The idea of Shakespeare as a creative genius is relatively new

I didn’t know this, but the modern idea of Shakespeare as an almost unparalleled artist and genius of the stage was essentially an eighteenth-century creation. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that at the beginning of the eighteenth century, all of the London theatres had been closed during the Puritan Interregnum (1649–60) following the English Civil War. After the Restoration, the easygoing and licentious Charles II ascended the throne that had been vacant since the military defeat and subsequent execution of his father, and all forms of entertainment were once again legitimized, including the theatre and related pursuits.

After the Restoration, the easygoing and licentious Charles II ascended the throne that had been vacant since the military defeat and subsequent execution of his father, and all forms of entertainment were once again legitimized, including theatre and related pursuits. Londoners, fed up with Puritan austerity and intolerance, threw themselves into the new hedonism with a vengeance, and the reopening of the theatres in 1660 drew a definitive line between the repressive past and the exciting new era in which the senses—physical, aesthetic, sensual—would be celebrated rather than denied.

That same year saw the very first appearance by a professional woman performer on the English stage. Before the 1640s, female characters had been played by young men, but now there was a new focus of popular idolatry: a creature that James Boswell called “that delicious subject of gallantry, an actress.” Charles II himself led the titillating fashion in taking as his mistress the charming and celebrated comedienne Nell Gwyn. David Garrick was at the beginning of a career that would make him one of the most celebrated actors in British history, and he and Samuel Johnson almost single-handedly created the modern cult of Shakespeare.


What needs to be done to help the media industry

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

If it wasn’t already obvious that the media industry was in dire straits before the coronavirus came along, it has become abundantly obvious now. Every day, it seems, news outlets both large and small announce waves of furloughs, salary cuts, and layoffs for significant numbers of their employees — the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, BuzzFeed, McClatchy (which had already filed for bankruptcy before the pandemic), Conde Nast, even Fox Corp. have all implemented cuts. Protocol, the tech news startup launched by the owners of Politico in February, just laid off almost half its newsroom. Some newspapers in smaller communities have shut down completely, and may or may not be able to return once the economy picks up. So what should we be doing about this? Should there be some kind of government bailout? Should digital platforms like Google and Facebook be forced to subsidize a public fund for media? And if so, how would the recipients be chosen and by whom?

Those are just some of the questions CJR wanted answers to, so we convened a virtual panel on our Galley discussion platform this week with some of those who have thought long and hard about these issues. We spoke to Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the recent book “Democracy Without Journalism”; Craig Aaron, co-CEO of Free Press; Travis Waldron from HuffPost; David Chavern, director of the News Media Alliance; John Stanton from the Save Journalism Project; Sarah Alvarez from Outlier Media; Anne Nelson from Columbia University; Jonathan O’Connell, a financial reporter at the Washington Post; Steven Waldman, co-founder of Report For America; Chris Horne from The Devil Strip in Akron, Ohio; Melissa Davis from Colorado Media; Yosef Getachew from Common Cause; and John Schleuss, president of The NewsGuild-CWA. Those interviews and more are all available on the Galley featured page.

“it is now abundantly clear that there is no commercial solution for local journalism,” said Victor Pickard. “Local journalism was in shambles even before the pandemic struck. But now the newspaper industry – which is still our major source for original local reporting in the US – is facing existential doom. Given that context, we need immediate emergency funding.” Pickard went on to say that any funds handed out should be conditional on news outlets either becoming nonprofits or working towards that status. “Otherwise, we risk propping up failed commercial models,” he said. Craig Aaron of Free Press talked about the letter that his group, along with PEN America and Common Cause, sent to Congress, calling on the House and Senate to take immediate action to help journalists. The letter asked for emergency funds for newsrooms and increased federal appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to support public and community media of all kinds, especially in smaller communities.

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The good news trend: Uplifting or delusional? Or both?

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Since we are currently in a global pandemic that has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the closure of stores, restaurants, and other hallmarks of normal life, it’s not surprising many people are searching for things to take their minds off the gloom. And what they are clinging to — and sharing on social networks — is often explicitly “good news,” whether it’s heart-warming stories about kids having virtual birthday parties where friends drive by and honk their horns, or people banging pots and pans to celebrate health-care workers. There’s even a “news network” dedicated to this kind of thing, although it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on the genre. It’s a YouTube channel that consists of actor John Krasinski, best known for his role in the sitcom The Office, sitting at a desk in what appears to be his den, dressed in a suit and hosting a show he calls Some Good News, complete with a hand-painted sign that reads SGN (drawn by his children). He throws to video clips and does live interviews, just like John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, but the purpose is to be uplifting, not satirical.

Krasinski’s show may be the most recent example, but it’s far from the only one. Musician David Byrne, co-founder of The Talking Heads, launched a site last year called Reasons to be Cheerful (a name taken from a song by British musician Ian Dury) that he said was designed to give people reasons for hope, as opposed to the bleak landscape that traditional news offers. Byrne has described it as “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” He told Rolling Stone magazine he wanted to give people something to make them feel better about the world. “It often seems as if the world is going straight to Hell. I wake up in the morning, I look at the paper, and… often I’m depressed for half the day,” he said. Mother Jones magazine has a newsletter that focuses on positive news called Recharge, and the Washington Post has a similar newsletter filled with “inspiring” stories called The Optimist. Before it became synonymous with clickbait headlines, the digital news aggregator Upworthy was designed to distribute feel-good stories via social media.

It seems churlish to even question this trend, because it’s so clearly designed to be heart-warming. Who doesn’t want their heart warmed, especially when we are all marinating in a stew of fear and despair? And even if someone didn’t want their heart warmed, what kind of monster would begrudge someone else having theirs warmed? Especially if it’s by a little girl being serenaded by the entire cast of Hamilton because she couldn’t make it to the real Broadway show. Watching that kind of gesture — as calculated or orchestrated as it might be — touches a very human place in us, like watching kittens play with string, or seeing a child do something adorably dumb. When I shared a short video clip of a spring stream flowing through the woods near my house recently, several people I don’t even know thanked me profusely for it, as though I had offered them a drink after days of crawling through the desert.

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Protocol layoffs raise some troubling questions

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

When Protocol, a new site focusing on technology coverage, launched in February, expectations were high. After all, the man behind the site — Robert Allbritton, who owns it through his holding company, Capital News — also helped create Politico, one of the most successful digital media companies of the last 20 years or so. And it sounded like Protocol was going to duplicate the Politico model: hire a bunch of talented writers away from leading publications, set them loose on a topic, and then rely on a combination of advertising and high-end subscription revenue to pay the bills. Lather, rinse and repeat. Except that’s not what happened. This week, Protocol laid off 13 of its employees, according to one report, and it appears that more than three-quarters of that total — or 10 staff in all — were reporters and editors. The site’s entire complement of editors and reporters numbered about 25 before the layoffs, according to Protocol’s About page, which means that Allbritton just laid off almost half of the site’s newsroom.

Obviously, no one in the media industry saw the coronavirus coming, and it has thrown a wrench into the revenue plans of virtually every news publisher out there, big or small. Companies have been cutting salaries, putting reporters and editors on paid leave, and taking other steps to curb their spending in the hope that they can survive the virus-triggered downturn in advertising. But it’s difficult to think of a publisher that has taken the kind of extreme step that Protocol has, and laid off more than 40 percent of the staff that report and edit its news. In a memo to staff, Allbritton and two senior managers said that the coronavirus “has done nothing to shake our faith in Protocol’s mission or our long-term opportunity,” but added that its spinoff effects have “profoundly changed the economic realities of the present” (CJR tried to get a comment from Protocol or Allbritton, but they didn’t respond by publication time).

In a memo to staff at Politico, Allbritton said the current crisis “has elements of the fear that we felt after 9/11, the financial worry that we experienced in 2008, and the unknown that surrounds a natural disaster like a hurricane or tornado all rolled into one.” He went on to say that Protocol “hired ambitiously in anticipation of rolling out a significant number of new growth products in the second half of 2020,” and that he had to make the “difficult but necessary decision to reduce short-term costs until a more robust revenue pipeline resumes.” What’s confusing about the layoff decision, given this statement, is the finality of it. Many companies have put their staff on furlough, which implies that they will be able to come back once the economic downturn starts to recede. If Protocol’s owner was genuinely committed to its “mission and long-term opportunity,” why wouldn’t he keep some of those 13 people around by putting them on paid leave, or cutting salaries enough to meet short-term goals?

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Giving coronavirus protests the oxygen of amplification

Note: This was written originally for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

As the coronavirus quarantine stretches into its second month, there are signs that some people are growing restless after being locked inside their homes with virtually no contact with the outside world, and some of them are pushing the boundaries of the lockdown restrictions in various ways. In some cases, groups of protesters have been gathering at town halls and other government buildings, or stopping traffic on the streets of cities across the US, holding up signs questioning the need for a continued quarantine with slogans like “Land of the Free!” and “Fake Crisis!” But are these genuine protests organized by random concerned citizens with strong opinions about the lengths to which the quarantine effort has gone, or is there more going on here? And if it’s the latter, then shouldn’t the press be thinking long and hard before playing into the hands of the organizers of those protests by giving them free publicity?

According to a number of media reports, anti-lockdown rallies have been seen in a number of states over the past week, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, California and Minnesota. Trump even appeared to encourage protesters to take to the streets in a series of tweets, advising residents to “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Not surprisingly, Fox News has given these rallies a lot of air time, complete with maps that make it look as though a grassroots movement has taken over and is growing larger by the day — something the network also did during the days of the Tea Party in 2009. The network has even used the term that organizers came up with for the protests, in an attempt to portray them as democracy in action: namely, “Freedom Rallies.” And the footage used often gives the impression that there are large throngs of demonstrators, even though in at least one case, a video from a alternate vantage point told a different story.

Over the past several days, evidence has emerged that these may not be grassroots protests at all, but “astroturf” — in other words, a carefully planned simulation of grassroots action. According to a report in the Washington Post, some of the largest Facebook groups used to organize many of these protests are run by a family of far-right, pro-gun activists: Ben Dorr, political director of a gun-rights group in Minnesota and his brothers, Christopher and Aaron. The Facebook groups have become sources of the same kinds of misinformation about the coronavirus that have been seen at a number of the protests — that the virus is no worse than the flu, that the scientists working on a vaccine have ulterior motives, and so on. By Sunday, the groups had more than 200,000 members. According to the Post, other demonstrations have been promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by a longtime adviser to Dick DeVos, husband of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

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