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The [Wednesday] Papers

Being a cultural critic for the Chicago Tribune (or any major metropolitan newspaper) is a big deal. The potential influence of a critic--not just within the industry but, more importantly, on readers--is as vast as the positions are scarce. And cultural critics are often--or ought to be--right alongside columnists as the strongest voices at a newspaper.

As such, critics represent rare opportunities for newspapers to shape their tone and personality, which, it just so happens, is also great for marketing.

So the shakeup in the Tribune critics lineup announced yesterday ought to be important. The upshot is that theater critic Michael Phillips is the new lead movie critic; movie critic Michael Wilmington remains at the paper but will write about "the growing world of movies on DVD" and more Sunday movie analyses; and second-string theater critic Chris Jones replaces Phillips as the lead theater critic.

Or, as the memo from deputy managing editor for features Jim Warren puts it, Phillips becomes the paper's "leading voice" on movies and Jones becomes it's "leading voice" on theater.

Warren has it right in this respect: Newspaper critics are not just writers, but "voices."

So the Tribune, you might say, is changing its voices, though yesterday's announcement only makes official an experiment in critic shuffling that began last August.

Or it is trying to change its voices. I don't think Wilmington or Phillips has established a strong enough voice at the paper that readers will notice much of a difference. (I don't follow theater, but from what I understand, the most fruitful aspect of the changes might be the elevation of Jones to chief theater critic; he seems to have already established the kind of presence on the beat that can make a critic a Big Deal. Or so I'm told.)

Let's face it, the Tribune's movie criticism is still under the shadow of the late Gene Siskel, not as much for his writing skills as his persona. Even the Chicago Sun-Times's Richard Roeper arguably has more influence over audiences than anyone at the Tribune--and he doesn't even write about movies.

Of course, Roeper benefits from the reflected glory of Roger Ebert, one of the city's few remaining newspaper icons, and a worthy one. Ebert's passion remains unabated, as does his productivity and, as far as I can tell, the quality of his thought.

So though the Tribune's thick movie coverage, which includes several secondary reviewers, is up against just one man, that man is a giant who continues to kick their butt. And instead of imagining an entirely different way of reviewing movies, the Tribune seems content to merely rearrange the deck chairs.

Siskel at least put a face on the Tribune's team of critics, though as great as he was for branding he was something of a pain in the ass to Tribune editors. Siskel's first replacement (and here begins a clarification of what I wrote yesterday about Wilmington replacing Siskel), Dave Kehr, says this on his Website:

"By 1986, the Chicago Tribune, the dominant daily newspaper in the Midwest, had decided to dismiss Gene Siskel as their chief film critic, apparently because the paper's editor resented the time Gene spent on his local television show (soon to be expanded into the national institution At the Movies). They took me on as Gene's replacement, though not without some trepidation about a wet-behind-the-ears writer who had had the temerity to give E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial a mere three stars (for its unintentional insights into Ronald Reagan's spreading, daddy-focused ideology), rather than the eight or ten the film clearly deserved . . .

"A few weeks after my hiring, cooler heads at the Tribune prevailed - 'What!! We've just fired the guy who goes on national television and plugs the paper every week!' - and Gene was reinstated as a sort of senior critic, who submitted bizarre, tortuously written capsule reviews to the Tribune under the rubric Siskel's Flick Picks. (One result of that: I can never hear the word 'flick' applied to a movie without cringing.) Though the handwriting was on the wall, I stuck it out at the Trib for seven long years (made much shorter and more pleasant by the Tribune's irreplaceable arts editor, Richard Christiansen), before I was lured to New York by The Daily News."

The Tribune then hired Wilmington, who had been a secondary reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, to, as I understand it, really replace Siskel as the paper's "leading voice" on movies. (Siskel died in 1999.)

Upon Wilmington's hire, Chicago Reader media critic Michael Miner wrote that "he not only loves film but likes films, lots of them. 'Dave [Kehr] would give three movies a year four stars,' an admirer of both told us, comparing Wilmington to his predecessor. 'That won't be the case with Michael. He tends to find something he likes in a lot of movies and he writes chiefly about that. A performance, a well-edited sequence--he tends to focus on the positive.'"

Perhaps that's why Wilmington has never really pierced the public consciousness in a way that really makes for a successful newspaper critic. It's not that a critic ought to be unrelentingly negative. It's that a critic who isn't discerning doesn't tend to have a strong voice or consistent viewpoint, and so isn't of much help to readers.

(I have already received two e-mails praising Wilmington's writing and film knowledge; post your opinion in our Beachwood forums.)

After Siskel's death, you would have thought that naming the Tribune's lead movie critic to replace him on the Siskel & Ebert show would have made sense, in that the rivalry between not just the critics but their papers was part of the show's conceit. But Ebert didn't appear to give Wilmington, who wanted the job, a second thought.

Phillips also came to the Tribune from the Los Angeles Times, about four years ago. He was hired to replace an icon in his own right, Christiansen, who retired. (Unlike Wilmington, Phillips was widely expected to be more critical than his predecessor.) Though a freelancer, Jones was Christiansen's longtime backup, and considered for the lead role. Instead, the Tribune hired Phillips but made Jones a full-time staffer as Phillips's backup.

Last August, Tribune editors experimented by moving Wilmington aside and making Phillips the lead movie critic and Jones the lead theater critic. It wasn't clear then where the experiment was heading.

"I was told not to read anything into it," Wilmington told Miner, who added that Wilmington was "not so sure where he stands."

Entertainment editor Scott Powers "also told me not to read anything into it," Miner wrote. "We do think it's good for people and readers to hear different voices," Powers told Miner.

The problem with that is that readers will be hearing the same voices, just on different articles.

And if that's the case, the Tribune's big switch could amount to nothing much at all. Until they do it again in a few years.

The Beachwood Tip Line: A thumbs-up for all who deliver their insights into the Trib critics shuffle to our mailbox.



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Posted on April 12, 2006


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