Words count

You might think that an industry founded on and propagated by the printed word would have a vested interest in catering to those people who still like to read, but newspapers across the country have been steadily cutting back on their book coverage.

At Inside Higher Ed, Scott McLemee talks about ways to oppose this self-destructive trend:

This week and throughout May, the National Book Critics Circle will be trying to raise some public recognition of where things now stand – and to create some pressure to reverse the trend towards downsizing and elimination. We have about 700 members. Not all of us are editors or reviewers for newspapers. But we do see the book pages at newspapers as part of the cultural ecology, so to speak. Halting their destruction seems like a necessary thing.

What can you do? I asked John Freeman, the outgoing president of NBCC, who responded by naming some very specific actions that would be helpful.

(1) Sign the petition to reinstate the book-section editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

(2) Write to your local newspaper’s publisher to express support for its book coverage. And if your paper doesn’t have such a section, ask why not. “It always baffles me,” as Freeman says, “why university towns like New Haven, Durham, Champagne-Urbana and Iowa City have virtually no book pages in their papers.”

(3) Talk to your local independent bookseller. Local literary scenes are often undercut by the power of superstores and the reliance of newspapers on “wire” copy about books (that is, material issued by syndication). Smaller bookshops are rallying points for opposition to these trends.

(4) Review books for your local paper. This requires developing a voice that may sound rather different from the one you might use when reviewing books for a professional journal. An easygoing style doesn’t always come easily. But it can be enjoyable to acquire and to practice, and newspaper ink has addictive properties.(“The more the academy engages with the public through reviews,” Freeman told me, “the better chance we have of connecting tradition with culture, and judging new works of art accordingly.”) And if you already review, consider becoming a member of NBCC.

(5) Whether or not you join NBCC, please make its blog Critical Mass part of your Web-browsing routine. Over the past year, it has become the “blog of record” for literary and publishing news. And insofar as book-folk have a rallying point in dealing with the changes at newspapers, Critical Mass is it. Freeman says it will have updates on efforts to challenge cuts at The Raleigh News & Observer, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The L.A. Times.

At this point, the future of newspapers is very uncertain. It is all I can do to suppress the (admittedly cliched) thought that we are striving to preserve a claim to occupy a few deck chairs on the Titanic.

But uncertainty may also represent opportunity. Newspapers now often gear their cultural coverage at some “youth market” – quite vaguely and patronizingly conceived – that editors treat as having an attention span registering in milliseconds. So you get in-depth reports on “American Idol,” perhaps. The wisdom of directing scarce resources in that direction is not unassailable. Other media can cover such things faster and, if this is the word to use, better.

Back in my newspaper days, I once found myself talking to a managing editor who brightly declared that the arts and entertainment section of the paper needed to cover more television shows in order to attract readers. When I pointed out that (a) there was already plenty of television coverage in the world and (b) it was pretty stupid for newspapers to encourage more of the very activity that was helping to kill newspapers, she looked at me with the faintly pitying air of a Rosicrucian faced with someone who didn’t know the secret handshake. She left newspapers entirely a few years later, and the paper we both worked on is gasping even harder for air, but she was the expert, eh?

That’s why I got out of the newspaper business — I just wasn’t smart enough to run things there. I’m so out of it, I think it’s ridiculous for newspapers to take their actual news coverage — which is expensive and time-consuming to gather and edit — and dump it on the Internet for free. And here’s another hot one — I actually believe that newspapers should concentrate on generating unique local and regional coverage instead of running the same canned wire copy to be found in every other newspaper! Whoah! Have you ever heard anything that stupid?

So let’s give that list of suggestions a shot. Who knows? Crazy, impractical people such as ourselves might help save the newspaper industry from the smart, clever people who are running it into the ground.

One thought on “Words count

  1. […] by writing April 27th, 2007 I don’t know if the Internet can take up the slack created by the collapse of newspaper book-review sections, but if it does, discussion groups like the one going on over at Bookblog will be a big part of the […]

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