We lost two media critics this week, not counting Steve Jobs, whose opinions on media carry some weight given his litigiousness and his power to change human behavior and, you know, squash industries overnight. And two, when you're the meat in an earthquake-hurricane sandwich, is enough for a trend.
First, Jim Romenesko, the dean of media bloggers, set sail into semi-retirement. The Illinois-based editor, who began handpicking media news and gossip way back in 1999, has made all media aggregation, like this column, possible. It may be true that Mr. Romenesko's site suffered from fragmentation over the years, what with algorithm-based aggregators such as MediaGazer winning more and more attention, but his style of curation was still indispensable and his influence on newsrooms indisputable. Whether this means the computers have won, I dunno. It's difficult not to map his history to a broader one: Midwestern manual laborer gives way to the sleek automation based on a coast. Sigh. Then Slate's very popular trend-story-slayer Jack Shafer was laid off, prompting Gawker's Hamilton Nolan to declare it the "Twilight of the Media Critics." Why the dusky designation? Because if everyone's a media critic, soon no one will be a media critic.
There used to be media critics at damn near every big newspaper in America! No mas. Why the decline of this "proud" field? Well, for one thing, like politics, the media is a topic on which every asshole has an opinion, and those opinions are now more easily distributed than ever. So paying for a full time media critic can seem superfluous. Also -- and don't tell this to anyone who works in the media -- media criticism is a very niche thing. It does not have a popular audience. It has a niche audience, like every other trade magazine-type beat. The only people who think media news is big news are media people. And they control the media! Which is why media news tends to remain visible despite the public's generally weak interest in it.
The Washington Post's Erik Wemple had a great piece on Mr. Shafer and the man who laid him off, Slate Editor David Plotz. Years ago, at Washington City Paper, it was Mr. Shafer who hired Mr. Plotz and their relationship resulted in some more lighthearted journalistic high jinks, like this one:
The Shafer-Plotz relationship at City Paper was memorialized in this Shafer piece from December 1994, which recounts how linguistics guru Deborah Tannen had evaluated the interactions between the two men. Tannen drilled in on a stunted exchange between Plotz and Shafer over the functionality of the former's computer. Plotz complained that the machine was inadequate.
Plotz: I -- 'Cause it doesn't --
Shafer:Why, it's slow?
Plotz: No, it's not that . It's just like there are all sorts of keys that don't work and stuff.
Shafer: What do you mean keys that don't work?
Plotz:Like the caps lock doesn't work.
Shafer: It can. You want it to?
Plotz: No, it doesn't.
Shafer:You want it to?
Shafer: All right. What else would you like?
Plotz: Um, I don't know. It was just sort of --
Shafer: No no no, come on.
Plotz: Like I can't turn it off because --
Shafer: You would like -- you'd like to be able to turn it off? Why? 'Cause it bothers you?
Plotz: And it's -- it's frozen up on me like three times.
Plotz: Like is there a pattern?
Shafer: No, I mean maybe there is , I haven't noticed it. I -- I don't know. It hasn't done it for about a week or so, so don't worry. I'm just griping. I'm just griping. I've never -- I've got no particular complaints because it -- all I need to -- I'm not -- I'm not a computer junkie, so I don't really care.
Shafer: So if you want your caps-lock key to work, there's no problem. I can come in and do that .
Plotz: No, I don't really need a caps lock.
Shafer:It'll take me 25 seconds.
You know another media career that sucks? Cartooning! Slate's James Sturm narrates the process of pitching one's drawings to The New Yorker, which, unsurprisingly, is quite difficult. Here's Mr. Sturm's opening:
It was a Tuesday in July and I was sitting in the "cartoonist lounge" on the 20th floor of the Conde Nast building in Times Square with an envelope containing 10 drawings: my first cartoon submissions to The New Yorker. Every Tuesday is judgment day, the day Robert Mankoff, the magazine's cartoon editor, meets with cartoonists face to face. Another seven or eight cartoonists were squeezed into the small waiting room, which is dominated by a long coffee table stacked with hundreds of New Yorker magazines. A giant print of a Sam Gross cartoon hung on one wall; underneath was a couch. Sam Gross sat on the couch. The other cartoonists either tried to engage in awkward small talk or just kept silent. Sam, by far the oldest and most established cartoonist in the cramped space, held court. He said, "Dr. Seuss was not a good artist. He couldn't draw kids. They were just adults with big heads."
One by one, in the order they'd arrived, cartoonists disappeared into Mankoff's office and emerged a few minutes later. One cartoonist was asked by another "How'd you do?" The reply was a shrug. Everyone's expectations were low, and how could they not be? Rejection is the norm.
While we're on the topic of rejection, let's look at a specific one -- in slow motion. Filmmaker Sean Hood, a script doctor on the bomb "Conan the Barbarian 3-D," took some time to post an answer on Quora to the question "What's It Like When Your Film Flops":
The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. "Exit polls" are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they've heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That's when your stomach starts to drop.
By about 9 p.m. its clear when your "candidate" has lost by a startlingly wide margin, more than you or even the most pessimistic political observers could have predicted. With a movie it's much the same: trade magazines like Variety and Hollywood Reporter call the weekend winners and losers based on projections. That's when the reality of the loss sinks in, and you don't sleep the rest of the night.
For the next couple of days, you walk in a daze, and your friends and family offer kind words, but mostly avoid the subject. Since you had planned (ardently believed, despite it all) that success would propel you to new appointments and opportunities, you find yourself at a loss about what to do next. It can all seem very grim.
Finally, Maud Newton, writing in The New York Times Magazine, sees an alarming number of writers trying to be too much like the dead novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, aping the mannered uncertainty that flows through much of his (quite excellent) nonfiction -- all the "sort of "s and "kind of "s and "really"s and what not. Let's not even get into sarcastic exclamation points!!
Of course, Wallace's slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, "catching, highly infectious." And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I'm-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the internet era, Wallace's moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.