LA Times Book Review Declared Vestigial
By Bruce McKinney
The New York Times national edition on July 23rd carried a two and a half inch news brief on the declining health of the book section in the Sunday LA Times. It appeared in the "Arts, Briefly" columns of the Arts Section. According to their short piece the Sunday stand-alone book review section is going to be folded into the paper. As of Thursday the 24th the LA Times itself still wasn't saying anything officially but confirmed an announcement was expected in a few days.
On the 27th they made it official announcing in their opinion section under the lead "Moving our Pages":
"This final issue of the Opinion and Book Review section is a regrettable concession to the economics of the newspaper business and the particular travails of this company. However, the loss of these pages does not mean the eradication of such journalism, merely its relocation -- beginning next Sunday, book reviews will run in Calendar and the opinion pages in the main news section." The scale and focus inevitably will be reduced.
The decline and occasional outright elimination of book review sections in major newspapers is one symptom of two related phenomena: the rise of online journalism and the decline of newspapers generally. The audience goes online and the things that readers want go with them. Such features' place in print has been well defined, their place online yet to be firmly established. The conventions of appearance and usage are still evolving. Book reviews are already grist in search results, integrated into blogs, incorporated into specialized sites and included within newspapers' online presences. What's different is that opinion and focus have been concentrated in a few places in print and in future, until focus and concentration are established online, they will be everywhere and to some extent nowhere.
What is lost in this decline is authority. Authoritative voices are important. In their absence anyone can and often do voice opinions about books and some are quite interesting. Others are simply narrow, prejudiced, uninformed or inaccurate. Great institutions provide a filter through which the most interesting ideas are vetted.
For now and until, for want of a better word, "authorative" perspective is established online there will be a continuing free-for-all that gives the ignorant and uniformed equal standing with the strong voices of the major newspapers whose positions are eroding as advertising declines. So the step backwards by the LA Times, to preserve capital and reorient their paper toward a hoped for profit, is while understandable for them as a business decision, a loss to the nation and a reminder that the fabric of our society is a tapestry of many threads and that one thread is fraying.
The Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times continue to provide a Sunday book section. As well the New York Review of Books offers a worthwhile subscription if you are looking for more choices and wider coverage.