This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

May 19, 2002 — It happened slowly over a three year period, in increments hardly noticeable, or that were just small enough to get you labeled an hysteric if you complained. In retrospect, it seems more like some editors pulled a patient fast one on their readers. Whatever. Now people are noticing: One of the country's very best stand–alone book review sections doesn't exist anymore.

In fact, The Philadelphia Inquirer, one of those newspapers that is — reflexively, it seems — always referred to as one of the country's very best, barely covers books at all now. The Sunday stand–alone has been replaced by, as a U.S. News & World Report story recently put it, "a scant page and half" of reviews tucked away into the arts section.

Anyway, does this sound like a story you've heard before? It should. I wrote a column about it not so long ago, and it's gotten worse since: Book sections at not just some but many of the country's leading newspapers, and in the leading book markets no less, have been dropping like I.Q.s lately. The Boston Globe, The San Jose Mercury News, The St. Paul Pioneer Press, and others, have all eighty–sixed their stand–alones, and the big kahuna itself, The New York Times, has cut back its section by two pages at last count.

Now, given that newspapers across the country have been loudly lamenting their attraction of fewer and fewer readers, how in the world do the geniuses running these august publications justify cutting their coverage of, er, reading?

Well, usually they say it's because book sections don't generate sufficient amounts of advertising. This would mean that they could only cover areas of the culture that pay to be covered, which would mean that if Yassir Arafat or the New York Yankees didn't pony up the dough they wouldn't get covered. It doesn't work that way and everybody knows it, which is to say that using advertising as an excuse is to commit a bald–faced lie.

Which may be why when it came to explaining the death of the stand–alone in San Jose, Mercury–News editor David Yarnold took a different tack — he decided to insult the paper's esteemed but now displaced book section editor, Carol Doup Muller. "The old book section was flabby and not well edited," he said.

But beyond the fact that the blame–shifting makes Yarnold look utterly tacky, however, it was just another shameful whopper, and represented either a Nixonian level of disingenuity or an amazing case of editorial ignorance.

For one thing, there was no blame to shift — the reputation of the Mercury–News book section had risen, and risen fast, under the stewardship of Muller. And not just in the Bay area, but throughout the book business. I can certainly testify that I'd been hearing it cited more and more in New York book circles in the year or so prior to Yarnold's abrupt canning of the section. The final proof of Muller's abilities, as well as the regard with which she's held, may lie in the fact that her book reviews seem to be in demand, and continue to appear . . . in newspapers across the country, if not the Mercury–News.

Then there's the disingenuous quality of Yarnold's remark. If it was so badly edited, Mr. Editor, why didn't you edit it?

But the more subtle dodge lies in the way Yarnold's explanation ignores the question of newsworthiness. The Bay area is one of the very biggest book markets in America. Books are big business there, and in more ways than one: There are numerous bookstores, publishers and distributors there, so they're important to the local economy; the area's well–known literary history is an integral part of not just its identity, but its tourism business; there are tons of writers and students there, and local sales figures show that a significant proportion of the local population are avid readers; and there are innumerable literary events going on all the time. This would, in most places, constitute an important beat to cover, or something that is known as news. But Yarnold's comment makes it seem he doesn't have a clue to this.

Back in Philly, meanwhile, Inquirer editor Walker Lundy came up with another new line of malarkey to explain why he canned the Inky's book section. "I could find nowhere else in the paper to reduce expenses that would not have an impact on readership."

In other words, his readers don't care because they don't, er, read.

Well, Philly's another big book market where it would be easy to come up with stats that would make Lundy look like a numbskull of Biblical proportions.

But it could be that he's about to be disproven in another way — by a reader rebellion. As U.S. News & World Report's Dan Gilgoff recently reported, local literary fan Stephen Fried, a former editor of Philadelphia Magazine, has launched a letter–writing campaign calling for the Inquirer to get its book section back up to snuff.

Sound hopeless? It's not. A similar campaign in San Francisco less than a year ago worked, and thunderously so — over 600 readers wrote in to complain when the Chronicle closed down its prestigious stand–alone and, hats off to enlightened editor Phil Bronstein, they were heard. The stand–alone was back in six months.

And — what ho, Murray? According to U.S. News' Gilgoff, the Boston Globe also plans "to restore its book section later this year" — "partly in response to reader complaints."

And that's not all. Yes, as non–stop as the Great Reduction seems to be, it could be that an opposing trend is starting. At another one of the big boys, the Los Angeles Times, they've actually added four new pages to their 12–page review. Editor Steve Wasserman says the Times was simply eager to "take advantage of the shortsightedness of our competitors."

Do they know something the proprietors of the Inquirer or the Pioneer–Press or the Mercury News don't? Apparently. And when you get down to it, it's something pretty rock–bottom simple, too. As Philly's own book editor Frank Wilson says, "People who are into reading are the core newspaper consumers."

But you wouldn't be reading this if you weren't a subscriber to a newspaper with a book section. So what does this mean to you? Plenty. Trends in newspaper economics can be just as catchy as society's other cretinous trends. It's so much easier to be a Philistine, after all.

So you will in various ways be doing yourself a favor if you encourage newspaper editors to continue their books coverage.

And how do you do that? I've said it before and I say it again: Reader, write — to Walker Lundy, care of the Inquirer at P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia PA 19101.

Tell him you read about him in another newspaper's book section.

Last Week’s Column: CONVENTIONAL WISDOM There were some depressing things to observe at this year's BookExpo America convention. So why was it so much fun?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.