Here’s a question: Does it matter whether the Los Angeles Times pop music critic actually lives in Los Angeles? What if she lived in Alabama?
It’s an issue that the newspaper is having to address now that Ann Powers has filed her first piece from her new home in Tuscaloosa. Last month Powers and her husband, Eric Weisbard, relocated from L.A. after he received an assistant professorship in the American Studies department at the University of Alabama. (Weisbard is a former editor at both the Village Voice and Spin, and organizes, along with Powers, the annual Experience Music Project Pop Conference.)
When news of her departure began to spread, the music-writing world was abuzz. Seldom do peach gigs like the pop-criticism chair at the Times open up, and writers started quietly updating their résumés. But then the paper did something unusual: It decided to keep Powers on as its chief pop music critic.
Powers is one of the most respected music critics in the country; her thoughtful writing tackles mass-market music genres — pop, rock and country — that many indie and rap-centric writers snobbishly ignore. More than once she has cracked open a seemingly superficial song to reveal a depth that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, and her commentary on American Idol has been consistently insightful.
Still, one of the main roles of a daily newspaper pop critic has been to address music for a local readership from the perspective of someone who lives in the same place. How will she know which L.A. bands or artists are buzzing? How will it sit with readers to know that the newspaper of record’s chief music critic has more experience with the Tuscaloosa music scene than with the Los Angeles one? Powers declined to answer specific questions about her new ZIP code, though she did offer a statement to West Coast Sound, which reads, in part:
[T]he plan is to keep doing just what I have been and the expectation is that I’ll travel as needed to accomplish that — with datelines alerting readers where I’m “reporting from” when germane to the reporting. I will be back in L.A. on a regular basis, and being where I am also gives me increased access to other music cities, like Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, New Orleans and even New York. Local coverage of music won’t diminish at the Times — we have a bunch of great writers covering the city and its music. The goal is to deliver my voice, my experience and my ideas to Times readers, and those travel with me everywhere.
The newspaper’s Arts & Entertainment editor, Craig Turner, offered some context during a phone conversation. “When the issue of her relocation came up,” he says, “our concern was that we think Ann is the best pop music critic in the country, and we thought it was important to try to retain her voice in the L.A. Times for our readers. We feel that she has unique insight and perspective on the world of pop music and celebrity, and we wanted to keep that if at all possible.”
The criterion that led to the Times’ effort to retain her was simple, he says: “What’s available to our readers? That’s more important than where she lives. So our feeling is, even though this is unusual, we’re going to try to have her continue to work as our pop music critic. We think we can do this without diminishing our coverage. We will still be paying attention to local concerts and the local music scene, and we will periodically review [the new arrangement] to make sure it’s working best for our readers.”
Turner adds that the daily has a number of staff writers and freelancers who cover music, and they will continue to report on the L.A. scene. Plus, he stresses, the ultimate test is what lands on the page and the screen. “What’s more important than where she is,” he says, “is what appears on the Web site and in the newspaper. That’s how we measure her effectiveness as a pop critic, not by her home address.”
It is incredibly unorthodox, though, and Turner says that he knows of no other instance in the paper’s history in which a staff critic has lived outside the Southern California area. The Times, of course, does have staff writers who live outside L.A.; it has a Washington bureau, and one of its national political reporters lives in San Francisco. “It’s unusual,” he acknowledges, “but not unprecedented.”
Powers will commute to Los Angeles from time to time to cover notable concerts, and will travel to other cities to offer advance peeks at upcoming L.A. gigs. When she does so, the paper will include a “dateline” heading identifying where Powers is reporting from. The Times will not, however, include such a dateline on her reviews and essays (no “Reporting from Tuscaloosa, Alabama”).
Says Turner: “For example, when she covers a concert in New Orleans, we’ll have a New Orleans dateline on it. But when you do an essay in which the location is not that relevant — like the one she had today — I don’t think it’s necessary to put a dateline on it.”