by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Death of the Critic & r & & r & It's a familiar line. Newspapers are slashing staff. Critics are the first to go. Everyone gets their media advice (especially on pop music) from the Web, the province of hacks and amateurs; a land of vacuous star-f---ing and hasty promotion. The era of the professional, public critic is at an end.
It's an argument so lame that I've tried to ignore it, but the tenor is getting louder and more shrill, so here goes: We need to stop defining "professional" as anyone who draws a paycheck from a traditional publication. Four years after Kerry vs. Bush and the ascendancy of the political blogger, that benchmark is all but gone. Professionalism is judged and will continue to be judged by page views. To those with the readers go the spoils. There's no other yardstick than that, and we might as well get used to it.
The idea that this kills thoughtful, reasoned criticism is both luddite and anti-populist. The critic collective at pitchforkmedia.com -- as shrill and navel-gazing as it often is -- does all those things the traditional print critic did. Its writers decide what is good, what is bad and why. By Internet benchmarks, it's also popular and profitable. Sasha Frere-Jones still has a job. I do, too, for that matter.
Newspapers, like record companies, are struggling. The specific reasons are different, but the macro problem is the same: Their products are no longer scarce. Through filesharing, music is essentially free and abundant. Through the interconnectedness of the Web, our hometown papers are now forced to compete with the New York Times, Rolling Stone and the Guardian on a digital playing field that ain't as green.
There's less money to go around, so big fish are getting smaller. That doesn't mean criticism is dead. It means it's going to be more cutthroat. The critics of the future will probably be lone guns (James Berardinelli already is) or work in small packs. They'll need to be more mindful of their readers -- or at least their Web traffic -- than Lester Bangs ever was.
In short, they'll need to prove themselves -- not just to a handful of editors, but to the world. And they'll have no job security. In the future, though, smart people will still crave smart things, and critics with passion and perseverance will have an engaged audience. They'll also have vastly more competition, so they'll need to bring their A game every day.