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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Impassioned plea to save newspaper book sections

Scott Freeman writes passionately in today's "Insider High Ed" about the need to preserve book coverage in daily newspapers.
I am writing this as a member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), and am mainly addressing people who belong to the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP).

On behalf of my colleagues, I am making a plea to you for solidarity. We are in trouble. We need your help.

Over the past several years, the economics of daily newspapers have become much more complicated and many paper owners have felt that their profit margins weren’t large enough. Coverage of books has been one of the easiest things to cut. And the cuts have tended to come early and often. They have taken the form of various measures, including shrinking the space available for reviews and interviews; reductions of freelance budgets; and the increased use of syndicated material. Most book pages have always had very small staffs. Now it is rare that more than one editor handles the reviews full-time, and in many cases the entire section has been closed down.

Such cuts are usually explained as a matter of economic necessity – the decisions framed in terms of meeting the perceived interests of the public. But the reduction or elimination of book coverage has occurred even in cities where readers clearly want and expect it.

While he is hopeful that some other forms of media will pick up the book reviewing slack, he's not waiting and is advocating action now.

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.

Here in Cleveland, it's a good idea to send a note of support to The Plain Dealer Publisher and book editor Karen Long. Karen is an incredibly intelligent writer and editor whose books selections and pages are one of the few true enjoyments of the Sunday PD.

As for me, I'll continue to review here from time to time. In the past week, I've received three selections from publishers that I've chosen to keep for review:

"Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America 1789-1989" by Michael Beschloss (Simon & Schuster / May 8, 2007)

"A Church in Search of Itself: Benedict XVI and the Battle for the Future" by Robert Blair Kaiser (Vintage Books / April 10, 2007)

"Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir," by Julia Cameron (Tarcher/Penguin / April 19 2007)

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