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'Books are still plenty'

15 December 2008

Newspapers' book review sections are under pressure across the world. In the US the Los Angeles Times is just one of the papers which has cut its hugely respected book review section. The former editors of the section wrote: 'The dismantling of the Sunday Book Review section and the migration of a few surviving reviews to the Sunday Calendar section represents a historic retreat from the large ambitions which accompanied the birth of the section.'

In the UK there's been grim news of the redundancy of Sunday Times Literary Editor Michael Prodger's two staff (how do you run a book section with no help to deal with the hundreds of books coming in for review?). Sam Leith at the Daily Telegraph has also lost his job and the work has been shifted to veteran journalist Brian MacArthur, who says that the number of pages dedicated to books will remain at eight, although clearly it could be a tough job for him to deliver them.

The immediate reason for these cuts is the lack of advertising support from publishers, but the problem goes much deeper than that and is affecting newspapers as a whole. At its peak in the thirties America had no less than 2,600 daily newspapers, with at least half a dozen in each large city. New York alone once had 30 dailies. Television has cut into that, but it's the Internet age and younger people's increasing preference for getting their news online which are now undermining the newspapers' print business.

The Paper Cuts blog thinks there have been 15,153 newspaper layoffs in America so far this year and at least 30 daily newspapers are up for sale around the country, including famous names such as the Miami Herald.

Rupert Murdoch, not a popular figure amongst journalists, is to be commended for his recent $5 billion (£3.360 billion) purchase of Dow Jones Co, owner of the Wall Street Journal, and his plans to move it forward into the Internet era. But it may be a very different world. Pasadena Now, a small news site in Pasadena, California, has shown how to work with a new kind of outsourcing which dramatically reduces costs. The site's founder James Macpherson sends press releases and other material to journalists in India who are paid just $7.50 (£5) per 1,000 words for turning in articles.

It looks like the newspapers which invest most heavily in putting their output on the web will be those that survive, although it's still hard to discern how the business model will work. The highly impressive Guardian Online is a British favourite, but it reaches an international audience of 15 million, many more than read the print version, through its excellent website. This may be the future.

So, how do books figure in all of this? It's clear that the dramatic fall in advertising revenues accompanying the deepening recession may prove the final blow to many papers. They're likely to cut their book sections still further. This will be painful for publishers and authors, who crave the recognition of print reviews. But does it really matter, or have the reviews simply shifted online?

Teresa Budasi, literary editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, struck a positive note in her blog: 'As a book editor who's been through the process of losing a section and being downsized in another, I sympathize with them. But wake up, people! The fiscal health of the newspaper business was in the toilet long before they decided to axe a section. Now is the time to take what you're left with and do what you can with it. Just as the newspaper business as a whole is trying to figure out ways to reinvent itself, book review editors must do the same, whether it be by running shorter reviews, beefing up online content or what have you. Stop complaining about loss of culture and glorifying the past and move into the 21st century -- where books are still plenty and people are still reading!'

Paper Cuts blog

Pasadena Now