Thursday, August 14, 2008

CL to Readers: We Don't Need No Stinking Film Critics

David Warner, Creative Loafing's editor, has been slow to let CL readers know that the paper is getting rid of longtime film critic Lance Goldenberg, and replacing his first-rate content with stuff from CL writers in other markets. Warner so far has left that job to political writer/columnist Wayne Garcia.

But Warner did offer some reasons for the firing in a note posted on The Feed, the blog penned by St. Pete Times media/TV critic Eric Deggans.

As expected, it's the usual song and dance, a bit of corporate speak suggesting that Warner doesn't really know or appreciate Lance's work all that well.

Warner's note to Deggans is below.

In response, a few thoughts:

1)Why do newspaper editors/publishers always try to hard-sell the idea that cutting staff and shrinking the news hole is somehow better for readers? It's not (d'oh!), and we're still not buying it.

2)J.R. Jones, the Chicago Reader film critic cited by Warner, may be "nationally known" in the eyes of some folks, but he's an unknown to most Tampa readers. The Chicago Reader critic who truly had a national reputation was Jonathan Rosenbaum, and he has retired.

3)If Warner really believes, as he says he does (and as many CL readers do) that Lance has "a strong, distinctive voice and a deep knowledge of film," then why not view Lance as an asset, rather than a liability? If he really believes this, then why not keep Lance in the stable of reviewers whose work is used in CL Tampa and distributed nationally to other papers in the CL chain?

4)If CL truly is "fiercely committed to reviewing and reporting on the local film scene and the many film festivals Creative Loafing has always covered in depth," then why would the paper eliminate its film critic, particularly one who knows the Tampa Bay area film scene as well as Lance does? How does this action support the paper's purported goal? It doesn't.

5)If Warner and CL's publishers believe that local film coverage can be replaced by the wires, then do they feel the same way about local music coverage? theater coverage? For a paper that has identified itself as a leading provider of arts/entertainment news, eliminating the film-critic position seems like precisely the wrong direction to go.

So here's Warner's note ...

Re: Film coverage at Creative Loafing
From: David Warner, Editor
The news that Lance Goldenberg will no longer be our weekly movie critic come September has been greeted with alarm in some quarters.

The alarm is understandable. Lance has been a reliably expert voice on film in Tampa Bay, one with an engaging writing style and a clear love for the medium.

However, Creative Loafing must deal with the fiscal realities that are facing everyone in the newspaper business. We have to find ways to economize while still bringing high-quality coverage to our readers.

As it happens, CL’s recent purchase of newspapers in Chicago and Washington, D.C. has expanded our access to talented writers and editors. Among them is J.R. Jones, an award-winning, nationally recognized critic who has been the chief film reviewer for the Chicago Reader for 11 years. Like Lance Goldenberg, he has a strong, distinctive voice and a deep knowledge of film. Unlike Lance, who was a freelance reviewer throughout his time with Creative Loafing, J.R. is a full-time staffer at the Reader, which means his reviews are available to other Creative Loafing papers either free of charge or at a substantial reduction in expense.

We expect that with J.R.’s reviews, plus reviews by other CL critics and writers in Atlanta, Charlotte and Washington, we will be able to review more rather than fewer movies than we were able to do with one freelance writer.

In addition, we remain fiercely committed to reviewing and reporting on the local film scene and the many film festivals Creative Loafing has always covered in depth. Staff knowledge and enthusiasm for film is deep, and we as a paper believe in the importance of a thriving film scene to Tampa Bay’s cultural life.

We’re sorry that the relationship with Lance is coming to an end. But we’re excited about the new and expanded possibilities that have opened up to us.


David Warner said...

A correction to my statement about J.R. Jones: Though he has been employed by the Chicago Reader since 1997, he has been writing about movies only since 2002, winning a first-place award for his criticism in 2007 in the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national competition.
As you note, Jonathan Rosenbaum was chief film critic at the Reader until he retired in February of this year.

As for the rest of your comments, I get the concern, and the anger. But who said anything about cutting staff or shrinking the news hole? I didn't. My full-time staff remains intact -- small, but intact. Lance was a freelance contributor, making as much if not more than some full-time staffers, but in a non-full-time position. I explained how I was filling the gap -- not with some wire-service hack, as you suggest, but with a critic with a recognized track record whose writing I know and respect.
As for how we'll cover the local film scene, I invite you to keep tabs. If we don't continue and expand our coverage of local fests and filmmakers, then your criticism will be warranted.

philip booth said...

Thanks much for taking the time to respond.

I follow a number of national film critics. J.R. Jones isn't one of them, but I'm sure with those kudos he must be doing a fine job. That despite the fact that he's only been working as a film critic since 2002, as you point out. In the world of film critics, that makes him a relative newbie.

I didn't call Jones a "wire-service hack," and I wouldn't have done so. Many of the country's finest journalists, including film critics, create high-quality work that is carried on the various wire services.

But my point isn't at all about J.R. Jones. It's about the fact that our local alternative weekly will no longer boast film coverage that's headed up by a highly qualified film critic who is based locally. CL offers that kind of coverage (and more) of music, and with Wade sometimes backed by Eric, you essentially have two highly qualified, locally based music critics at your disposal. The work of both writers is bolstered by their knowledge of the local scene. CL offers that kind of theater coverage, too, with Mark Leib. And as a publication that prides itself on coverage of arts/entertainment, CL, as Deggans mentioned in his blog post, could stand to beef up its coverage in other areas of the arts, too.

Generally speaking, in communities where you find a thriving arts culture - film, music, theater, visual arts, other arts - you find thriving coverage of the arts in the local media. Having a point person (or two) to cover each area of the arts is essential to makng that happen. (Yes, I know, all newspapers everywhere are cutting arts-writing positions, apparently not knowing - or caring - that those who are passionate about the arts are, or were, their most loyal readers).

J.R. Jones obviously won't be able to play the role of film-culture point person from long distance. And your other staffers, although very good at what they do, as far as I know don't have expertise or experience as film critics. That's not their job.

I wasn't aware that Lance had been offered the full-time position on several occasions but that he had turned it down, as you mentioned. I was aware, because Lance toldl me at the time, that he had at one time talked with CL about a full-time position, but that it hadn't worked out, for one reason or another. I don't have any of the details, so I won't comment on that.

But if the issue centers in part on the fact that Lance was making full-time pay for freelance work, and an arrangement can't be worked out with Lance, then there's a simple solution: Find another highly qualified, locally based film critic (or one willing to relocate here for what Lance was being paid), and hire that person to head up movie coverage for CL.

Your readers, many of whom pick up CL only for the film coverage, deserve it. And, given the central place that film coverage has held at CL/WP/CL over the years, wouldn't that be in the paper's best interest?

Yes, I am disappointed, and maybe, as you suggest, a bit angry about this situation (as I was when the Tampa Tribune unceremoniously got rid of film critic Bob Ross, who had been writing about movies in our area for more than 20 years; he continues to do so on his web site). Part of this is personal. I don't like to see friends jerked around by their employers.

But I've said more than enough about the issue, and I'm now officially letting go.

John said...

If there is any upside to this -- not to mention a reason CL has had to cut back -- is that freelance writers can publish their own works on blogs just like this one.

If Lance Goldenberg has the readership that comments here suggest, he may be able to attract enough advertisers to support his own venture.