Dear reader: I know you’re tired of column after column, in print or online, about the death of print media. Or how subscribers no longer care about the written word or the printed page, or literary criticism taking up space in newspapers readers no longer want or can afford to buy.
I’m tired of it, too. So let’s just get this over with: I hope you’re reading this on your 2nd-generation Kindle, several months in the future. Because if the big-name newspapers start going the way of the big-name banks, the ways in which the general reading public receives books will change — more than they already have. (My God. I can’t believe I just wrote about journalistic and financial institutions in the same sentence.)
Let me explain.
These days, cities that historically have been known as two-newspaper towns are in threat of losing one or both of their major papers. Once-mighty dailies are cutting or severely limiting home delivery (hello, Detroit News and Detroit Free Press) and even the bastions of old-media culture are looking a little shaky these days. In the most recent issue of The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn wondered out loud — to the ire of The Gray Lady’s execs — what would happen “if The New York Times goes out of business, like, this May?” Hirschorn suggests that that the Times, revamped as solely nytimes.com, could come to dominate digital journalism, to the point where it “resemble(s) a bigger, better and less partisan version of The Huffington Post.”
So, we can assume that the Sunday Book Review will still exist as a separate entity online. We can also assume that readers who faithfully read the Sunday Book Review — who actually seek it out instead of picking it up after they’ve already read the other sections, flipped through the magazine and skimmed through the wedding announcements — will still seek it out. But what about the casual Sunday readers who pick up the Book Review because it’s in between two sections they are already going to read? What happens when there’s a significantly lower chance that a book section will catch your eye, because it doesn’t actually exist in print anymore?
The Washington Post’s decision to cease printing its weekly Book World as a distinct section, dividing the book content into two other sections after Feb. 15, provoked more tired sighs from the literary community.
“There is a lot of great online coverage, but you go and look for it,” said novelist Meg Wolitzer, a regular reviewer for Book World, on the nytimes.com ArtsBeat blog. “For people who get it on their front step, books are honored there and the loss of that seems like a big mistake.”
By affording this monolithic category of “books” (reviews, previews, author interviews) its own separate section instead of tacking it onto the end of another section, as the Los Angeles Times has done since cutting its Sunday stand-alone in 2007, newspapers are, to borrow ArtsBeat’s words, “symbolically prioritizing” literary production and culture. But they’re also making better-rounded people of their readers — or encouraging that thought, at least.
A guest speaker once said during a lunch not geared toward newspapers about the importance of architecture in print media: how where you place stories on the page, where in the section and in what section, is going to affect the chances the stories are going to be read. It’s very much common sense, right? Technology is changing the influence newspapers can have on readers. When you’re reading a newspaper online, it’s much easier to bypass stories or whole sections you’re not that interested in; with news aggregators like Google Reader, readers can further tailor their media intake so that they really don’t encounter much outside their interests at all.
If newspapers continue to cut sections to cut costs, or cease printing altogether, readers who want their dose of literary culture with the Sunday paper will have to do some more searching online. Readers who were absorbing the occasional extra book review because of its proximity to other content of interest might not be quite as inspired as before to seek out other book-related reading. Certainly the idea of “literary criticism” has certain connotations — “pretentious” comes to mind. But wrapped into the everyman institution of a newspaper, the “book review” appears accessible to most everyone. But that accessibility might not save them.
Of course, there are other reasons why books may be losing their place on the newspaper page. With the slumping publishing industry acquiring fewer new books, and some companies issuing such alarming notices as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s in November (when it announced it would stop acquisitions until further notice), at some point there may simply be fewer books to write about.