Remember my post about the anxiety of being both a performer and a writer? Both a theorist and a practicioner? I’m still wrestling with all those questions. But a recent hubbub in the online journalism community has yielded some insights for me about the kind of writer I’d like to be, and the role that I see writing playing in our community of musicians.
The insight comes, as insights often do these days, courtesy of Ann Friedman. Ann is one of my favorite writers — she’s sharp, funny, smart and no-bullshit — and her advice to young journalists is useful for anyone who writes online.
Ann wrote recently on the interesting case of super-blogger Andrew Sullivan who, after building an enormous readership over the last twelve years, parted ways with The Daily Beast and launched his own site. The big news is that his new site will be funded exclusively by $20 reader subscriptions — no advertising. As of this interview, he had raised close to $400,000.
For Sullivan, this is a huge gamble. What he’s betting on is that readers care about HIM — and his writing — more than they care about the journalistic institution he’s writing for. To those of us who have used social media to help develop our careers, this is a no-brainer. But when held up to old-fashioned journalistic standards, it’s a bit controversial. Isn’t the journalist supposed to be anonymous, invisible, disappearing behind his or her subject matter? How can a piece of reporting be “fair and balanced” when the reporter himself is the star of the show?
Ann’s answer (the post is called ‘Journalism is Personal’) is that anonymity and detachment aren’t requirements of good journalistic writing. My favorite excerpts from her post:
This doesn’t mean we should be training all aspiring journalists to churn out click-baity personal essays. There’s a middle ground. Two of my very favorite long-form feature writers, John Jeremiah Sullivan and Mac McClelland, are adept at weaving personal stories with their reporting … There is an art to getting personal without obscuring the real story.
… Are there down sides to readers knowing so much about the writer? Oh, absolutely. … He can never again fully disappear into a role. To a certain extent, that problem is going to dog all journalists who have a decent personal brand. The more known they become, the harder it is to melt into the background as a reporter. They’re always a part of the story.
But then again, journalists were always a part of the story. Why not just own up to the fact that three-dimensional humans are doing this work? We have always brought our personal histories and political opinions and casual biases with us while reporting. We just tried to pretend we weren’t with stupid stylistic conventions.
Three-dimensional humans. That’s exactly what, sometimes, music criticism doesn’t seem to have room for. And my guess is that we’re all the worse for it.