Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

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Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by John F » Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:11 am

Financial Times

Critics in a hostile world
By Martin Bernheimer
Published: July 4 2008 07:24

These are hard times for journalism in America. Newspapers are at best shrinking, at worst folding. Fewer than 10 cities still support more than a single daily. Writers face buy-outs, lay-offs or firing. The papers that survive are making do with fewer employees, fewer pages, fewer articles and fewer opinion pieces. Critics are looking more and more like dodos.

A primary cause of our imminent extinction must be the internet. An impatient generation is succumbing to the free and easy lure of computer enlightenment. Sure, not all those who cover the arts in old-fashioned print are paragons – still, most do have sufficient education and/or experience to justify their views. On the web, anyone can impersonate an expert. Anyone can blog. Credentials don’t count. All views are equal. Some sort of criticism may survive the American media revolution, but professional criticism may not.

Essentially, our civilisation is tilting towards anti-authoritarian contests. Audiences, not judges, select winners. Call it the American Idolisation of culture. On TV, contestants get voted off without explanation. Quality is measured by thumbs, up or down. Scholarly analyses have turned into irrelevant extravagances for snobs.

Many US papers have abandoned thoughtful, detailed reviews altogether. Publishers, editors and, presumably, readers want instant evaluations and newsbites, preferably with flashy pictures. It is Zagat-think, simplicity for the simple-minded.

Of the thousand journalism jobs reportedly lost during the past year, 121 belonged to specialists covering music and dance, film, books and television. The music critic at the Kansas City Star was told to walk after eight years of heavy duty. The Miami Herald’s critic was granted eight weeks’ severance pay. The Los Angeles Times no longer employs a dance critic. The Village Voice in New York and the Los Angeles Weekly have ceased coverage of “classical” music. The Seattle Times no longer employs a music critic. Even the relatively secure New York Times has found two of its venerable critics – one in music, one in dance – to be expendable. Time and Newsweek gave up earnest arts coverage long ago.

The departure of a staff writer does not invariably mean the end of criticism. Sometimes the gap is filled by “stringers”, often inexperienced freelancers paid by the piece, and not paid well. Some papers rely on recycled wire service reports. Exclusive viewpoints are low priority, if any priority at all. When Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal, he proclaimed his intention to compete with the New York Times by expanding arts coverage. The evidence of that remains slim and dim.

Sam Zell, the real estate mogul who recently bought the Tribune Company of Chicago, is implementing an unprecedented 50/50 ratio between advertising and editorial content. The new system, which will affect the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and 10 lesser publications, stresses local coverage at the expense of world news. The revised focus is officially delineated in the Orlando Sentinel, a Zell purchase that promises to be “more vibrant and modern – as dynamic as Central Florida ... [with] powerful local content ... aggressive consumer coverage ... stories that touch the emotions ... provocative voices, including yours”. So we enter a cowardly new world.

Ironically, several academic institutions are offering programmes dedicated to improving the quality of arts journalism. The University of Southern California is spending $1m to train incipient critics. Syracuse University has created a master’s degree programme for the same purpose. One wonders where the graduates will find work.

Historically, the best critics have guarded standards, stimulated debate and, in the complex process, reinforced the importance of art in society. They have been tastemakers, taskmasters and possibly ticket-sellers. Some have even written well. Despite automatic controversy, they played a role in aesthetic checks and balances. If their opinions were important, the reasons behind them were more important.

Critics, antagonists claim, should be objective. No way. Objective observers would note that Artur Rubinstein could be guilty of playing between the piano keys. Subjective critics reasoned that his sense of poetry, interpretive insight and expressive passion made the wrong notes irrelevant. Objective critics sometimes noted that Maria Callas sounded strident and wobbly. Subjective critics felt her magnetic power overrode technical blemishes.

T.S. Eliot said “criticism must always profess an end in view, which appears to be the elucidation of works of art and the correctness of taste”. We like that. Brendan Behan, though, called us “eunuchs in a harem” and Ralph Vaughan Williams said we were “misbegotten abortions”. Tough critics never win popularity contests.

Occasionally critical clashes make history. In 1950, the soprano Margaret Truman, daughter of Harry S, suffered delusions of adequacy in a recital in Washington. The critic Paul Hume was not enthralled, and wrote: “There were moments when one could relax and feel confident that she would indeed achieve her goal, which was the end of the song.” The president responded by writing to Hume: “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you will need a new nose, a lot of beef-steak for black eyes and, perhaps, a supporter below.”

It’s dangerous work. But somebody has to do it. Or not.

Martin Bernheimer won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism while at the Los Angeles Times. He now covers music in New York for the FT and for Opera magazine
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by John F » Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:19 am

The Iron Tongue of Midnight (blog)
Lisa Hirsch

Critics, Journalism, and the Internet

It's been a bad year for music journalists, with critics losing their jobs left and right, through buyouts, layoffs, and resignations. Some have been replaced; Tim Page by Anne Midgette, Peter Davis by Justin Davidson. Most have not: Bernard Holland, Melinda Bargreen, Alan Rich, and others. Davidson's spot at Newsday was not filled.

Martin Bernheimer has an article in the Financial Times ... that discusses the role of critics as arbiters of excellence and maintainers of standards, and the trend away from respect for expertise toward the view that everyone is a reasonable critic. Along the way, he mentions the Internet as one reason for the decline of journalism and professional critics.

I think a number of the points he makes are on target, but others are truly arguable. The consolidation of the news media has been going on for decades, since the relaxation of rules on how many types of media a particular company could own in a particular market. Some newspapers are losing money - for reasons including their own failure to move their advertising onto the Web, pronto - but many others are profitable. They're just not making high enough profits for their corporate masters and Wall Street; therefore, their staffs get cut. (Justin Davidson provides some context in a Musical America article. Justin, about that last point you make: San Francisco Classical Voice is independent of both arts organizations and print journalism.)

I have to especially argue with this point in Martin Bernheimer's article:

A primary cause of our imminent extinction must be the internet. An impatient generation is succumbing to the free and easy lure of computer-enlightenment. Not all those who cover the arts in old-fashioned print are paragons, badness knows. Still, most have sufficient education and/or experience to justify their views. On the web anyone can impersonate an expert. Anyone can blog. Credentials don’t count. All views are equal. Some sort of criticism may indeed survive the American media revolution, but professional criticism may not.

Just how familiar is Mr. Bernheimer with the classical music blogosphere? The bloggers I read can be loosely classified as follows (and apologies to those of you I've omitted from this incomplete list):

* Professional critics such as Alex Ross, Joshua Kosman, Jessica Duchen, Steve Smith, and Tim Mangan

* Composers and composer/critics such as Elaine Fine, Kyle Gann, Steve Hicken, Matthew Guerrierri, and the whole gang at Sequenza 21

* Performers such as singer/arts administrator Sidney Chen, pianist Jeremy Denk, conductor Kenneth Woods, and singer Anne-Carolyn Bird

* Consultants such as Drew McManus and Greg Sandow. Oh, did I mention that Drew has a past as a performing musician and Greg is a composer and critic?

* Well-informed and educated listeners such as A.C. Douglas, Patrick Vaz, and sfMike.

These voices are provide invaluable viewpoints, even the ones I spend too much time arguing with. I cannot say that any of them are in any way "impersonating" experts; the non-pros are perfectly clear about the fact that they're not professionals. I'd really like it if Mr. Bernheimer could point out some people who are impersonating classical music experts or taking jobs away from professional critics. And I hope he'll keep in mind the fact that the blogosphere is more like a salon than like a newspaper: a bunch of people sitting around exchanging opinions with themselves and their readers.

He's not the only critic who has gone astray writing about classical music on the Internet recently. The anonymous bloggers at The Detritus Review had a fine time taking apart an article by Mark Swed. And Out West Arts reports that newly-minted blogger Alan Rich said recently that there are "no important music blogs on the West Coast at this time." Welcome to the blogosphere, Mr. Rich, and check out those of us who've been here a while.
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by John F » Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:30 am

One does not have to be a professional reviewer to "have sufficient education and/or experience to justify their views." And as we've seen too often, vice versa. But when the arts are dropped from the daily paper or the weekly news magazine, that makes a statement about the place of the arts in society. Only in the United States in the last decade or so, as far as I know, has such a statement been made by so many media outlets, some of them with huge readerships and presumably great influence. Shameful.

Lisa Hirsch, not herself a professional critic but an opinionated blogger nonetheless, speaks up (and rightly so) to point out that some of the blogs about classical music are by professional writers, some of them among the recently fired or retired such as Alan Rich and John Rockwell. They write what they want, when they want, with no editorial restraints as to content, space, and deadlines. But presently anyway, blogs have neither the readership nor the influence of a published review in a printed newspaper or magazine. And I don't expect that will change any time soon. So while one may object to this particular aspect of Bernheimer's characterization of the internet, it doesn't affect his main points.
Last edited by John F on Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:45 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by John F » Sun Jul 06, 2008 9:34 am

On the Record
Exploring America's orchestras... with Henry Fogel

Newspapers and the disappearing music critic: Where's the leadership?
June 27, 2008 3:03 PM

Well, here we go again. You will remember recent discussion here and elsewhere about the almost-elimination of the position of music critic at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A combination of local and national pressure reversed that decision. But now we have the situation all over again, this time in Kansas City and Miami. Here's a digest that appeared June 20 in In the News, the League of American Orchestras' daily newsletter to the orchestra field:

McClatchy, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country, is in the process of cutting 10 percent of its workforce. Today (6/20) on MusicalAmerica.com, Susan Elliott reports that the Kansas City Star, a McClatchy affiliate, "has eliminated the position of classical music critic, and with it Paul Horsley, who was given his walking papers on Monday after more that eight years in the job. Also gone from the culture department are the fashion editor and two of the three calendar editors. ... Last year Horsley's byline count--a common practice at newspapers these days--was a total of 250, about as many working days as there are in a year. Horsley, who holds a PhD in musicology from Cornell University, left his job as the Philadelphia Orchestra's program annotator and musicologist eight years ago to come to the Star. He did so, he says, because he thought the newspaper had 'one of the strongest arts staffs of any city any size.' ... The Kansas City symphony, opera and ballet are said to be organizing a formal protest."

And here's another one, from the June 26 edition of In the News:

"Last week it was the Kansas City Star; this week it's the Miami Herald. When will the blood-letting stop?" asks Susan Elliott today on MusicalAmerica.com. "On Monday, Miami Herald Classical Music Critic Lawrence Johnson received an 'involuntary buyout' from his newspaper. Just to be clear, the word 'buyout' when preceded by 'involuntary' means laid off, in this case with eight weeks severance pay. Such is Johnson's paper parachute. ... Like the Kansas City Star, the Herald is owned by the McClatchy Company, the third-largest newspaper chain in the country. McClatchy is severely in debt from its 2006 purchase of Knight Ridder, and so is cutting ten percent of its workforce, company wide. At the Herald, it's actually 17 percent, or 190 of its 1,400 employees. ... The Herald's executive editor reported to Johnson that the hue and cry from the classical music community, which has grown during Johnson's watch, was 'massive.' 'The response has really been heartening,' said Johnson by phone yesterday, 'and it makes the situation easier to deal with. There's a lot more going on in South Florida than anyone would think. I'm going to do my best to make sure these groups continue to get coverage, even if it's on a different platform.' " Johnson has started a blog to continue his coverage, classicalsouthflorida.blogspot.com.

It continues to amaze me that those who are in positions to shape the national agenda do not, in fact, give a damn about shaping anything. Instead of feeling a shred of responsibility to lead the country, to move national discussion beyond the realm of reality shows, sitcoms, and sound-bites, they exercise a stunning degree of follow-ship-putting their collective fingers in the air, sensing the current trends, and running to follow them. That the arts and culture do, in fact, represent among the most significant achievements of any society or civilization--and that for that reason alone they merit discussion in our national media--is irrelevant to those who shape those media. It is a sad commentary, and perhaps more than anything else it is indicative of why newspapers are being eaten up by the internet.

I hope that there are vocal protests in Kansas City and Miami. I hope that many join them, and I hope they will be successful. But it's beginning to feel as if once you plug one hole in the dike, another opens elsewhere.


7 Comments

By Kenneth LaFave on July 1, 2008 1:55 PM

Protests, vocal or otherwise, won't help. Newspapers care only about the bottom line.

I know: I was music critic for The Arizona Republic from 1994 to 2005, when management decided it could do without my services in the classical music arena. (I also preceded Paul Horsley at the K.C. Star from 1987 to 1990.) Their reasoning is that people interested in classical music don't belong to the demographic that buys lots of stuff. Folks who go to rock concerts buy lots of stuff, but not classical folk. Classical folk, the newspapers believe, are well-off, certainly, but they already own a home and two or three cars and their disposable income is probably tied up in stocks. To sell advertising - which is how newspapers make money - management has to convince the stores in the shopping malls to take out huge ads that will sell stuff to mostly young people on their way up the ladder of success. That means devoting space to coverage of Paris and Britney, not the Paris Opera and Benjamin Britten.

In my experience of newspaper management, fewer than one in 100 newspaper executives give a rat's behind about serving the public; they care only about making sure next quarter's stock report shows an increase in returns. But they're getting what they deserve. Newspaper readership is down, and it will sink further as people wake up to the fact that, not only do papers neglect the arts, they don't even report the news accurately.

We need to think of using alternative media. I've started a radio show in Phoenix called Arts on the Town, which interviews people in classical music, theater, dance and visual arts. Some of our interviews are archived at www.artsonthetownaz.com.

By Emily Smith on June 30, 2008 8:23 PM

As a member of the professional music community in Kansas City, I am truly saddened by the departure of Paul Horsley, and, even more tragically, the music critic position at the Kansas City Star. I wish I could say I was shocked or even surprised. The unfortunate truth is, despite a thriving classical music scene in K.C., media coverage has been woefully lacking for many years.

A number of years ago we lost our long-time classical FM radio station when the owner decided to change to a more "profitable" format,thus relegating the classical offerings to its sister AM frequency. (Interestingly, that same station has changed formats two or three times since.)

We're not just losing a music critic; we're also losing valuable coverage of music and ballet. Ironically, this falls in a year in which a beautiful new performing arts center is under construction and the highly respected Kansas City Chorale has won a Grammy award.

I, too, hope to see the internet step in and fill the void. And I wish Mr. Horsley all the best in his new position, wherever it may be.

--Emily Smith, Co-Director
Kansas City Flute Choir

By Carole Sandvos on June 30, 2008 7:07 PM

Why is it that when cuts are made, it's always the Arts that suffer? Did we lose many (any?) sports writers? Probably not.

As a retired public school teacher of music, I've watched the pendulum swing: When I began, in 1969, our school had 3 music teachers. A year or two later, we had the miraculous number of 5! All too soon, we were back to 3, and then, for the last ten years of my career, we had ONE music teacher left. (I might add: much the same pattern related to the Art department.)

As our schools diminish the importance of music in our daily lives, so the media continues the process. You remove our liassons, those who connect the public with the world of art. Larry Johnson is one such liasson. We, out here in the real world, depend upon the Larry Johnsons of the country to keep us connected with the up-and-coming artists. Yes, there are still those of us who DO want to see and hear fantastic performances of orchestra, chorus, opera, dance, and all we can grasp. South Florida has a terrible reputation for lack of culture, but some of us try to keep it going. Larry Johnson helped us do that!

Perhaps it's too late for Larry's position with your paper. But it's not too late to stop this terrible attrition in the world of the Arts.

By S. Z. on June 30, 2008 1:40 PM

It doesn't help when music criticism and writing is done by journalists who are not very knowledgable about music, or who lack expertise and taste, even when knowledgable. In other words, music criticism should be written by literate musicians, not journalists. I have not read such writing since Harold Schonberg retired. If the writing lacks essential thought, vitality, and insight, it is a weakened target people can live without. That said, Paul Horsley is one of the more knowledgable writers. But where are the writers like Virgil Thomson today? There is certainly a lack of leadership in newspaper ownership. Decline in content leads to further decline in readers.

By James Jandt on June 30, 2008 9:45 AM

Thank you for shedding light on this very current and yet timeless dilemna. Is money the root of the problem? No child left behind? Down with the elitist critics? If you wish to see where we may be going with our culture, please see Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron"(included in Welcome to the Monkey House). The dumbing down of our general culture leaves us poorer in the main and sucking for air at the top of the creative heap. I admit that without external criticism, we may still create. I am a visual artist myself and a composer. Without critics to examine and illuminate works for others to appreciate, will it fall to the artists themselves to get the word out and also to enlighten the viewing and listening public? Another big hat to wear. I do enjoy educating and bringing People into close proximity with my own work. Is that the ideal? I wonder. I think not.

By Glenn Freeman on June 30, 2008 8:28 AM

As music critics continue to operate as hired goons of their respective symphony orchestras, failing to report important music news in their region, they will continue to become more and more irrelevant. For instance, OgreOgress productions has yet to be featured in any piece by the local music critic of the Grand Rapids Press and Grand Rapids Symphony.

By James Bash on June 28, 2008 8:04 PM

I agree wholeheartedly and am amazed that newspapers have left a lot of arts criticism to bloggers and freelancers like me. I think that newspapers could easily establish an arts-criticism community on the web by letting qualified freelancers post their previews/reviews/features under the moniker of the main newspaper reviewer. Newspapers could easily remain a one-stop web place where reader can find all of the latest arts-related news, and it wouldn't cost all that much - since all of it would be online. Ad revenue would quickly follow and cover the cost of paying the freelancers a nominal fee.
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by Lance » Sun Jul 06, 2008 10:23 am

The demise of critics is rampant everywhere. Here in Binghamton, NY, our own resident music critic, who covered just about all facets of the local arts: popular, classical, dance, visiting artists/orchestras, etc., recently married and moved to California. From what I hear, her position will probably not be filled. (This is a Gannett newspaper area.) One of the reasons I subscribe to the paper, aside from reading obituaries, is to read the criticisms of what's going on in the arts in the area. I have seriously thought of discontinuing my 40+ year subscription and checking the Internet of the obituaries, not for reviews, because there won't be any.

Thank you, John Francis, for giving us these illuminating stories.
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by Lance » Sun Jul 06, 2008 10:48 am

Lance wrote:The demise of critics is rampant everywhere. Here in Binghamton, NY, our own resident music critic, who covered just about all facets of the local arts: popular, classical, dance, visiting artists/orchestras, etc., recently married and moved to California. From what I hear, her position will probably not be filled. (This is a Gannett newspaper area.) One of the reasons I subscribe to the paper, aside from reading obituaries, is to read the criticisms of what's going on in the arts in the area. I have seriously thought of discontinuing my 40+ year subscription and checking the Internet of the obituaries, not for reviews, because there won't be any.

Furthermore, even as I look at today's newspaper, the largest edition of the week, the overwhelming percentage is advertising. All the "extra" inserts are nothing but advertising. I know this is how the papers generate profits, but the American public is being hit so hard with advertising these days that newspapers are becoming an abomination to the publishing business. It's the same thing with television. If you watch the History channel, just count the number advertisements between the actual segments of the main presentation! It's disgusting. And the repetition of the same advertisement is a sign of what producers must think of our intelligence. Not only that, but if you are watching something on television, they are now advertising at the corner- or bottom of the screen, trying to push everything possible to the viewers, which is often distracting to what one is trying to view. Thank you for allowing me to get this off my chest, all in one swoop!

Thank you, John Francis, for giving us these illuminating stories. Things are changing in our society and not for the best.
Lance G. Hill
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by GK » Sun Jul 06, 2008 10:45 pm

Tim Page was one of many Washington Post journalists who recently took a buy-out. The Post is reducing staff because of the decline in circulation which is affecting most US newspapers. Page originally planned to take a year's absence to teach at the University of Southern California. His final departure may have been prompted by an incident involving former DC mayor Marion Barry. After erroneously receiving an email from Barry's office Page, who has Asperger's Syndrome which leads him to forgo social niceties, send a return email calling Barry a worthless crack addict. He was then suspended by the Post. Ann Midgette, formerly of the New York Times, was at first hired as an interim critic but now seems have gotten the full-time post.

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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by John F » Thu Jul 10, 2008 7:05 am

Whither Withering Criticism?
By Justin Davidson
MusicalAmerica.com
July 3, 2008

Whenever I read about another newspaper shedding another critic, I shudder – with sympathy, with anger, with disquiet. But it would be an error to attribute this dispiriting attrition to a philistine attack on the arts, or to focus too much on its meaning for cultural pursuits. The de-criticization of American journalism is a symptom of a much deeper tragedy in civic life: the lunatic suicide of the press.

Certainly, critics are losing their jobs or their beats, but they have a lot of company. After I left Newsday, where I worked as a critic from 1996 until I joined the staff of New York magazine last year, the paper virtually ceased coverage of classical music. In the most recent spasm of buyouts, it also sacrificed two movie critics, a visual arts critic, and a TV critic and cut loose the freelancer who wrote about dance. But to put that in context: In the past few years, Newsday also shuttered its foreign bureaus, closed the national desk, halved its Washington staff, pulled out of New York City, whittled down every other department and slashed its total number of pages. In the midst of all this misery, it would be a little blinkered to complain that Newsday has neglected the Long Island Philharmonic.

Most papers around the country have responded to falling circulation by giving readers fewer reasons to subscribe. And it’s not as if the shortfall in journalism is being offset by anything else. An army of amateur bloggers can’t send reporters to war zones or spend months sifting through obscure records in search of government abuse. There are some forms of journalism that only professional journalists, backed by the resources of major news organizations can tackle. Abandoning those stories squanders the protections afforded by the First Amendment: Why would the government bother abridging the freedom of the press, when the press is doing such an efficient job of abridging itself?

The terrible irony of this disaster is that even as newspapers wither, newspaper readership is actually increasing – online, and for free. The disabilities of the old business model are so profound that trying to remedy them by tweaking (or ravaging) the content is like spitting into a volcano: pointless and self-destructive. This is not the place to rehearse the troubles of the newspaper industry, or to critique all the spurious solutions. For the moment, it’s enough to point out that critics were never part of the problem, getting rid of them is not part of a rational solution and keeping them on wouldn’t improve things much either.

So what’s a poor critic to do? For one thing, don’t cling to a leaky tub. The future of arts criticism may be as an extension of the arts world, rather than as a neglected corner of journalism. Museums, orchestras and performing organizations in each community could come together to set up an independent, hyper-local, online-only arts bulletin staffed by a formerly ink-stained wretch. The consortium could provide seed money, mailing lists, advertising and – most important – a guarantee of editorial independence. It would take a while for an ensemble to get used to the idea of funding negative reviews, just as it would be difficult for critics to negotiate potential conflicts of interest. But it’s possible to set ground rules, and the payoff would be an invigorated conversation about the arts, a built-in audience of readers who have been betrayed by the local paper and the beginnings of a strategy for surviving the implosion of traditional news. Treating the wounds to democracy is a far more challenging – and crucial – task.

Justin Davidson won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2002; he is the classical music and architecture critic of New York magazine.
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Re: Martin Bernheimer: Critics in a hostile world

Post by John F » Thu Jul 10, 2008 7:12 am

from Critical
by Alex Ross
posted July 09, 2008
in The Rest Is Noise [blog]

...Keep in mind, as Tim Mangan reminded us a while back, that editors are now using Internet hits to gauge the relative popularity of their writers, so support your local critic by clicking on his or her stories, writing comments, checking those little ratings boxes, e-mailing the stories around, and so on. Protest may be nearly as helpful as praise; it's the hits that count in this WalMartWelt....
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