Newspapers are still failing us: Not serving the right niche

That niche is people who read, not people who don't read. And they're failing us so badly that we're now turning to fake news shows for literary coverage. Not TV news; fake TV news.

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an article noting the growing intensity of competition among book publishers to get their writers on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and its spinoff, "The Colbert Report." As reporter Julie Bosman wrote:

Publishers say that particularly for the last six months, [the shows] ... have become the most reliable venues for promoting weighty books whose authors would otherwise end up on ''The Early Show'' on CBS looking like they showed up at the wrong party. Television programs that devote significant attention to serious authors have practically gone the way of the illuminated manuscript, publishers lament. Brian Lamb's long-running ''Booknotes'' program on C-Span was permanently shuttered in 2004. ''The Charlie Rose Show'' doesn't generate as much buzz as it used to or translate into higher sales after an author appearance, some publishers say.

Remember: this report came out in February. That was before Teresa Weaver got whacked as the full-time book review editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her dismissal sparked a firestorm of panic and speculation about the future of newspaper coverage of books, literary culture and intellectual affairs.

Imagine the pressure to be funny with Jon Stewart now.

Since the beginning of the year, as eminent critic Morris Dickstein noted in a guest column for the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, we have seen the following book beatings:

• The Associated Press closed its book review desk

• The Raleigh News-Observer eliminated the post of full-time book review editor

• And cutbacks at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the San Diego Union-Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review

Unfortunately, there's more, according to the cover story of this month's Columbia Journalism Review.

The author, Steve Wasserman, writes about time spent as editor of the LA Times Book Review. He begins by reminding us that disappearing literary coverage is old news; it's been happening slowly for the 20 years. Only now, with newspapers losing money on one side and readers on the other, is the book crunch really being felt hard and fast. A hit-list addendem:

• The San Francisco Chronicle folded its book section into its commentary pages in 2000 (it was eventually restored amid reader complaints)

• Ditto for the Boston Globe a year later (there was no restoring this one)

• Jerome Weeks (aka book/daddy) took a buy-out as book critic from the Dallas Morning News

• The Orlando Sentinel and Cleveland Plain Dealer decided to go without book editors

• The Chicago Tribune moved books from Sunday to Saturday

Wasserman's article is a must-read for anyone who cares about serious books and serious discussion of them by serious critics. He raises questions that need to be raised, for instance the maddening rationale voiced by publishers of doing away with book coverage because book coverage doesn't make any money.

That's a big-ole red herring.

Reviews, criticism, reporting about books -- none has ever made money. Wasserman cites an informal chat he had with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the then-new publisher of the New York Times, taking over for his father in 1998. Sulzberger told him, in essence, that if the Times Book Review had ever made money, no one in his family had told him about it.

I don't want to paraphrase too much (you should go read it yourself), but there's much to consider. For instance, a point that hardly gets the attention it deserves: that there's money to be made in covering them there books. I would add arts, culture and ideas, too. Someone just has to figure out how.

These crises, taken together, have profound implications, not least for the effort to create an informed citizenry so necessary for a thriving democracy. It would be hard to overestimate the importance in these matters of how books are reported upon and discussed. The moral and cultural imperative is plain, but there may also be a much-overlooked commercial opportunity for newspapers waiting to be seized [my italics].

Whether in print or online -- the medium doesn't matter as much as the message. People who read and care about what they read, and how what they read is written, don't care about petty squables over print or online. Is it good? if so, they'll read it. That's what matters.

The debate over the means by which reviews are published--or, for that matter, the news more generally--is sterile. What counts is the nature and depth and authority of such coverage, as well as its availability to the widest possible audience. Whether readers find it on the Web or on the printed page matters not at all. Content rules.

It's almost too obvious to point out: Newspapers should cater to people who read. People who read are likely to be better educated, have better jobs, have more money and value more the world of ideas, writing and civil exchange. They are a niche market not being served.

Among those suffering from the blood-letting of newspaper critics this year is Michael Anthony. He lost his job as classical music critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He told the New York Times that his corporate managers just didn't get it.

"They didn't fire me," said the critic, Michael Anthony. "They fired my job." He said the paper had yet to announce how it would deal with classical music, although it planned to rely on stringers.

"The audiences are large and fervent, and moreover they're readers," Mr. Anthony said. "I don't think the management knows a lot about local culture, and that's one of the reasons they cut the job."

It's common knowledge inside newsrooms that newspapers have been trying to get people who don't have regular reading habits to read the newspaper. It's as if the Rolling Stones tried to attract more fans by releasing a hip-hop album. Wasserman discusses the earning potential of serving people who read.

Among the paper's most well-off and best-read demographic cohorts--whose members arguably make up any book review's ideal readers--the Sunday Book Review was among the more favored of the weekly sections of the Los Angeles Times. ... in 2004, some 1.2 million people had read the Book Review over the past four Sundays out of 6.4 million readers.

If newspapers properly understood such readers and the lifestyle they pursue, they would, in theory, be able to attract advertising from a diverse array of companies, including movie companies, coffee manufacturers, distillers of premium whisky, among others.

I was convinced that because readers of book reviews are among a paper's best-educated and most prosperous readers, it might be possible to turn a cultural imperative into a profitable strategy. Such a strategy would require commitment and vision from the overlords of the newspaper--qualities that, if history is any guide, are always in short supply.

Not knowing much about local culture, as Michael Anthony notes, is the result of newspaper being run like corporations: with editors and reporters being treated like interchangeable parts, moved around from city to city, encourage to be generalists who can be mobile instead of specialists tied to a place.

Is it any wonder how some people can feel they don't know what's happening in their own cities? Is it any wonder a weekly newspaper like the Charleston City Paper, in Charleston S.C., which generates all of its own coverage of that vibrant city's arts, culture and literary scene, never once using a wire story, is kicking the ass of the daily newspaper (the Post & Courier), which is laboring, like every other daily in the country, with staff cuts, filling in where a staffer's byline would ordinarily be with AP copy?

By the way, the City Paper has a circulation of 40,000. Its motto? Independent, local and free. Kinda sounds like the new MinnPost and new book review in New Haven, don't it?

Wasserman is brave in airing another point that does not get enough air: a strong anti-intellectual ethos operating in most of the country's major newsrooms. I would add that among people who value facts, suspect power, nurture sources et al., the admittedly indulgent practice of reading and thinking and coming up with insightful commentary seems alien.

The real problem was never the inability of book-review sections to turn a profit, but rather the anti-intellectual ethos in the nation's newsrooms that is--and, alas, always was--an ineluctable fact of American newsgathering. There was among many reporters and editors a barely disguised contempt for the bookish. Even for those few newspapers that boasted a separate book section, book reviewing was regarded as something of a sideshow. It simply wasn't at the beating heart of the newsroom. Careers were advanced by shoe leather, not by way of the armchair. The suspicion was strong among reporters and editors alike that anyone with enough time could read the pages of a book and accurately report its contents. Such a sedentary activity, however, was a poor substitute for breaking news and getting scoops.

Wasserman doesn't make the connection, but I will: The anti-intellectual ethos goes hand-in-hand with the urge to serve that 20th-century spector, Mass Media. It dictates who gets written about. It dictates how, when and why. According to the logic of Mass Media, few people read books, so why bother covering them. Mass Appeal is a utilitarian rule-of-thumb that does a great job serving the many, but fails to serve the few -- the engaged, educated and influential few -- who are starting to take their reading habits elsewhere for the journalism they need.

As for anti-intellectualism, newsrooms aren't going to change. Wasserman isn't saying they should. But the mentality of Mass Media is changing and it's changing in ways that newspapers seem unwilling to face. Over the next 13 years, by the year 2020, according to this prediction by Dave Morgan of the marketing firm Tacoda, newspapers will learn there is no profit in being geared toward a mass market in a media world redefined by Web 2.0.

• Consumer attention will continue to fragment. Our news and information products won't be large, comprehensive and "averaged" for mass consumption as they are today in a newspaper. Consumers will get best-of-breed information services from many different providers.

• News and information applications and services will be more important than underlying data and news. Discovering, editing, synthesizing, analyzing news and information and advertising is what will attract and retain consumers. Sending someone to a city council meeting for three hours to file a four-paragraph recitation of events will be worthless in 2020.

Perhaps in the coming years, as the velocity of media change slows and we're able to look back more clearly, we'll see that the marriage of books and newsgathering during the 20th century was a troubled marriage after all.

It's not a stretch to imagine, with the establishment of publications (digital or analog) that have figured out how to make money writing about books, arts, culture and intellectual affairs, that it didn't make sense for newspapers -- and their anti-intellectual newsrooms -- to cover such ineffable things.

While the newsroom, to paraphrase Wasserman, has always been a place that values "faster and shorter," a publication devoted to the arts will naturally value "slower, longer and smarter."

And there will always be people interested in that -- on a national levee, in big metropolitan areas, even markets as small as mine (Savannah, the Jewel of the Georgia Coast). The world is getting smaller. New interests will arise. As Wasserman writes:

I also suspected, as The Wall Street Journal would report in a front-page story in 1998, that America was "increasingly wealthy, worldly, and wired." ... The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything. ... Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people.

An addendem
More on the brain drain. According to this Aug. 14 brief by Media Life Magazine, more than 900 newsroom jobs have been lost since April. Sounds like someone somewhere has a golden opportunity to hire folks to start a truly new kind of newspaper.
(Thanks to MediaFade for pointing this out)

September 2, 2007 8:24 AM | | Comments (1)

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1 Comments

Hi John: As always, lots of worthwhile stuff to chew on here. Newspapers' frantic attempts to grab non-readers is sadly like politicians' attempts to grab non-voters or the much-coveted "swing" voters (who, in many cases, are not so much "swing" as uninformed).

This part of your post stood out to me: "Whether in print or online -- the medium doesn't matter as much as the message. People who read and care about what they read... don't care about petty squabbles over print or online. Is it good? If so, they'll read it. That's what matters."

I liked this because it brings things back to the reader, which is where I think many answers lie (and why I blogged about readers in July). We need to look at their behaviors and their wants. (You cite how reader upset turned things around at the SF Chronicle, which is heartening.) Do you know of any research that provides concrete information on where book-coverage readers are getting what they need? They may still be subscribing to their daily papers for other types of coverage, but where are they getting their book coverage if their hometown paper has cut back? In a niche-oriented world, with people cobbling information together from many different sources, it's much harder to get a handle on such things, but that data is important.

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This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on September 2, 2007 8:24 AM.

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