This week, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, the professional group representing papers like SF Weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, LA Weekly, and Village Voice, announced the winners of its annual awards. Now these aren't the Pulitzers or anything, but for alternative weekly newspapers, which exist in most major cities in America, they matter a good deal. Alt-weeklies rake a good deal of local muck in these United States, and they're some of the last remaining purveyors of serious local arts criticism -- particularly of pop music.
The list of this year's AAN Awards winners, published Saturday, looks pretty normal -- until you get to the section on music criticism. In the over-50,000 circulation category for music criticism, which includes the nation's largest alt-weeklies, you will find only these words: "No award." Under the music blog category, you'll find the same thing. But the organization did give a music criticism nod to papers with a circulation under 50,000. (Congrats, by the way, to first-place winner Jeff Klingman of INDY Week and to Sam Lefebvre, a regular SF Weekly writer and columnist who won third for his work at the East Bay Express.)
So was the lack of award for the larger papers a mistake? Some application error? Or did this year's judges -- students and faculty at Georgetown's graduate journalism program -- truly feel that no award was deserved?
We checked with AAN, whose Jason Zaragoza confirmed that this was not a mistake.
"That was Georgetown's decision and we triple-checked it with them," he responded via e-mail. "Before the judging started we gave them the option to award as many, or as few, awards as they saw fit in each category. They reviewed the entries and decided no award would be given out for those two."
In other words, the national association of alt-weeklies just told the nation's largest alt-weeklies that their music criticism and music blogs deserve some serious criticism of their own.
This matters to the reading public. Because while the state of local newspaper music journalism is admittedly rocky, AAN awards get all sorts of positive attention, at least around newsrooms. They help convince editors and publishers and owners to invest in good writing and good writers and in music and arts criticism in general -- all at a time when those investments are being questioned. AAN knows this. And so for a professional organization of dead-tree media to deny recognition to any of its larger members seems strange and exceedingly high-handed. (The Pulitzer judges did get away with not giving an award for fiction writing in 2012, but, well, that's the Pulitzer.)
We, of course, haven't seen all the entries for music criticism or music blog, and so cannot speak to their specific quality. And if you're wondering about this being the gripe of a sore loser, SF Weekly submitted only for the music criticism award and, frankly, did not expect our entry to win. (It was a little too out-there to be considered straight music criticism, the rigidity of the categories being another limitation of most such contests. SF Weekly did win the AAN award for best music blog in 2012, though, and we won two first-place AAN awards for other categories this year. But in full disclosure, the motivation behind this post is simply that the lack of award struck us as deeply weird, and we would've really just liked to see the music plaudits go to someone.)
So is this "no award" meant as a missive on the state of alt-weekly music criticism and blogging? Is it possible that the major alt-weeklies in the U.S. -- which have historically published some of the most inventive, incisive music writing, and have produced some of our most influential critics -- are not doing a very good job these days?
In a follow-up email, Zaragoza elaborated:
[Judges] felt that each of the entries under consideration had either inconsistent quality of writing, some had several typos or grammatical errors.... In the blog categories, which required multiple posts for example, although there was a lot of strong individual posts, the other posts in each entry were lacking in quality. [The Georgetown judging coordinator, Amy Kovac] said that there was a lot of strong work, but as an overall body, each entry had its own flaws that were strong enough to prevent the judges from granting an award.
Which is interesting, because if there is one effect the rise of the web has had on almost all journalistic writing, it's to loosen standards for typos, grammatical errors, and inconsistent quality. These issues appear almost everywhere, even on professionally edited, higher-end websites. Without seeing the specific posts submitted for awards, it's hard to know how nit-picky the judges are being in these complaints. But when it comes to the web, the rule is generally to get stories up as fast as possible at all costs, including sometimes context, grammar, and even accuracy. We don't say this approvingly, but it's the way the game works now. So singling out music blogs for an industry-wide loosening of standards arising from a massive technological shift seems deeply unfair. (And AAN did give awards in two other, non-music blog categories this year.)
As for music criticism, many publications, including alt-weeklies, have been abandoning traditional forms of it in favor of personality-driven features, listicles, and other, less serious -- but more popular -- forms of music writing for years now. (Again, this is a statement of fact, not an endorsement.) When SF Weekly was owned by Voice Media Group (which now owns LA Weekly, Village Voice, and nine other alt-weeklies around the country), we were encouraged to focus on newsy feature stories and the strong-voiced, drive-by forms of criticism that do big numbers on the web, rather than discrete music reviews or thinky essays. Yet brainy music writing does still get published by VMG and non-VMG papers, even if it is to the detriment of their web numbers. Pitchfork and the Quietus might be able to bring in traffic with traditional music reviews, but alt-weeklies these days generally cannot.
Yet it's not at all clear that this shift is even what the Georgetown judges meant to bemoan. In fact, no one seems to know what they meant to say by denying awards to their largest entrants. When we tried to reach Georgetown's Kovac, AAN told us it asked her not to talk to any of its members.
But a couple big-city music editors offered some criticisms of their own.
"The decision to omit a music criticism award struck me as pretty snitty," wrote Philip Montoro, music editor of the Chicago Reader. "Perhaps the judges should provide AAN members with a definition of what counts as 'music criticism' in their eyes? Because I thought that's what we'd been doing at the Reader all along."
Ben Westhoff, music editor of LA Weekly, had harsher words.
"It's total garbage. I don't know how many publications submitted entries, but we certainly did. I guess it's possible that newsweeklies throughout the entire country are failing to write compelling music coverage, but considering that these same publications are winning awards for music writing elsewhere suggests that these Georgetown geniuses are making some sort of convoluted political statement."
Zaragoza, of AAN, hinted that the organization itself was caught rather off-guard by the judges' decision.
"[This] was not something we anticipated, so that's definitely something we're going to revisit when we come up with the judging guidelines next year," he wrote.
Or who knows? Maybe the quality of music writing at major alt-weeklies will just magically improve.
This post has been updated.