In a recent Howard Kurtz column in the Washington Post about the disappearance of newspaper critics, Terry Teachout is quoted as maintaining that "there will always be a place for literate, well-informed drama criticism about performances taking place in Chicago or L.A. or St. Louis. You can't outsource that function." And it's not just drama criticism that will continue to need the local perspective: "It's not enough to have a reporter who says the local museum has bought a new Picasso. It's also necessary to have someone on your staff who knows whether it's museum-quality and is worth $5 million."
Terry Teachout has long been a proponent of web-based criticism of all kinds, so I don't take his comments as the defensive posturing of an endangered critical species so common among print-based critics but as an honest assessment of the limitations of the online medium and the niche-oriented role newspaper arts coverage might continue to play. However, I still think he's not likely to prove correct in his contention that only local newspapers will be able to provide reliable commentary on local arts events.
The premise of this argument seems to be that only a reporter-critic hired by a newspaper can afford to devote the time and attention needed to survey all of the theatrical productions and art exhibitions being offered in specific cities. A further assumption is that only a few such critics with insight into Picasso's oeuvre are available and that the local newspaper is the most convenient place to put them. As Teachout puts further puts it in a post at his own blog, "blogging, valuable though it can be, is no substitute for the day-to-day attention of a newspaper whose editors seek out experts, hire them on a full-time basis, and give them enough space to cover their beats adequately."
I can't see that either of these assumptions is warranted. I can well imagine that, absent arts critics in the local papers, any number of motivated arts enthusiasts might attempt to take up the slack through regionally-oriented blogs, or might even start up online review pages focused exclusively on the local scene (see this effort at The Arts Fuse already under way). Furthermore, I see no reason to believe that "literate, well informed," even "expert" critics can't be found among such enthusiasts. Surely in cities of even modest size, especially those that are home to respectable colleges and universities, there are more knowledgeable and discerning proto-critics than the bias toward print "arts journalism" otherwise allows. If the book blogosphere has demonstrated anything, it is that such capable critics do indeed exist, even if the monopoly on book commentary always exercised by newspapers and magazines obscured that fact.
It is also conceivable that book reviewing concentrating on books by writers with a local connection might become more common--indeed, as I canvass the remaining newspaper book review sections this already seems to be happening there. Perhaps these sections will hold on as sources of local literary interest, but it they do, it will likely be through reliance on the resources of local critics, precisely the cohort that could just as easily be hosting blogs. One could say that the newspaper makes these critics more readily accessible, and confers on them an inherent credibility, but eventually the best web-based criticism, both local and national, will find its audience, and the audience will find it, because readers interested enough in criticism of books and the arts to seek it out will recognize "literate, well-informed" voices when they hear them.