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I'm a journalist, ex-national papers, now working in what we call "new" media.

Really interesting article by Jay Rayner in Sunday's Observer on the web's challenge to newspaper criticism, which he blogs about here. As a newspaper restaurant critic, Rayner obviously isn't neutral in the debate but he's produced a fair-minded and compendious survey of the subject, which is well worth a read.

A few thoughts:

1 Several of the newspaper critics interviewed (notably Brian Sewell and Clement Crisp of the FT) argue they are better than their web equivalents simply because they know more, through years of study and following their particular specialty. Well, maybe, but this is treacherous ground to defend. In the end, a journalist is a journalist, and who's to say a real expert might not come along and start blogging?

What journalists bring to the party - and this was rather neglected in Rayner's piece - is the ability to write, to express themselves succinctly and engagingly and clearly on their chosen subject. Few people manage this naturally: it takes practice, discipline and the attention of editors. Journalists do it for a living, day in, day out. Chances are most of them are better at it than most bloggers.

2 In fact, expertise may be overrated. The opinion of the expert may simply be too rareified for the ordinary punter. A critic's job is twofold: to provide recommendations and guidance to readers - is it worth spending thirty quid to see this play, eat this meal, buy this book? - and to establish and enforce standards within the discipline s/he is writing about. The likes of Sewell and Crisp probably take the second more seriously and address their comments to artists, performers, curators and institutions. To me, the first is more important.

3 In a way, more interesting than a head-to-head between individual critics who do essentially the same job whether they write in print or online, is the way the web can aggregate large numbers of individual opinion to achieve some sort of consensus, for example in restaurant websites like toptable and hotel sites like hotels.com.

This is 'wisdom of crowds' stuff and, to many, the web's real point of differentiation.

It's good because they tell you what a bunch of real people have really experienced. A restaurant critic, by contrast, is likely only to have visited the place once, and may well have been recognised and had special treatment. On the other hand, the reviews by the public are self-selecting and undoubtedly include a disproportionate number of disgruntled customers. They are often badly written and unclear, too.

Also, doesn't this aggregation of opinion tend to pull everything towards the soggy middle? What if you personally have minority or extreme tastes - discordant, atonal music, challenging contemporary theatre, weird conceptual art, offal-based cuisine? Would a rating system that simply aggregated the views of the many be any use to you?

4 Rayner selected a number of quite elderly newspaper critics for his piece and some of them, unsurprisingly, didn't like, use or understand the web. A couple of them, Hilary Spurling and Michael Billington, clearly did, however. Encouraging, I thought.

5 For years and years newspapers have reviewed TV programmes the day after broadcast, even though there was no opportunity for people to see what they might have missed, unless the programme was repeated. So if you saw a good review and wanted to see the show, too bad.

Now we have catch-up channels, Sky+, the iplayer and its equivalents, and TV reviews really can do a useful job of telling people what is and isn't worth watching. Yet newspapers are starting to do away with TV reviewers. Odd, isn't it?


ZoeB said...

This is a really interesting debate. At toptable.com we believe food critics such as Faye Maschler provide a useful tool but the diner is also key. We have nearly 500,000 diner reviews on the site and as you say this is the 'wisdom of crowds'. Can 500,000 people be wrong?

Also, we should consider that restaurants can just be having a bad day when the critic goes in. The head waiter/ress calls in sick or the chef is having an off day. Another benefit is that online sites such as toptable are more up-to-date. A critic may go once but online reviewers review in real time so new reviews are constantly posted.

Zoe (Marketing Manager, toptable.com)

ZoeB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
simon said...

Yes 500,000 people can be wrong (and, of course, not all of them are reviewing any one restaurant. That said, sites like toptable are really valuable. I use them myself and they do provide a perspective that you won't get from Fay Maschler, Jay Rayner and AA Gill.