place? There doesn't appear to be much of an audience for them. Maybe there's a sustainable middle for arts criticism, but so far I'm not seeing it.
April 2, 2011 6:17 PM | | Comments (0)
Spider-Man on Broadway - Official Site.jpgHow many Broadway shows got stories about them in the New York Times this week? Several, of course. But none got more than "Spider-Man", which had no fewer than nine stories in the Times this week, capped by two today. Not bad for a show that hasn't even officially opened. 

And the money ain't bad either. The Spidey box office is tingling, in previews beating most shows that have officially opened. This despite rafts of terrible reviews. This despite firing the principal artistic force behind the production and some of her lieutenants. This despite rewriting major plot points even as the old show is still playing. This despite announcing things are so bad that performances will close down for a few weeks to retool. 

It's the costliest show in Broadway history. Maybe it won't ever earn back its investment. But this endless season of previews surely sets new records for a show that hasn't opened. 

When Bill Clinton was president, his staff coined the term "permanent campaign" as a style of governing that treated everything the administration did as an audition for another term. 

So now we have the "permanent preview." It makes a joke out of the idea that previews are a finite trial to work out the kinks for the "real" show. Or does it? If the show doesn't work and producers continue to tinker with (or massively re-conceive) it, then technically the show still is in its gestation period. 

In not officially opening, the show doesn't have to put everything on the line. In not being set, reviews don't stick because the show you saw yesterday is not the show others will see tomorrow. The permanent preview inoculates this show from the final verdicts of reviews. It's an odyssey that is apparently so compelling that people are willing to pay high ticket prices to see. 

So an official opening (if it ever happens) - its "publishing" date - is the point the show will presumably be set and producers will stop tinkering with its innards.

But why go there? Especially if the backstage stories are compelling and box office is already good. A publish date means reviews will stick, the backstage stories will (probably) be done, and the box office could tank. Better to keep up the backstage drama while the onstage product isn't working and get the audience to pay to watch. Pure genius. 
March 25, 2011 3:47 PM | | Comments (1)
seo - Google Search.pngGoogle recently changed its search algorithm to try to tamp down some of the pages generated by so-called content farms and make them appear lower in search results. Content farms are so-named because they produce great volumes of "articles" based on analysis of search terms and calculated to pop up high in results. Such gaming of the system is called search engine optimization and SEO is currently considered the highest of the voodoo internet arts. 

Why should you care?

In traditional journalism, publications lure readers to articles with pithy headlines and imaginative ledes. Even just a few years ago, provocative headlines ruled online. Clever word plays, catchy phrasing, any kind of sexual reference - these were sure-fire clicks. 

Then came the age of the headline feed, and it turned out that readers couldn't be tempted with enigmatic headlines; they needed to be sure what awaited them at the other end of a hyperlink before they would click (although mentions of sex still worked). 

In response, headlines became more specific and informational, more utilitarian. Duller, even?
March 22, 2011 6:28 PM | | Comments (1)

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)
Earlier this week, the Washington Post carried two reviews of a concert of contemporary classical music by the Verge Ensemble at the National Gallery of Art in DC. The Post's staff critic, Anne Midgette, was not one of the reviewers, and she took to her blog at midweek with this: 

Due to a clerical error, two critics reviewed the concert for the Washington Post.

One of the premises of this blog is that there are a lot of different ways to look at a concert, and the more voices join in the discussion, the better. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity to post two contrasting reviews of the same event: Charles T. Downey's in the newspaper, and Cecelia Porter's on the blog, after the jump.

These two pieces present two different approaches, even two different ways of writing a view. You be the critic: what are the pros and cons of each? And would anybody like to add his or her own views of what sounds like an intriguing concert?

That was invitation enough for composer Alexandra Gardner who wrote in NewMusicBox:

as a composer, I find reviews like both of these to be wildy frustrating. Who wants to read an adjective-filled rundown of the program? Of course some description is necessary, but when there is no real viewpoint (whatever it may be) offered or commentary on issues such as audience reaction, performer interaction, or how the different compositions did or did not hold up against one another--this program was extremely varied, so did the pieces work together?--the whole endeavor seems futile.

Gardner asserted some factual quibbles, but the main complaint was that the reviews offered little in the way of judgment or insight, and therefore were of little use to readers. The comments after Gardner's complaint were even harsher, and 
January 29, 2011 1:34 PM | | Comments (1)
Michael Phillips, movie critic for the Chicago Tribune and one of my favorite critics, has a thoughtful piece about the Donald Rosenberg case. Rosenberg is the longtime classical music critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer who was taken off the Cleveland Orchestra beat last year after the paper's top editor decided that he'd said all he had to say (Rosenberg's version of the story, of course, was the point of his lawsuit). Last week, Rosenberg's case against the Plain Dealer went down in flames. There's been considerable chatter about it on Twitter under the hashtag #DonR. Phillips:

As the Cleveland situation asserted, no critic has a "right" to a compensated opinion. We serve at the pleasure of our employers. And yet we're only worth reading when we push our luck and ourselves, and remember that without a sense of freedom, coupled with a sense that we cannot squander it, we're just filler. As David Mamet said to a gathering of theater critics back in 1978: If you are not "striving to improve and to write informedly and morally and to a purpose, you are a hack and a plaything of your advertisers." 

The advertisers are fewer now. Times are not easy. But a critic must write as if he has everything and nothing to lose, just as a filmmaker or an artistic director or a music director should have no choice but to aim high and dig deeply and damn all the rest of it. Otherwise, it's steady as she goes and one more paycheck (if you're fortunate) gratefully received, and that simply is not good enough.

It's an interesting piece and a meditation on what it means to be a critic. 

Approached the wrong way criticism is an inherently arrogant and narcissistic pursuit, yet what I'm left with, increasingly, is how humbling it is. It's hard to get a review right for yourself, let alone for anyone reading it later. It's even harder to be an artist worth writing and reading about, because so much conspires against even an inspired artist's bravest efforts.

Check it out.
August 14, 2010 12:52 PM | | Comments (0)
londonmodel.jpgI've been thinking about John's castle-building and wondering it there's another way of approaching it. Instead of building the solution first (the publication vehicle) perhaps the place to start is to ask what is missing now in arts journalism? (yes - the easy obvious answer is a way to pay journalists) But maybe the difficulty of figuring out what the castle should be and how it could be supported would be easier if we were more clear about what the need is. It (whatever "it" is) won't be supportable if there isn't a market for it.

I'd offer two things to start:

  1. 1. Reporting on the arts. To me, the thing that seems to have suffered most as traditional publications have shed arts journalism is knowledgeable reporting on the arts. There are major American cities where there is little or no arts reporting. And the local reporting that does see print is often feeble. (this vs. this.) But I wonder - arts reporting was always a hard sell in the traditional press. Is that because it didn't have readership or because many editors thought it was too niche for a general audience? If so, in a niche economy maybe it does better?

  2. 2. Good ways of sorting through vast amounts of chatter and information and finding the "good stuff." I don't just mean key-word search alerts or new roundups or crowd-sourced story votes. I mean quality writing, provocative ideas, engaged debate, insightful reviews. There's plenty of all of this, but sorting through it to get there is onerous.
Is there a lack of reviews? Certainly not in terms of quantity. Quality sure, but how do you offer quality across a broad enough range of work that finds a large enough audience to support it?

July 5, 2010 11:40 AM | | Comments (1)
Wow. Just wow.

I'm referring to Peter's rant about the lack of NAJPer discussion about John's Castles in the Sky post below and his subsequent Castle-building, step two. I must admit, I saw John's original post and sighed with a kind of Groundhog Day feeling. Not because it's a futile topic. Not because it's a bad topic. Not even because it's not a really worthwhile topic. But this is a conversation I've watched and participated in hundreds and hundreds of times in the past few years. Hundreds. Really. I've approached foundations and philanthropists looking for money. I've helped write some business plans, even.

That this is a well-tread topic isn't a reason not to have the conversation. No, my deja-Bill Murray reaction was because the part of the conversation John started is the easy part. Sure a publication. Sure a philanthropist. We can spend a ton of time talking about what the publication might look like. Whether it's online or print. That it will pay arts journalists. That it covers the arts in meaningful ways. Check, check and check. And then? Of course it comes down to money.

And yet, it doesn't really.
June 7, 2010 4:36 PM | | Comments (0)
Is there anymore such a thing as a national culture in this country? Over at the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf posits that there is, and further, that New York sets what that culture is to a degree that stunts the rest of the country:

New York City's role on the American scene isn't unhealthy merely because it attracts creative, ambitious people with its dynamism, or because its residents have a healthy ego about the relative merits of their city. The problem is that along with those inevitable traits of great cities, Manhattan and certain of its surrounding boroughs happen to dominate American media, finance, and letters so thoroughly that even the most impressive achievements of other cities are routinely ignored while New Yorkers talk about local matters of comparatively smaller consequence, either tempting or forcing the whole nation to eavesdrop on their chatter depending on the day.

In Houston, Phoenix, Dallas, San Diego, and San Antonio, all among the top ten most populous cities in the United States, the smallest with well over a million residents, the average person has watched countless hours of television set in various New York City apartments, and perhaps never seen their own city portrayed in a sitcom. The executives read The Wall Street Journal far more carefully than the local newspaper, the aspiring writers dream of getting a short story published in The New Yorker, the local Starbucks sells The New York Times, the romantics watch Breakfast at Tiffany's on AMC at six month intervals, and every New Years Eve people gather around to watch a tape-delayed broadcast of a ball that dropped on Times Square hours earlier.

New York is a great city, but in America today, someone who seeks out the best television or novels or magazine writing or art or newspaper reporting is confronted with an even greater degree of NYC centric stuff than is justified. The city is a legitimate giant, yet its shadow somehow reaches much farther than it should. It thereby deprives other cities of the light they need to grow half as tall.
At the risk of spinning a cliche, this seems like such a New York point of view: New York is the only place that matters. Of course people outside New York read the Times and watch the TV shows set in New York and follow New York media. Duh. Does that really mean that New York dictates national culture? Perhaps we can concede that culture from New York plays an outsized role by virtue of the density of cultural activity collected there. But is there really a New York cultural identity that still dominates the rest of the country?

Do we think of American Ballet Theatre as being particularly New York in character, aside from the fact it is located there? Do we think of CNN as having a particularly Atlanta slant on the world? Leave aside that most of the creative energy working in New York comes from outside New York. The idea that a place like NY imprints a geographically-dominant identity is largely past I think.

David Schaengold has a different complaint:

It seems inevitable that as a country we will have national newspapers and national magazines and places that loom large in the national consciousness. Isn't in much better that these national institutions retain some local savor? Isn't the New Yorker, in part because it sometimes seems like a local, even a parochial journal, superior to the tranquil no-whereness of Time magazine? Isn't the inimitable New Yorkiness of the Times, what Fr. Richard Neuhaus used to call "our parish newsletter," one its few redeeming features, especially compared with the truly national and placeless USA Today?
That seems about right. Friedersdorf's premise is only interesting if you buy the idea that New York not only has more of everything, but also sets the agenda for culture in America. That was certainly true at one time. Is it today? In this age of access to everything everywhere, I'm not so sure.
May 18, 2010 6:14 PM | | Comments (1)


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