Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.
Question: Do newspaper critics have a future?
Terry Teachout: It depends on where newspapers are. What I expect is that we're going to see a long-term contraction of the newspaper market. We will start to have middle sized cities that no longer have major newspapers. I wouldn't be surprised if Detroit is the first one. This also has something to do with the cities themselves, but also with the nature of the market. The papers that flourish will be papers that serve a national audience, like my own paper, The Wall Street Journal, like the New York Times. Papers that have figured out how to make the transition to the electronic platform that aren't simply providing a duplicate experience of the words on paper experience, but are doing something that arises organically from the new electronic medium.
And the smallest local papers will probably also survive, although it may not be on paper. Eventually they are not going to be any newspapers on paper; we’re very close to that now. It's really just a matter of finding the right platforms for the way people want to read newspapers. I mean, maybe it will be the iPhone. But one way or another, newspapers on paper are just not really going to exist to any significant degree within a decade.
This affects the role of critics. The smaller newspapers probably won't have any critics at all. Maybe that's not such a bad thing because there's a certain level of seriousness that you can't get with a small newspaper for critics. I mean the Podunk Times is not going to have a good dance critic, I absolutely promise you that. There's just not enough dance there.
Again, there will be this mix of people like me who write for major national newspapers and amateur critics, practitioner critics, whose primary way of distributing what they talk about is through blogs and on the web. The line between professional and amateur criticism will become increasingly blurred. The problem here is that if you want to do this for a living, you have to be able to earn a living doing it. In a world without any criticism at all, although there are many actors who would think they would be delighted to see that happen, would in fact be a far more problematic world than they could ever imagine.
Virgil Thomson, the great classical music critic, who was also a composer, but said that criticism was the only antidote he knew to pay publicity. And that's a very interesting and subtle way of putting it. Critics at their best are independent voices people take seriously their responsibility to see as many things as they can see, put them in the widest possible perspective, educate their readers, I really do think of myself as a teacher. Newspapers that don't carry arts criticism at all while not fulfill this function. And probably their arts journalism will be deprived as a result. It's not enough, so your regional newspaper, and I like to use this example, in your local museum buys a Picasso, that's news especially if they've spent $10 million for it. But if you don't have a credit on your staff then you don't have anybody who's confident to say whether or not it was a good Picasso, might even be aware of the fact that there are bad Picassos. Arts journalists who don't have the experience of criticism, the skill of criticism, don't think in terms of critical evaluation are not going to be as good a journalist as they might be. And arts journalism will be seriously deprived if newspapers ceased to employ people like that, people like me.
I mean, if the Wall Street Journal ceases to employ me, and I'll go do something else. There are other things I can do. But I believe deeply in the value of what people like me do. And I don't want to see it go away.
Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen