One of the best known and most respected journalists and critics in the realm of classical music and opera, Anne Midgette has also been among the more tenacious advocates of changing with the times, embracing new media platforms, techniques, and modes of storytelling – qualities I was in a position to witness at close range as an admiring colleague during the last two years of her seven-year stint contributing to The New York Times. Since 2008, Midgette has blazed new trails as the classical music critic for the Washington Post – a plum role in the nation’s capital, at precisely the time the newspaper began its steep ascent to the top of the digital-news world.
Above and beyond her distinguished work in print and online, Midgette arguably has done a more effective job of extending cultural conversations with readers via social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter than any other journalist or critic in a comparable position. In a recent telephone interview, she described the contours and challenges of her job, and how social media platforms have proved natural extensions to an essential conversation.
STEVE SMITH: How would you describe your editorial mandate at the Washington Post right now, with regard not only to what you cover, but also how you approach it?
ANNE MIDGETTE: The editorial mandate is I’m responsible for classical music. In the age of digital journalism, that can mean that you open up the paper and discover an editorial about non-profits that touches on your field, or that the national arts reporter can decide to do a piece on Simone Dinnerstein – which is all fine. It’s not like everything goes by me in a contemporary paper. Even less with TV and film – everybody feels like they have open season to talk about that stuff. I think the fiefdoms have relaxed, in the sense that 20 years ago you would always go to the classical critic before you commented on [Gustavo] Dudamel.
There’s a lot of freedom, and a lot of appreciation that we have it, but a lot of freedom, too, in the sense that it’s up to us to make what we want of it. We have the metrics in hand; by metrics, I mean of course the numbers of who’s reading what. We know reviews aren’t getting read as much. We know that the paper as a whole is not as actively interested in the high arts as it is in other more widely read areas. So the freedom is a two-edged sword: You’re partly free because, “you guys take care of this.” There’s tremendous support – my immediate editors are fabulous – but in terms of our sense of where we belong at the bigger paper, I think that’s dwindled a bit.
But the freedom that’s exciting is there’s a lot of encouragement, in a general sense, to try new things – you’re always going to have support staff if you want to try writing a dialogue instead of a review, for example. They’re always happy if you use social media; that’s always been encouraged. I’ve always been kind of a social-media junkie since I was allowed to get on it, so that hasn’t been an issue. And we all, as critics, having seen the results on social media, are eager to figure out ways to pair it up better, where you feel that exchanges are happening on Facebook that you would like to see reflected in the paper, somehow.
Figuring out how to make that happen is a very interesting question, and all the critics are talking about podcasts and dialogues with each other and ways to make these things happen. The Post is being very innovative right now in every department across the board in terms of “let’s use more video, let’s use different ways of getting the story across.” And that applies to the arts, as well – with the caveat that we’re a niche.
Can you share any examples of something that started in the social-media sphere, and then grew into something that you brought into the mainstream publication?
Oh, yeah, I’ll have discussions all the time where that happens. But one is when [Washington Post chief theater critic] Peter Marks and I tried both reviewing a jazz musical based on Carmen at the Olney Theatre. We did joint reviews that ran in the paper, and then on Facebook we started talking about it with Nelson Pressley, the other theater critic. We would have had this conversation around our desks, if we were at our desks, you know; it was just that kind of thing. But people began chiming in, saying, “Oh my god, I want to hear this kind of discussion.”
The excitement for the discussion we were having was so much more marked than the excitement for our contrasting reviews, which, mine didn’t get read all that much; Peter’s might have gotten read more. It seemed like that experiment wasn’t as successful as the Facebook discussion, and I took that as a profound lesson for “let’s try to have these discussions more.” And that’s what started the whole idea of the joint reviews in the paper – rather than running side-by-side reviews, having one review in which two people talk to each other. That’s a recent example.
I know that you personally still come to New York and cover things of national impact as well. How many people do you have working with you, covering classical music in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding vicinity?
I have 10 stringers. It’s not like Times stringers; some of those don’t work for a couple of months, and nobody does more than four or five reviews a month. But it’s a loose stall of 10 people.
That’s more than I’d anticipated.
There’s one musicologist, and there’s one former cellist turned lawyer. A couple are more active than the others, but nobody’s doing it full time. And nobody’s a full-time journalist except Stephen Brookes, and he’s not a full-time music journalist.
It seems like lately we’re seeing what classical-music coverage is still out there getting shorter, choppier, more bite-sized – the recently introduced New York Times feature “The Week’s 8 Best Classical Music Moments” being an example that’s attracted lots of attention. Is it a necessity of today’s media atmosphere that we’re just going to have to get used to sacrificing length and depth in order to engage a broader audience?
I think we have very romanticized notions about length and depth to begin with. I think if you look back at The New York Times from 1930, you’re not going to find the kinds of thoughtful, long reviews that we now think are our right. You had some, but there were plenty of short, bite-sized reviews. I think we’ve overestimated the importance of the lengthy review. I think that’s one of the reasons, the kind of increasingly formulaic nature of a review, that makes people disinclined to read them. I don’t think it’s length so much as formula; I find people are thrilled to read a long piece on the PROTOTYPE Festival, which is a review of something they’re never going to see, if it’s made into a discussion of something that interests them.
That said, yes, there’s a premium on the bite-sized, but I don’t feel it hurts the field at all. I think short is good; I think you and I have both experienced having to write shorter than we would have liked [laughs] and then getting to write whatever length we want, and I think there’s a lot of virtue to the shorter review. I just did an 11-inch review of the St. Petersburg Symphony, and that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; it’s just that that’s all that needs to be said. And I think that overestimating the importance of each individual review, for a long time, has led to a sense that, oh, they’re all too long and they need to be chopped down. That said, I don’t think that the Bob Christgau approach to daily reviewing for The New York Times is necessarily the best response.
It’s now become necessary when reviewing a concert to try teasing out broader contexts that will link up with daily life, people’s experience, or whatever. But then, isn’t that what we were supposed to be doing all along, ideally?
All along. My view of this is really colored by my first experience with a big paper, which was the Wall Street Journal, where I started out writing. The Wall Street Journal is a national paper, and I was writing for the Wall Street Journal Europe. I would be writing something about Leipzig; now, the majority of Wall Street Journal Europe readers have not been to Leipzig, or are not going to go to the opera in Leipzig. So I had to make it interesting to somebody who wasn’t going to go – like, why should you care about it?
I think that was a great training ground for a critic. The papers that are surviving have an increasingly national audience. Of Post online readers, 90-some percent are national; only 10 percent are local. So it’s not thinking, “Oh my gosh, it’s the death of interest.” It’s just that if you’re sitting in Montana, maybe you don’t care about what the Washington Chorus did unless I tell you why you should care. So it’s not just a question of running after readers, trying to sell it differently, but just thinking, if you’re writing for a national audience, how can you best frame your coverage to reach that audience?
And that doesn’t mean you should jettison the local audience or local coverage…
That was my next question, actually.
No, absolutely not, but I think the balance comes out differently. If you’re looking at metrics, you have to understand what that means… the irony being that, by default, all of the arts critics at the Post are de facto increasingly local, because there’s not as much money for us to go jetting around the country to do the kinds of national stories that would get big national readership.
So in a way, I’m more local even as it’s more important to be more national. And I think the effort to frame stories in a bigger context is a response to that, not a response to selling out or “the new market” or whatever that is. It’s a pretty timeless sort of situation. And I got big readership for a piece that was on a Derek Bermel piece played at the University of Maryland, and a little-bitty theater company playing Goyescas very badly – it was a review, but I made it be about music about painting, music based on paintings, which I’d already written about. That got 10 times more readers than a straight review would get. It wasn’t about a nationally interesting topic, and I didn’t short the performances any more than I normally would have; it’s creative thinking, that’s all.
We’re just breaking out of the framework, and losing the energy spent on hand-wringing about how it’s all different now, when it should be different. I don’t think the past we’re leaving in some of this stuff is worth continuing, anyway.
The rapport you’ve developed with your readership via Twitter and Facebook outstrips that of anyone else I’ve seen personally. Before we started speaking, I scrolled through your Facebook feed, because I’d thought that you mixed Post stuff and personal stuff. But I actually didn’t find that much in the way of family photos and whatnot. It seems like you’ve tasked Facebook with being an extension of your work. Is that accurate?
Not quite. I mix it up. I never tried to do too many family pictures. I don’t think you’ll find many more of them earlier – although I have started to use Instagram more for pictures. As I’ve started to develop Instagram, I put a lot of pictures that might have gone on Facebook there. But I don’t think the mix has changed that much.
The fact that Facebook drives 40 percent of Post traffic is fascinating to me, so there’s no question in my mind that Facebook is a more fertile place to do this stuff. But look, I have two thoughts on social media. First, the thing about social media is that it is social. Understanding that component is the secret to understanding social media; therefore, any account that has a mix of the personal and the professional – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever – just does better. People are interested in other people; that’s why you’re on social media.
I always say that if you’re at a party and you’re standing at a corner of the party, and whenever somebody approaches you, you scream, “I AM GIVING A CONCERT – BUY A TICKET HERE,” people will back away from you nervously. It’s really just the same thing as Facebook. A lot of people and institutions misuse Facebook as kind of, “okay, it must be a format for everything I’m thinking,” when the whole point is the give-and-take.
The great thing about Twitter for me is not that it’s solipsistic; it’s that you get these amazing conversations on Twitter. [Boston Globe critic] Zoë Madonna is really taking that and running with it; she’s trying deliberately to build that out. I would parenthetically add that I think Ann Powers is certainly a presence on Facebook, even though she’s not reviewing daily. I can think of a couple other female authors that I’ve befriended on Facebook, who use Facebook and social media very actively.
I also think there’s an evolution that’s happened – including, come to think of it, some of those authors I’ve mentioned – from blogs to social media. I had a kind of perfect storm thing where I wasn’t allowed to blog for many years, and I was very upset about it. [Note: When Midgette started writing for The New York Times, contributors were not supposed to maintain personal blogs.] I got here and started blogging, and was incredibly caught up in my blog. My blog had great discussions; I mean, I was really thrilled about how that went.
But the kind of thing I wanted to do on the blog was very ambitious and simply not sustainable, long term. That’s not just a personal thing, because look at what happened to blogs in general: they proved not sustainable in the long term for anybody. [Laughs] There’s been a total retrenchment from blogs, and the ones that have survived, like Parterre Box, are more like magazines. But the fact is those conversations migrated over to Facebook, and I’d already kind of become used to interacting with readers that way. When you’re looking at all those conversations, you don’t know who all those people are that are talking, and I don’t, either. But I’m really touched when I see a red state friend from high school weighing in on Dead Man Walking, or getting into a discussion with somebody else about it, in some cases. It really is a watering hole for all different species of people, which is what it should be.
I remember talking to [ArtsJournal founder and editor] Doug McLennan in New York a few times. Doug was really visionary about having all those blogs on ArtsJournal. I thought he was nuts; I thought you should just have one blog. And he’s like, “No, we’re going to have many blogs.” At the time, that seemed crazy – and of course, he was totally right. He used to talk about the role of a critic in today’s society as being the watering hole, the gathering place, rather than the preacher from on high. And as I was thinking about coming into the Post, which was of course a completely new situation for me, having been at the Times as a stringer for all those years, that really resonated with me. The whole point of criticism is to have a discussion: to spark a discussion, and be part of that discussion, and mark yourself as a place to have that discussion.
That’s really the point of the exercise. It’s not for me to tell you what to think. It’s not for me to tell you what I think. It’s for everybody to learn that thinking about it is why you do it. You don’t just passively accept it; you talk about it.
But what is a critic, if not a highly trained, receptive professional listener, ideally one capable of conveying an opinion that will have insight and relevance for others? Are we too quick to give up a position of attempting to lead opinion persuasively, as well as drive conversation?
No. No, I don’t think we give that up. I think you have to take that seriously, and weigh it. I think that’s a struggle with every review, especially when you’re the main critic in a town or the main paper in a town. If I’m at the Washington Post, then what I write about the Washington National Opera is going to have weight. But if you’re so hung up on “what I say is so important,” then you can become a complete equivocator. The fact is, you have to be free enough with your opinion to dare to have an opinion that’s controversial, to dare to have a personal opinion sometimes. Your role is not to formulate the bigger thought, and not simply to go against the masses, either.
I really felt it with the Dead Man Walkingreview, where I’ve been trying to be more supportive of the company because I feel they need more support, and yet once you start pulling your punches, you’re gone. In order to justify giving your punches, I think you have to stress: It’s one person’s opinion. To all the people that came up to me outraged because they were deeply moved by Dead Man Walking and “how could I possibly have…,” it’s like, put it in writing to me. Just the thought of that perks them right up. And that’s what you want, really. I mean, I think they’re wrong and I’m right [laughs], but that debate, and caring like that, is the most healthy thing you could have.
And I can say that without contradicting, in my own mind, the importance of my own opinion, the time and effort I spend formulating that opinion. But pretending that it’s the only opinion, or that it will be the influencer… I think only by letting go of that idea as much as you can can you really be an influencer. The fact that the Washington National Opera sold $65 thousand dollars’ worth of tickets after my Appomattoxreview still gives me pause. But, as I always say, if I were nice about everything, then one positive review wouldn’t have that impact.