Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

I Read the News Today On Line

May 22, 2012

 
It's been an interesting day. Now I know you've probably had your fill of the Peter Gelb/Metropolitan Opera/Opera News story as have I. But I realized something about this story that I still thought was worth mentioning here because I think everything that has transpired in public says something about the state of arts journalism. I don't know if you noticed or not, but this entire story arc from Dan Wakin's original repost in the New York Times that Peter Gelb had convinced the Met Opera Guild's Opera News to stop reviewing its productions to the Met's eventual recapitulation of the confirmed policy took place in less than 24 hours. And it took place entirely online.

Pay attention to that last part. Wakin's original report, which appeared in Tuesday's print edition of the NYT, showed up on line in the late evening on Monday. The story was carried via Twitter instantly everywhere and within hours there was already a cacophony of responses of concern about the change from authors including myself. These voices were enumerated on sites including Lisa Hirsh’s Iron Tongue of Midnight and Parterre Box. By the next morning, the story was everywhere on Twitter and it inspired parody accounts from @FakePeterGelb and @FakeOperaNews lampooning the decisions. Arts journalists used to seeing their work in old-fashioned ink and paper didn’t wait around till the next edition to comment with the likes of Alex Ross and Anne Midgette jumping into the fray. Both writers, and many others, posted reactions on their own online spaces whether sponsored by their primary big-box media employers or not. None of it in physical print and all of it at the speed of the Internet. Not long after lunch time on Tuesday, the Metropolitan Opera announced that Gelb and the powers that be had changed their minds due to the public outcry via Facebook, Twitter, and blogosphere. After a good old fashioned press release emailed and posted on the Met Opera website, Wakin posted an update to his original story on line. Now while there may have been some old school phone calls and dirty looks mixed in here along the lines of real world experience, this “outcry” didn’t involve killing trees, and took place entirely in the electronic world of posted comments, Internet blogs, and social media.

I doubt this is the first time that an entire news event or story unfolded and resolved almost entirely within the context of the virtual world. However, it’s not an everyday occurrence when it comes to the arts. What strikes me most about how this happened, though, is that as I sit here and write these words, I can still think of numerous arts journalists who view the world of social media and on line existence disparagingly and somehow removed from what they do. These folks imagine their world as solitary writing after reasonable calm reflection in the spaces between their tete-a-tete’s with artists and administrators cultivating their sense of an insiders world of the arts and delivering their missives from on high. This is no longer an sustainable way to do business. Now I’m not trying to argue against arts journalism as it has been practiced well into the past. On the contrary, if it wasn’t for tried and true basic practices, Wakin’s report wouldn’t have existed to begin with. But this story was born, lived, and resolved itself online and in social media, and if you weren’t there in some fashion, you were just waiting for someone else to fill you in after the fact.

Writing about the arts today means knowing what’s happening on line and ignoring it means you aren’t getting the whole story. It’s not everything one needs to do, but staying on top of this activity is no longer optional for people who are relevant in the world of arts journalism. Media organizations (Are you listening Los Angeles Times?) should know that by now, and they neglect it at their own peril.

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Interesting thoughts as always Brian. I did get the distinct impression that what we were seeing here was an internal power-struggle/personality clash between Gelb and the Opera Guild and some of the editors at Opera News, which happened to play out in public in a way that backfired on some of the participants, who were too busy looking at the trees to see the forest. But "solitary writing after reasonable calm reflection in the spaces between" pretty much describes my approach to on-line arts talk -- I think you're making a division between the fast-paced on-line world (hey, remember when newspapers were fast? remember The Front Page?) and the reflective print world that isn't necessarily there. I have to admit the "blog swarm" aspect kind of turned me off. First reactions aren't always best reactions. Also, there is the implication that print people are insiders and Internet people are not -- that also isn't necessarily hard and fast; it just depends on how much contact one has with arts officials, how dependent one is on them for free tickets, etc. It's a matter of point-of-view, and whether you're writing as a member of the audience or as someone immersed in institutional happenings. For me, as an audience member/art consumer, the whole situation, much as I admire its adherence to the so-called classical unities of time and space, is basically irrelevant: an article about arts institution power struggles on the other side of the country is different from an article about art, though of course there's some back-and-forth effects. I see your point about the power of the Internet, but I think what was really driving this kerfuffle was the participation of old school print people, starting with the NY Times, continuing with Ross of the New Yorker and Midgette of the DC Post - yes, they were writing on line, but they do have institutional-press weight behind them. La Cieca is of course a powerful on-line presence, and also I think sort of an exception -- if all the on-line activity had happened with the one exception of Parterre.com, do you think the Met would have responded so quickly? If the on-line stuff had all happened but Ross and Midgette had not participated, do you think the Met would have responded so quickly?
Hahaha. There was an LA Times Culture Monster posting after the fuss was over, by Chris Barton, not Mark "Social media? What's that?" Swed.
Lisa - I know and that was exactly what i was thinking about.

Patrick - All very good points. I guess part of the point I was mostly trying to make wasn't really an either or proposition. What I wanted to get at was that the best journalists can't stay relevant much longer with exactly the kind of attitude Mr. Swed has. You've got to be able to do both because there is too much happening online these days that is relevant to what is happening.

Sure the weight of a Ross or Midgette matters in this debate. (Though Ross really said nothing substantive about the situation other than repeat the facts of Wakin's original report until the whole thing was over.) But what people say online, regardless of the organizations behind them, and how many of them say it are of great concern to people in the arts. Two case examples - Brad Wilbur's met Futures Page that the Met went all out to stop. Artists and their managers were reading his collection of public and fairly gained info and it was causing the house business problems so they went after him. A big org might have protected him, but what he had to say had an effect.

A second - I tweeted a complaint about Carnegie Hall just a few weeks ago and got more response out of them than when I called the box office with the same content in the same way. (Lisa has volumes of these incidents.) Did it change the world or did anybody else care? No. But believe me, arts orgs are listening and smart ones are thinking about what is said and trying to manage it in some way.

which takes me back to the start. The dividing line between journalists and audiences is increasingly breaking down. Journalists have skills to offer regardless of who they work for. Paying attention to what others are writing matters and that is happening online in numerous formats.
I think I'm just not seeing this as a watershed moment. Maybe it's part of a slow shift, but even so, I think a lot of it was driven by old-school media prestige and power (which is not to diminish the participation of critics like Ross and Midgette; there's a reason they keep their positions). I'm really not sure how much influence the usual blogger has, as opposed to the occasional powerhouse (Parterre) or those associated with major insitutions like the Post or the New Yorker. Even if Ross didn't say anything substantive, it matters that he joined in, especially since he had already ripped Gelb and LePage (and he's usually a very even-handed writer).

Also, the pile-on aspect of the whole thing is, to me, one of the drawbacks of on-line media's usual immediacy. There was already an anti-Gelb/anti-Lepage swell that quickly turned into a vast wave.

The brouhaha really did seem more about internal politicking, and I always wonder who's dropping what information for what purpose. And while coverage of arts institutions is important, I do think it's different from coverage of art.

Yes, smart institutions will pay attention to new media, but a lot is going to depend on the size of the institution and the size of the new media voices. As for Mark Swed, apparently I am to him as he is to new media: I've heard of him, but have little experience of what he's about.
Mark Swed is the LA Times's classical music critic. He is notorious for actively making fun of new media and saying it's basically worthless.

What's interesting to me is that the Met's press release - a telling point, because it should have come from ON, not the Met - cited the "outpouring of reaction from opera fans." They must have seen this on line at the Times and Parterre Box and also in email, because nobody was sending telegrams to Lincoln Center about this.

Okay, okay, I already made the point that they were saving face with that formulation. But the new media played a role in it.
Apparently I've been misspelling the name of the director in question, so please read "Lepage" for "LePage" in my comments above. h/t to Lisa for pointing this out.

I think the "outpouring of reaction," though based on new-media reaction, is, as Lisa points out, basically a face-saving formulation. If it had made them look good to say they changed their minds on their own, they would have said that. They cut the problem off before it spread to the slower-reacting and more prominent/public "old media." Good for them. Yes, the new media played a role. I still get the impression this is mostly about a power struggle between Gelb and the Met Guild/Opera News, and I'm still not seeing this as the changing of the guard. Others are free to disagree, of course.
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