The health of a society is always best measured by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable citizens. The same test may be usefully applied to America’s beleaguered newspapers. Set against the general loss of confidence afflicting the profession is the crisis confronting those few newspapers that bother to regularly review books. Over the past year, and with alarming speed, newspapers across the country have been cutting back their book coverage and, in some instances, abandoning the beat entirely. At a time when newspaper owners feel themselves and the institutions over which they preside to be under siege from newer technologies and the relentless Wall Street pressure to pump profits at ever-higher margins, book coverage is among the first beats to be scaled back or phased out. Today, such coverage is thought by many newspaper managers to be inessential and, worse, a money loser.
Yet a close look at the history of how America’s newspapers have treated books as news suggests that while the drop in such coverage is precipitous, it is not altogether recent. In the fall of 2000, Charles McGrath, then editor of The New York Times Book Review, the nation’s preeminent newspaper book section by virtue of longevity, geography, ambition, circulation, and staff, was already lamenting the steady shrinkage of book coverage. “A lot of papers have either dropped book coverage or dumbed it way down to commercial stuff. The newsweeklies, which used to cover books regularly, don’t any longer,” McGrath told a Times insert profiling the Book Review. Indeed, the following April, the San Francisco Chronicle folded its book section into its Sunday Datebook of arts and cultural coverage. The move was greeted with dismay by many readers. After six months of public protest—and after newspaper focus groups indicated the book section enjoyed a substantial readership—it was reinstated as a stand-alone section. (Five years later, it would lose two pages in a cost-cutting move that reduced the section, now a broadsheet, by a third to just four pages.) In 2001, The Boston Globe merged its book review and commentary pages. Today, The New York Times Book Review averages thirty-two to thirty-six tabloid pages, a steep decline from the forty-four pages it averaged in 1985.
That book coverage is disappearing is not news. What is news is the current pace of the erosion in coverage, as well as the fear that an unbearable cultural threshold has been crossed: whether the book beat should exist at all is now, apparently, a legitimate question. Jobs, book sections, and pages are vanishing at a rate rivaled only by the degree to which entire species are being rendered extinct in the Amazonian rain forest. Last spring, Teresa Weaver, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s longtime and well-regarded book editor, was shunted aside, her original book reviews largely replaced with wire copy. The paper’s editor said without shame or chagrin that the move was part of a more general intent to reconfigure the newspaper’s coverage of arts, including music and dance. Meanwhile, readers of The Dallas Morning News found themselves without a full-time book critic when Jerome Weeks, who had filled the role since 1996, accepted a buyout offer amid a vast restructuring of the paper.
Other papers, including the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, also eliminated the book editor’s position or cut coverage. The Chicago Tribune decided to move its book pages to Saturday, the least-read day of the week. Its book editor, Elizabeth Taylor, ever the optimist, said that the very slimness of the Saturday edition would mean that its few pages would loom larger in the eyes of readers and, with any luck, in the esteem of potential advertisers. In June, the San Diego Union-Tribune killed its decade-old, stand-alone book section, opting instead to move book reviews into its arts pages. And earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times, in a significant retreat from the ambitions that prompted the creation of its weekly Book Review in 1975, decided to cut its twelve-page Sunday tabloid section by two pages and graft the remaining stump to its revamped Sunday Opinion section. The press release announcing the change sought to allay readers’ concerns by proclaiming the paper’s intent to expand online coverage (a task made more difficult by the paper’s reluctance, so far, to add staff, but instead to increase the burden on the Review’s editor and subeditors). The paper also promised to increase the number and prominence of illustrations and photographs, neglecting to note that doing so would further reduce the space allotted for actual words.