Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: A Sunday Books Page Disappears

Posted at 11:40 am, December 4th, 2008
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

Reasonably alert readers of the Des Moines Register may have noticed something missing from their Sunday paper – book reviews. The six-page Opinion section shrank to four pages, and out went the full page devoted to books.

So what else is new? Newspapers all across the country have been axing book reviews, either cutting space for them or eliminating them outright. Steve Wasserman, the former LA Times book editor, wrote last year in Columbia Journalism Review that, as pressure from Wall Street mounts, “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.”

Newspaper subscribers read print. You would expect editors to want to nourish and encourage the habit, and thus make book coverage a casualty of last resort. The slighting of books is particularly irritating when I see the Register’s pages awash with splashy graphics that add little or nothing to the material they are supposed to illustrate.

In response to a query about the disappeared books page, Register editor Carloyn Washburn said, “We will use that newshole differently, to support other content that we can bring unique value to (most of the content on that page is available from many other sources).” Telling paying customers they can go elsewhere for missing content is not the best business strategy, but if Washburn’s statement about offering “other content” is a promise, she has made good on it, at least in recent days. The paper has used the space for books, and much more, for in-depth pieces by staffers sent to Finland to report on what Iowans can learn from that country’s No. 1 ranked educational system, as well as similar coverage of Alberta Canada’s well regarded system. Other staffers recently spent a week in Guatemala to report in a 10-page spread on what the many Guatemalans in Iowa who migrated from that country left behind.

That said, the paper every day caters to superstition by expending a dozen column inches on horoscopes. Over a year’s time, that adds up to 35-40 pages or about 10 opinion sections. With newsprint so expensive and space so tight that books had to be jettisoned, the Register diminshes its good work by giving a seal approval to the pseudo-science of fortune-telling.

My guess is that that many, if not most, of the papers that cut back on book coverage still run what amounts to bunk in the form of astrology columns. It would be a lot easier to take the loss of book reviews if editors also trimmed unnecessarily-generous graphics and kicked astrology out of their columns.

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