Entertainment Journalism

Scott Fosdick. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

As new forms and delivery systems for arts and entertainment proliferated, interest in news and comment on all aspects of entertainment and its creators reached new heights in the early twenty-first century. The rise of blogs and other Internet-based avenues for sharing information helped democratize entertainment journalism by throwing it open to amateurs and semi-professionals. At the same time, serious criticism by trained professionals seemed in decline, resulting in a trivia-obsessed public and a reduced market for serious reviews of traditional art forms.

At a time when hard news has softened into what could be termed a 24-hour song and dance, parameters of entertainment journalism can be difficult to identify. Journalism about entertainers can lose definition when many journalists appear to have become entertainers. Meanwhile, infotainment is offered alongside self-avowed “fake news” comedy venues like The Daily Show and The Onion—which, in turn, is where increasing numbers of citizens say they get their news (and, according to some research, are better informed than those who stick to more traditional sources). Infotainment—the practice of mixing news with entertainment—is not new; it dates at least as far back as the medieval period, when traveling troubadours and theater troupes in a pre-literate age shared gossip and events from towns they had recently visited. But such light content has increasingly dominated what is being called a post-literate age.

When Neil Postman wrote his landmark treatise Amusing Ourselves to Death in 1985—before the rise of the Internet and its incarnations of news lite—he was primarily concerned with the dumbing down of both America and the world in a post-literate age. He saw this phenomenon as the result of people gorging on the eye candy of television in preference to the more intellectually demanding medium of print. Postman had no objection to entertainment, even of the mindless variety; what he feared was a citizenry that could no longer tell the difference.

Fewer Professionals, More Amateurs

The landscape of entertainment journalism at the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century is marked by a growing conundrum: We have fewer critics of the arts than we did 100 years ago. Yet at the same time, we have far more of them. A century earlier, when magazines were our only national medium and newspapers were at their most plentiful, a major city like Chicago would have roughly a dozen daily newspapers, each with its own theater, music, and art critics. A hundred years later, Chicago had a few suburban papers and two major downtown dailies, only one of which, the Tribune, dominated those zip codes that were home to most patrons of the arts. Other cities followed the same pattern. So while the proliferation of blogs and websites has increased the raw number of critics writing, most communities find that for a play or exhibit to succeed financial-ly—to draw enough customers to support the organization that produced it—it must gain a positive review from the critic who works for the dominant (or, in an increasing number of venues, the only) newspaper.

This proved true even in New York, widely acknowledged to be the cultural capital of the United States. Although the city supported three viable newspapers into the twenty-first century, The New York Times had an outsized influence on the success or failure of performing arts organizations. It was a rare show that could succeed without a positive review from the Times. When it came to books, that influence was nationally felt: “Get” the Times, and your book was made.

Media mergers, even when they did not result in a reduction of the number of newspapers, sometimes led to a reduction in force of arts and entertainment journalists. For example, various San Francisco Bay area newspapers that merged under the umbrella of the San Jose Mercury News saw replacement of separate arts critics with one critic whose reviews and features appeared in multiple papers. Thus the nation’s traditional arts establishment found itself in an environment where a hundred blogs by unknown writers could not counteract the influence of the one remaining (and thus more powerful) newspaper critic.

These developments affected the performing arts (theater, dance, and live music including opera and symphonies as well as rock and roll and other popular genres) and museum arts (painting, sculpture, and performance art) more profoundly than they did recorded and broadcast arts such as motion pictures, recorded music, music videos, and video games. But even these electronic arts were affected: fewer newspapers meant fewer critics. As remaining newspapers felt the pinch of decreased revenue, they often dropped critics of non-local art forms. It became an unnecessary luxury to carry a local movie critic when reviews were available from syndicated sources and readers could access reviews in national publications online.

Changes in Reviewing

In the early twentieth century, when a dozen local critics would review the same performance, a public that bought more than one newspaper might take disagreements among critics as a cue to apply their own critical thinking to any given work of art. A review might be seen as less a verdict and more an invitation to consider and discuss the meanings and artistry of the work in question. A hundred years later, the critic for The New York Times—or the critic for any city’s dominant newspaper—could not help but feel the weight of his or her review. Given the increasing price of performing arts events—even after accounting for inflation—the main function of each review seemed to have devolved into a monetary one: Should the reader buy this product or pass it by? The arts had always been subject to commercialization. Now they had fallen under the spell of commodification, the idea that as the monetary value of something increased, its intrinsic value decreased.

That trend was exacerbated by the transformation of culture from something that occurred live and in person to something that was recorded, reproduced, and distributed on disks or downloaded on personal computers, MP3 players, or cell phones. As art became a slickly packaged product to hold in one’s hand, journalism about art increasingly took on the mantle of consumer guide. The essential question for the arts journalist shifted from “Is it good art?” to “Is it worth the price?”

In some ways the rise of the Internet hurried these trends. For example, websites like craigslist seriously undercut newspapers’ ability to make money with classified advertising, leading to cost cutting on the editorial side. And the Internet itself became a one-stop marketplace where one could sample, share, pay for, and consume free snippets and full-length downloads of artistic products. Art became increasingly impersonal, consumable, disposable—and forgettable.

Web 2.0 Reviewing

On the other hand, the Internet also carried the possibility of counteracting some of these trends. The popular movie website Rotten Tomatoes collects a wide array of reviews for every new film, allowing readers to compare views as well as the differing aesthetic stances of a wide variety of critics. Some may use this as a way to comparison shop, but others might be drawn into a deeper consideration of film as an art form—and may feel compelled to post their own views. That is both the danger and the promise of the Internet, which can be tawdry and anonymous and obsessed with surface values but can also become the venue for the creation of a community of dedicated art lovers who share personal views and even art itself. Online communication is as honest and serious and deep as its users choose to make it.

If, as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s, “The medium is the message,” there is some evidence that attention spans are dwindling as a result of the nature of the Internet itself: shimmering pixels on a screen loaded with hyperlinks that invite split focus and rapid-fire clicking from one source of stimulation to another. “Is Google Making Us Stoopid” (sic) was the title of a 2008 Atlantic cover story by Nicholas Carr, who observed that his own patience with long-form writing had diminished. When attention spans shrink, so does the ability to consider complex ideas and sophisticated art forms.

That said, historians caution that the penchant for short bursts of entertainment pre-dated the Internet. The late oral historian Studs Terkel observed that the practice of channel surfing—rapidly clicking from one television program to another—was a throwback to the age of vaudeville, when one frenetic act after another would enter stage right, perform hurriedly for two or three minutes, and then exit stage left to make room for the next dog-and-pony act or juggler or singer entering stage right.

Obsession with Celebrities

Celebrity journalism has never been more popular, but, as with infotainment, it is not an entirely new development. Marie Antoinette was nothing if not a celebrity in France’s era of self-published pamphlets (a precursor to our blog culture). Pamphleteers speculated endlessly about what was or was not going on in the bed of the young queen and King Louis XVI. In the United States, celebrities were among the most popular subjects for the new field of photography in the late nineteenth century; Napoleon Sarony built his career photographing leading actors of the day. As attention turned from stage actors to film stars, the celebrity business kept pace, building cult followings for figures like Rudolph Valentino in the early 1920s.

That trend grew with new media products, from the oversized photo magazines like Life and Look in the late 1930s through the phenomenally successful launch of People magazine in 1974 and into the spawning of a seemingly infinite number of websites devoted to film stars, hip hop phenoms, and figures such as Paris Hilton who seem to be famous simply for being famous.

Painter Andy Warhol observed that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. The Internet seemed to provide the tool for such fame, with sites like Facebook and YouTube allowing anyone with a personal computer to upload photos and videos of themselves, their neighbors, and their pets—a more democratic but less organized version of the television show America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Amateur Hour

Just as the line was blurring between professional and amateur entertainment journalists, increasing opportunities developed for amateur performers to make a splash, and sometimes a killing. A century after vaudeville had discovered up-and-coming talent during regularly schedule amateur nights, television turned to its audience to cast performers as either legitimate talents or laughably inept wannabes. American Idol was a phenomenally successful “reality” television program, based on a British precursor, which in turn appeared to have its roots in an earlier American free-for-all called The Gong Show, in which performers kept going until a gong let them know they had worn out their welcome. The Idol shows invited audience members to text message their votes to help determine whether a given performer should continue on to the next round of competition. Dancing with the Stars followed a similar format, but paired stars not known for their dancing ability with hitherto unknown professional dancers in ballroom competition. The third component of both these shows was a panel of judges, each of whom would give critical comments and cast votes themselves. The winners and even the runners-up in American Idol sometimes received lucrative recording contracts.

These programs raise difficult questions for entertainment journalism. Were these celebrity judges—noted more for their personalities than for their learned comment—functioning as legitimate critics? Had art been reduced to a commercial contest? Yet the weekly results of each of these network programs were widely reported as news in the media.

Serious Criticism in Decline

In such an environment, one might expect professional entertainment critics to be growing superfluous and perhaps disappearing entirely. Indeed, serious arts criticism, which never had commanded much airtime, appeared to be in further decline on television in the early twenty-first century. Newspapers, city and national magazines, and a few public radio stations continued to offer news and reviews of the fine and popular arts, as did a number of websites. Several awards promoted recognition of the best critics and criticism each year: the George Jean Nathan award recognized excellence in dramatic criticism. The Pulitzers, the National Magazine Awards, and the City and Regional Magazine Association’s annual awards each included categories for arts criticism. They had no lack of worthy nominees. The most severe long-term threat to the careers of critics, however, was the aging of audiences for fine art forms like dance and opera. Dwindling coverage led to dwindling support, in a vicious cycle.

The more serious arts each had respected publications with smaller circulations, whose topic was easily identifiable by the magazine’s title: Dance, American Theatre, Art in America, and Opera News, to name a few. Just as serious book publishing houses were in disarray amidst multiple mergers, the few newspapers that provided them were cutting back on their book review supplements. Graphically, the few surviving Sunday book sections made up the one area of American newspapers that had changed the least since the Civil War, back when America was a nation of book readers. Although the number and size of these sections had dwindled, their content was remarkably similar. They mixed reviews of new books with excerpts and profiles of authors. The questionable practice continued of having reviews of new books often written by authors of similar books. The balance shifted over a century and a half from dominance by fiction to nonfiction. And a number of magazines maintained book review sections. The talk-show host Oprah Winfrey encouraged reading by recommending books on her television show and in her magazine.

Beyond the more serious magazines stood a number of middle-brow national magazines devoted to popular arts. Entertainment Weekly was one of very few that covered the variety of popular entertainment in America. Most limited themselves by art form. The largest number focused on music, which was in turn subdivided by musical genre: Rolling Stone and Spin covered rock music fairly broadly, while other magazines carved up other formats, including country, hip hop, heavy metal, and so forth. A growing trend by 2008 was magazines that combined a musical genre with a complementary lifestyle. At the same time, movie fan magazines, once dominant in entertainment journalism, were in decline.

The Business Press on Show Business

The most thorough reporting on show business appeared in the relevant trade press. Magazines like Variety, Billboard, Publisher’s Weekly and The Hollywood Reporter followed both the big picture of company mergers and acquisitions as well as the endless statistics of box office receipts and record sales. Perhaps the best gauge over time of the many changes in the entertainment industry could be found in Variety. When it began publication in New York in 1905, it was but one of dozens of magazines covering variety entertainment (which included vaudeville, burlesque and circuses) in the United States and England (where variety was called “music hall”). All of the English magazines lived and died with the art form. Variety survived, largely because it followed its professional readers into new worlds of musical recording, motion pictures, radio, television, and, eventually, video games and the Internet. The DNA of changing American popular culture can be read in the small print of Variety’s back pages.

Similarly, there was a business-to-business magazine for virtually every type of entertainment worker. For example, the creators of postproduction special effects in movies could read the trade secrets of the latest outer space war epic in their own magazine called millimeter.

Opportunity for Abuse, Reason for Hope

Just as entertainment found new forms in the early twenty-first century, so too was entertainment journalism in flux. The prospects for serious critics and reporters seemed hazy at best while the opportunity for abuse was great. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the average working critic was not given a byline, there is evidence that many were open to bribes of money and food. Some theatrical producers went so far as to send in positive reviews they had written on their own presentations—and some newspapers, desperate for copy, ran them as is. A similar crisis of trust faced the public 150 years later as bloggers stepped out from under the umbrella of publications with established reputations to preserve and began to self-publish. A Google search for reviews of a DVD or live performance might turn up an undifferentiated mass of writing by unknown authors of unknown affiliations. Optimists saw the democratizing of a once elitist field. Others feared that the average reader could not tell when he or she was being sold a bill of goods—and in an era of diminished critical thinking, might not even care. There certainly was a lot of entertainment journalism out there. But how much of it was any good, and how much could be trusted?