Thursday 26 April 2012

Media Studies

(Digital & Theatre ii)
“Woo/Woah, it's a video!”

Such was the initial spread of opinion that greeted the release of the theatre company Headlong's new video Falling Headlong.

One of the drawbacks of being completely immersed in writing up every single edition of Forest Fringe at The Gate was that I started having less and a less time to write anything else. Especially if I was also going to do any reading, and/or hanging out, either on Twitter or in real life.

When Falling Headlong (FH) came out, I had a nice discuss of it on Twitter while writing up that day's FF piece, but didn't quite find the time to write a proper article on the subject. At the same time being painfully/acutely aware that I'd already left one article on the subject of videos and performance hanging from the previous week.

In the interim, four notable additions to the discussion have turned up (as well as this interesting side-issue at the Guardian). First, “digital native” Jake Orr wrote a wide-ranging-but-brisk overview of Digital and Theatre, including a consideration of the new Headlong video. In turn, Orr tweeted a link to Chris Unitt's very technical, focussed notes on the Headlong video itself. Then on Sunday the Observer waded into the fray, albeit in the least informed or interesting way imaginable. I've already commented on the Observer piece itself in general terms, but it does seem worth asking, if only in the spirit of constructive inquiry, what on earth possessed them to approach the story that way (almost redolent of the Daily Mail, with its tone of: “Decrepit Artform Grooms Youngsters Online!”)

Then Mark Shenton, *blogging* for The Stage, added a somewhat alarmist contribution of his own.

In a lot of ways, Shenton's piece offers an interesting counter-balance to my recent article “Embedded”. In his piece, Shenton worries about the potential passing of the current cosy relationship between PRs and arts journalists, or critics. In short, he seems concerned that anyone might begin to think about depriving him of his status as a gate-keeper. His piece reminds me that, no matter how tendentious my claims regarding the value of “embeddedness” felt, there is already an argument that theatre critics are already pretty cosied up to the theatres from whom they claim distance.

Witness Shenton's dire predictions: “If the PR machinery excludes journalists in the game and goes straight to whom (they think) are the audience [sic], they’ll preach only to the already converted (i.e interested enough in their work enough to follow them on Twitter and Facebook), and lose the wider audience that journalism reaches” he grumbles. This strikes me as quite a fundamental misunderstanding of how the internet and social media works.

He goes on to issue a slightly passive-aggressive-sounding threat: “once journalists are excluded, we’re simply not going to be interested in following where others have already led, so the story is dead to us.” (“You're dead to me, Headlong”!)

Given how quickly a story can now spread online, or on Twitter, I wonder if even this concern is already far behind the times. “In the long run, too, it all contributes to the death of conventional journalism.” He continues. “If we’re not needed, we won’t be here anymore — and once we’re not, there won’t be any need for PRs either to serve us, either.”

All of which would be a terrible pity if “conventional journalism” wasn't so frequently the worst thing you could possibly imagine.

(it's possibly also worth remembering that Shenton, as the theatre critic for the Sunday Express and *a blogger* for The Stage already sits completely outside “conventional journalism” thanks to the Express proprietor Richard Desmond's decision to put all his papers outside the remit of the Press Complaints Commission, making them, what? Racist comics, I suppose.)

More importantly, don't his objections sound a bit like someone angrily slamming the door of an empty stable? I don't read Shenton regularly, so I'm happy to stand corrected, but to the best of my knowledge, he didn't write a thing about, for example, the Forest Fringe season at the Gate. Why? Presumably because he didn't think his readers would be interested. And, on balance, that was probably a fair enough assessment. Shenton tends to write about musicals, the West End, Broadway, very mainstream theatre and cabaret performed by the stars of West End musicals and Broadway. Anyone following him in the hope of a heads-up on the cutting edge of the avant garde is likely to be disappointed.

All this which a nonsense of his claim that the regurgitation of press releases will necessarily reach a wider audience, much less Headlong's most likely audience, thanks to their being written up by a “conventional journalist”. Lots of press releases get ignored. Loads. I don't know how many papers wrote up Headlong's last season press release – probably a reasonable number given that it included the eminently *newsy* Decade – the 9/11 10th anniversary show, but this is still missing the point and arguing the toss about something that isn't even strictly relevant.

After all, all Headlong have *actually done* is release a video online. It *obviously* *wasn't* a “Press Release”. Nor, as many have subsequently commented, was it trying to be. It didn't contain anything like enough information for a start. Let's be honest, they were trying something new. They were trying something *a bit different*. No, I know – before everyone gets all antsy – I know online video trailers aren't new. FFS, I wrote an article about them in 2008. I'm I'm pretty sure even that wasn't the first article on the subject. (At this point, I should retrospectively give a heads-up to Lyn Gardner's admirably brisk, no-nonsense Theatre Round-Up piece on this subject, and thank her for also linking to that article).

Falling Headlong *wasn't* a “trailer”, per se. It was more of a season *teaser*. I saw it more as, on one hand, a kind of Company mood board, and, on the other, a kind of statement of intent – a way of giving people an oblique picture of who Headlong think they are as a company, and, even more interestingly, a kind of idea of how they see their forthcoming season fitting together.

I don't suppose it even began to cross their minds that they were effecting a massive job-endangering paradigm shift by simply slinging their video online drawing attention to it on FB and Twitter,and hoping that a load of their followers would retweet and *Share* it, thereby also bringing it to the attention of those people's Friends or Followers, who might not necessarily follow Headlong (precisely the opposite of preaching to the converted, in fact. And, moreover, making much more of an offer of something to share than a small, dry re-write of a press release).

We're all aware that, thanks to wide range of factors, arts coverage in the British mainstream media is pretty tiny, and theatre's share of this perhaps tinier than some. There's less money for it now than possibly ever before. It is now perhaps read (at least as hard-copy) by fewer people than ever before – to the point where it's starting to feel slightly silly to still call some newspapers “mainstream”.

No wonder theatres and theatre companies are starting to look into as many new and different ways as possible to circumnavigate the potentially crippling reliance on Britain's mainstream media for *any* attention or publicity at all. It's also worth noting in passing that even a straight-up great review or bad review doesn't necessarily hold much sway. Look at the continued success of the universally panned We Will Rock You as compared to the more-or-less universally lauded stage version of The King's Speech from which the public stayed away in droves and which is soon to close – the news of which is doubtless prompting another round of those intensely boring “Is the West End in Crisis?” articles, which do sometimes appear to be the only sort of arts coverage that newspapers are capable of printing.

One thing Shenton's article did usefully make me wonder, was whether the angle of the Observer's piece was informed by the same annoyance at feeling “bypassed”. As if – because Headlong had dared to put out a video that anyone could watch, rather than a press release, exclusive to all newspapers – they had asked a fatally under-informed staff writer to knock up a piece snidely condemning the matter out of pique.

But what do Shenton and The Observer think they're achieving with articles like these?

Is Shenton seriously suggesting that it will be Headlong releasing season trailers on YouTube rather than the Philistinism of his proprietor coupled with a worse recession than the 1930s that most puts his job in jeopardy. Moreover, would Shenton have actually covered the fact that Headlong had announced their new season on his Stage blog at anything like this length if their PR had just sent him a press release? And how many Sunday Express readers are Headlong really targeting? (doubtless, they'd say “well, all of them, obviously” - but, come on, it's the Sunday Express. It's barely better than the in-house newsletter of the EDL. And how many bigots actually like New Writing and the slightly art-house end of theatre anyway?) 

Similarly, does the Observer think articles like that are going to encourage Headlong to want them to cover their future projects, if that's the level of informed professionalism they can expect?

My real question, though, is: If the default position of “conventional journalism” toward theatre is apparently either alarmism, cynicism or outright hostility, and that's when it bothers to cover theatre at all, then what exactly does theatre have to lose if “conventional journalism” does die out?

(for the record, I'm not half as convinced that *the mainstream media* is going to fall over – certainly some newspapers are changing their business models fairly rapidly, but as someone I recently read, or heard on the radio, said: “it's like the death of vinyl, or even the current ructions facing the music industry – they haven't actually stopped music...” [paraphrased as well as unattributed! Terrible! I should write arts features for the Observer...]).

Moreover, I find this sense of possible change in the air much more something to be excited about than something to dread. I prefer the future (hell, it's already some people's present) where rather than having to endure one ludicrously under-informed bit of sneering at (in this case) Headlong's expense, or a facile write-up of a press release – cherry-picking and partial reporting by an already pressed-for-time arts correspondent, which will put as many people off as it switches on – there will be (is) an engaged community of theatregoers who will have multiple alternate sources to turn to for coverage, insightful comment, and perhaps where they'll be able to simply *follow* PRs, theatre companies, other like-minded souls on Twitter, or what-have-you.

They will, in fact, be made aware in a single day of a vastly greater amount of stuff, being written about better, by informed people who actually care, than they ever got from reading a newspaper.

Cynicism and churnalism won't really cut it any more. If the Observer's piece is indicative of what we can look forward to from the “professionals” now staffing the paper for which Kenneth Tynan used to write, FFS, then I see absolutely no reason why the intelligent reader won't declare the term “professional” a vastly unhelful distinction and go off in search of an amateur who actually knows what they're talking about. 

Anyway, enough of the polemic; here's the video:

And now I need to get back on the reviewing horse. Next up, in no particular order are still: NSK symposium, Laibach at Tate Modern, last nigfht of Forest Fringe, Making Noise Quietly at the Donmar and then some reflections on the Forest Fringe experience and maybe a few more thoughts about the whole “embedded” thing.

Writing more about “Embedded” feels like a particularly urgent thing at the moment, not least because, given the stuff coming out of the Leveson Inquiry this week, it feels like maybe the worst time imaginable for a “journalist” (of any description) to start beating a drum for a cosier relationship with those about whom they write.

That's not what I meant. That's not it at all...

[and, now, because I've taken so long to get around to posting this, Matt Trueman has well and truly gazumped me, and with much more élan and less bad temper, with his excellent new Noises Off round-up on online critics writing about online issues (including the Headlong trailer)]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I for one find no traces of ill-temper in this superb diagnosis of the dead-tree theatre press's rank distemper. Baying here for eloquent blood. More please!