Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Blogs! They're Back!
Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s daily website and co-author of All the President’s Spin, called the panel to order at Makor, a West Side outpost of the 92nd Street Y. Joining him were Terry Teachout (all in black), Maud Newton (mostly in black), and Sasha Frere-Jones (in a breezy green shirt and brown cords, which may after all be the new black.) Keefer got the ball rolling by asking the panelists how they became bloggers in the first place. "I was looking to kill time in my cubicle at work," Newton explained. Teachout took the question a mite more seriously: "At a certain point, it became clear to me that high-culture commentary was going to migrate away from its old outlets, and move onto the Web. And I needed to get there." Frere-Jones, leaning at an odd angle to address the microphone bolted to his chair, played the levity card: "My entire career has been a long, unending accident. I thought I was in a band for a long time."
Next, the discussion moved on to technique. Or more specifically: how do Teachout (drama critic for The Wall Street Journal) and Frere-Jones (pop-music critic for The New Yorker) vary their approach when switching between print and online publication? "There’s no overlap between the two," explained Frere-Jones. "At The New Yorker, my job is to be completely accessible to the lay reader. As for the blog…well, I don’t really know why it’s there." Visitors to the critic’s virtual rumpus room may be equally puzzled. My first time there, I found what looked like a collection of paint swatches with cryptic captions. But I’ll keep going back: sooner or later there’s bound to be a juicy article about Bad Company.
Teachout took a very different tack. "I don’t think there’s much difference in the way I write for About Last Night and for print," he said. "But what the blog offers is the possibility of an immediate response." Another bonus, in his view: absolute flexibility as to length. His Wall Street Journal drama column, Teachout notes, is always 875 words long, give or take the odd adverbial clause. "If I want to write about a play on the blog, I can write just two sentences. Or fifty sentences. It's up to me."
Keefer asked the trio how blogging was altering the landscape of cultural criticism at large. At this point both Teachout and Frere-Jones (at right) heaped some quasi-orgasmic praise on their fellow panelist. "Maud is really somebody who started out and created a reputation online," declared Teachout. "We're going to see a lot more of that. Maud's career may indicate the future of cultural journalism." By this point Newton was nervously crossing and uncrossing her black lace-up boots. And why not? Teachout was sounding like Jon Landau on Bruce Springsteen circa 1975, and that sort of messianic quote can be awfully hard to live down. Meanwhile, Frere-Jones upped the ante. "I don’t even read the New York Times Book Review anymore--I just read Maud. I don't want to sit through a lot of dull prose and newspaper crap." In that sense, he argued, Newton and her blogging peers are slowly but surely chipping away at the Old Media's market share.
There was a brief discussion of blog-related reader mail. Apparently Newton gets plenty, Teachout somewhat less, and Frere-Jones almost none at all. (The single exception: an abusive letter from Jack White of the White Stripes, taking the critic to task for his fancy, hyphenated, suspiciously Gallic name.) Then Keefer brought the conversation to a close with a final question: "If everyone's a critic in the Age of Blogging, how does a critic distinguish himself or herself?" Newton, still quivering from the panelist's equivalent of a sugar high, dodged the question: "I really try not to think about that." But Teachout nailed it, with a tiny, effective summation of how blogs mingle utility and quirkiness: "You give people stuff they can use--plus the sauce of personality." So far, that seems to be the recipe for success. But how exactly can we measure success in the blogosphere? That, alas, will have to wait for another panel.