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SXSW: Panels, Part II: Journalism

This is one in a series of posts about the panels at this year's South by Southwest — most panels were part of the Interactive track, but some were in Film or Music. All raised a lot of questions, some of which I've asked below; I hope you'll want to join in the conversation.

The journalism-related panels at SXSW were mostly extremely useful, inspiring and thought-provoking. If they occasionally got bogged down in a sort of woe-is-us rehash of the things that are wrong, and the perceived divides between new and old media, it’s to be expected; we all get bogged down in (and depressed by) those lines of thinking from time to time.

That problem is understandable. What’s less so is the way the broad journalism discussions — the dramatically named Media Armageddon panel, the equally sweepingly titled How to Save Journalism panel — never talked about arts journalism. There was a discussion about film criticism during the film track, and a couple of conversations about music journalism, online tastemakers and such. But arts writing wasn’t part of the broader conversation. I think this is a major oversight, the same way I think the laying off of film critics all over the country was a major mistake. Yes, there are a million bloggers posting about every kind of art you can imagine, especially film and pop music. But the number of voices in the conversation is no reason to step out of it entirely.

Speaking of critics, let’s start with the decade’s most defensive discussion of film criticism!

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Hyperbole in Film Criticism & Analysis (Film track panel)
This panel made me uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m one of the publicist-ass-kissing hacks the panelists repeatedly trashed, but the emphasis on said trashing felt defensive in a strange and unpleasant way. What about the flip side? Which critics do the panelists read? Which currently working writers do they admire? Why?

To be fair, it wasn’t all peer-trashing, and some of that peer-trashing is good and deserved. But the judgemental tone was off-putting. The moderator, Eric Childress (of eFilmCritic), asked the panelists — Cinematical managing editor Scott Weinberg, whose Twitter feed you really should follow; Drew McWeeny, whom some old-time Ain't It Cool News readers may remember as Moriarty; the impeccably dressed and eloquent James Rocchi; Jen Yamato (also of Cinematical); and lone print critic Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle — what the worst trend in film criticism was; where was the follow-up question in which we got to hear about the good stuff? A little less mocking and a little more discussion about what needs to change (and how to change it) might’ve saved the panel from veering perilously close to bitch session territory.

That aside, I appreciated a lot of what the panelists had to say when they did take a more positive tack. I admired the way Rocchi could quickly defuse the group when the conversation got a little too mean-spirited; I think I was the only person who laughed (appreciatively) when he said that part of the joy of the job is “being in a long tradition of people smarter than you.” I was glad to hear Weinberg talk about his position that the people interviewing the actors and the people writing the reviews should be different people. I loved that Yamato was willing, in the face of peers saying Twilight was “culturally dangerous,” to simply say, “I like Twilight.” McWeeny talked about making reviews interesting whether or not readers have seen the film. Rocchi used the apt term “informed enthusiasm” and Baumgarten talked about the idea that a critic is a writer first.

Weinberg argued that words like “possibly” have no place in film criticism, and while I don’t entirely agree, I was glad to see the conversation get particular — and personal. Writing about art is personal; talking about writing about art can be even more personal. I understand the defensive stance. I just wish the conversation were more about changing and improving than tearing down the folks who are doing it wrong. I agreed with almost every point that the panelists made when the moderator asked about the worst trends in film crit — the move toward the binary; leaving out the middle ground; sloppy writing; attention grabbers — and I liked every writer on the panel. So why’d I wind up feeling like theirs was a club I’d never be allowed to join?

(You can listen to a few clips from this panel here.)

Media Armageddon: What Happens When The New York Times Dies
Panel Armageddon: What happens when you go to a panel and it’s a rehash of the same old media vs. new media conversation that’s been going on online for ages? You skip the rest of the panel, which started off on a difficult foot when Markos Moulitsas from Daily Kos said he wanted traditional media outlets to “do their job.” Who gets to define that job? Him? The outlets? The readers?

Props to whoever changed the hashtag for the panel to #endtimes, but I could only take so much rehash of whether or not bloggers could fill the hole left by the imaginary nonexistence of the NYT before I split. Old media has credibility! New media doesn’t fact-check! Sweeping statements help no one! Discuss. (Good notes on the panel are here, if you’d like more.)

Online Tastemakers: Death or Rebirth of Music Curation?
See that title? That kind of title can limit the panel by building an either/or right into the framework of the discussion. What about “What the Web Means for Music Curation”? “Why the Hell Anyone Still Cares About Music Curation is Beyond Us, But We Sure Are Happy About It”? Or “Is there Room for More Than One Kind of Curator?”

I got hung up on the second slide the panel showed, which said something to the effect of “Everyone’s a critic — mainstream challenged.” Hang on a sec. If everyone’s a critic, how is that not a good thing? If you actually mean everyone is thinking critically about the media they consume, it is. And while it’s fine for the mainstream to be challenged by this, I’d rather the mainstream find ways to be inspired by it.

The relationship of the mainstream to the — sorry, I’ve got to say it — blogosphere was something Christopher Weingarten commented on when he said that blogs and magazines are now responding to opinions (rather than forming them, I assume). The cycle is different because of leaks, because of the access (however dubiously legal) so many people have to music. I’m not sure the cycle changing is necessarily a bad thing; we just have to adapt to it, and to understand that people want different things from different outlets. No one source — site, Twitter, blog, magazine, paper — can start every conversation, but there are always new things to bring to it. (And it’s worth remembering, as Richard Nash said during the Q&A portion, that long-form criticism is a cultural object too.)

Anya Grundmann from NPR said that they want to create an experience for people who want to be on top of things but don’t have time for it. Isn’t that what the mainstream media is for in a lot of ways? For the people who want to know what’s going on out there but don’t have the time or the inclination to use Google reader to track a thousand specialized websites and blogs?

A woman in the audience asked, “If everyone is a curator, is anyone a curator?” — a question which got everyone’s attention because if there’s one thing all kinds of media do well, it’s get defensive about our relevance. It’s a valid concern — if everyone is a curator, for whom are we curating? Each other, I suppose, but that’s the fate of music nerds since day one: Music nerds write for other music nerds, not for the people who hear a song on the radio, go buy it, and don’t care what anyone says about it. But this question, and the question in the title of the panel, both get close to a topic that came up slightly antagonistically at one point in the panel: Can anybody be a curator? Who decides? There’s a faction that says no, only some people can do this right. There’s also a faction — and one I more closely align with — that says yes. Yes, but the thing is, it’s work, and not everyone wants to work at it.

Online tastemakers aren’t the death or the rebirth of music curation. They’re a step in the evolution. What we need now is a discussion of how that evolution is continuing: with algorithms and code? With more humans at more keyboards? What’s the next form music writing, and music curating, is going to take? When do you start downloading MP3s with commentary coded right in, so it pops up in a little box in your iTunes? Do we want that? What do we want? Why?