Once More With Feeling: The LATBR Publishes Its Last

July 28th, 2008 · 36 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Rumor has it that I’m going to be on News Hour with Jim Lehrer tonight. I’ll be talking about the demise of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Eight minutes isn’t near long enough to cover a topic this broad; it’s barely enough to get started with the conversation.

Yesterday was the last day for the dedicated book review, and it makes me sad to know it’s gone, but if you didn’t see it coming, you weren’t paying attention. To blame the Internet for the demise of the LATBR is to address part of the problem. Yes, book lovers are increasingly online, and one key reason, as I’ve said many times, is because the LATBR simply didn’t serve its community. There are other forces at work as well.

Let’s start with one absolute truth: Sam Zell has no business owning a newspaper. When he bought the Tribune company, I knew it was going to be bad, and it’s worse than even I’d imagined. This is a Pulitzer Prize-winning paper and has had some of the best reporting of its tenure in the past decade or so. The LAT has incredible writers on its team. They’re going to kill this paper because they don’t understand the news business. It’s going to be an expensive mistake for Zell and a huge loss for the community.

Another truth: the Tribune/Zell companies simply didn’t do a good job of migrating the newspaper to the web. For many years, they saw the Internet as competition. Then they tried to recreate the look and feel of a newspaper online. Then, well, who knows? Ask people who use the LAT website, and you’ll hear a lot of frustration. In 2008, the paper can’t even get search right. Steps are being made in the right direction, but the incessant focus on paying back Sam Zell’s loans at the expense of the actual newspaper isn’t going to help the LAT.

I am, as we all know, an elitist (who is doing the white girl terrorist fist bump), but I’m also a realist. Those who believe the death of the LATBR is a heresy note that the the sports section does not make any money (it does seem to generate some advertising), though that’s a false argument. People subscribe for the sports coverage. I believe that if the sports section were cut, we’d hear a massive hue and cry, with a commensurate level of unsubscribes. The sports section serves its community.

We’re not getting that with the LATBR cut, and I believe it’s because the section was not valuable to most readers. Look at the demographics of the city, the general readership, and while it’s nice to have a dedicated section of the newspaper targeted toward a narrow section of the population, it’s hard to justify from a numbers perspective — even before the Zell era, this was an issue.

While I want to believe Steve Wasserman’s (who is also a guest on the program, and I regret that we were different studios and didn’t meet in person) number of 300,000 avid weekly readers, I just can’t. I often fall back on my real reader example, and the real readers I know (who aren’t in the industry, as we know it) really don’t turn to the LATBR. Yet they are avid about (literary) fiction, in touch with what’s hot, and buying books at prices the industry desires. They’re getting their information — and discourse — from other sources. I mean, it was hard enough before the Current/LATBR thingy to find the section. If I didn’t get to the paper first and very carefully cull the section from the ads, then the husband would have tossed it with the rest of the stuff that didn’t look like newspaper.

The LATBR managed to improve somewhat under David Ulin, but the section was killed before he could make an impression. It really died a long time ago. But I still maintain that a book review section in a major newspaper should be reflective of the subscriber base, even if it’s trying to maintain a certain level of discourse; you have to bring the larger audience in, even a little bit, if you want to expose your conversation beyond the choir.

I believe that the greatest failure of the LATBR was its inability to convince more citizens of LA that it had value to them — it’s possible to have serious literary discourse side by side with a little bit of what a friend described as the People model. I don’t believe that making the section more relevant for a broader readership is the same thing as dumbing it down. Smart readers should be courted, not locked out.

As we all know, smart women read romance. And literary fiction. And mystery. And science fiction. And a whole lot of other stuff. And women buy more books than men. The LATBR often felt like a gentleman’s club — the books reviewed, the reviewers, the subject matter. This is largely reflective of it top editorial staff, but it’s also a reflection of the value placed on “women’s” fiction and issues. Some weeks it was if there was a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the LATBR.

Is it so much to ask that the book review section of our common newspaper brings those aspects of reading life together? The failure, if I can put it in overly simplistic terms, was to convince the romance reader who likes literary fiction that there was cool, exciting stuff to be found in the LATBR. This is the reader who’d be excited to find new books, but that reader who picked up the weekly review and found this weird no man’s (or no woman’s) land [see note below]. If there was a bridge, even a small bridge, imagine how things would be.

It’s fine to have a high level of discussion about books, but I think it’s equally important to have the discussion in a way that feels inclusive. The Wasserman et al letter reminded me of the conversation this industry had a year ago. There was a sense of entitlement in the hand-wringing about book review cuts, a sense that we should have this dedicated section in a newspaper because, well, we should. If you’re serving a general population of millions, as newspapers do, then you have to explain your relevance. How do you explain this to the immigrant community who might just now be discovering books (Ulin, to his credit, has done a lot more toward reaching out to the Hispanic reader than Wasserman).

There needs to be more balance. The LATBR reflected the mores of its editors, and that would be fine if the section were like many literary journals in that they were financially supported. It’s not enough to say that this kind of book coverage is necessary because it will save society because, well, I’m not sure it’s proven that it will. Rock and roll didn’t kill music. Television didn’t kill live theater. Maybe it’s better to listen to what the Philistines are saying. Reflecting the vision of an individual, or small group of individuals, is not, sadly, feasible in today’s newspaper environment. There are better ways to accomplish this goal.

I asked then as I ask now: what are you doing to save this entity you find so important? Writing letters and editorials simply isn’t enough. Preaching to the choir makes for a fun a pity party, but what about convincing the people who read and buy books of your value? Let’s be perfectly frank — most readers of fiction don’t read “literary fiction”, but they’re willing and eager to expand their horizons if a good curator can help them. Why should a mass media publication focus on the very few in favor of the majority? What value do you offer those readers, the ones who are largely supporting your habit?

It would, if I may, come down to a matter of choice. Newspapers, yes, have distinct points of view, but they generally reflect the opinions of the community at large. Or they die. In many ways, this failure can be placed with the editors of the LATBR. They, yes, created a great publication, but they failed to create a publication that reflected the wants and needs of the community.

Like many others, I have gone online to find the type of literary discussion I enjoy — this means I’m reading about reading in a broad way. A little of this type of book, a little of that. It’s easy to find voices I agree with and trust and opinions I don’t. There might be looser writing, less editorial oversight, but there is absolute passion about books. Passion matters because it moves people to explore and expand.

It is a bit precious to suggest that a mass market newspaper support a specific-interest section without the latter giving something back to the community at large. As evidenced by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, the wants and desires of the Los Angeles reading public far exceed what the LATBR offered them. As with the war in Iraq, I feel for the soldiers — the reviewers, the writers — who have lost their platform, but I don’t feel for the generals who failed to see the broader implications of their choices. I just don’t. There are better ways to achieve the bigger goals.

Have you noticed the lack of accountability, the lack of introspection on the part of those who decry the decline of the newspaper book review (with some exceptions)? Have you noticed that so few have looked at what they gave the public versus what the public wanted or needed? How they haven’t said, “We could have done better by our readership.” How they haven’t said, “We made mistakes.”

I have no patience for the entitlement argument, because, well, even if I did, it’s a lost cause. As long as the publishing industry continues to support the New York Times Book Review with advertising dollars — and publishing industry, you do have some serious culpability here — then that will likely survive. But the pristine mass market newspaper section is dead. Sorry. Gone.

The only question on the table is how to integrate book coverage into today’s newspaper…and today’s newspaper is being redefined so rapidly that there isn’t a single answer. I’m sort of hoping we’ll see a return to the newspaper of history, not this corporate behemoth that must put shareholders ahead of news. This means that those who advocate for literary discourse in the broader public arena created by newspapers must make peace with the other aspects of publishing — the popular fiction, the popular non-fiction, the technical writing, the non-traditional publishing, the world we live in.

Only then can we save the newspaper book review.

Note: Carolyn Kellogg, who blogs for the LAT’s Jacket Copy took me to task a bit for my comments on gender imbalance in the Book Review. I agree with her that the situation has greatly improved these past few years. My comments related to the past, and I still believe the (probably unintentional as I don’t think the leadership was deliberately sexist) gender bias didn’t serve the book review well.

File Under: Reviewing Reviewing

36 responses so far ↓

  • Rene // Jul 28, 2008 at 9:27 am

    Great post and I totally agree. When I as a teenager my favorite Sunday activity was reading the Calendar section when it was that big, huge thing the size of a Sears catalog and the LATBR. That was umm, a long time ago.

    I get the LAT and I thought they had dumped the LATBR a long time ago. It was so hard to find and when I did find it, it wasn’t very interesting.

    I still enjoy the sports section mainly because of T.J. Simers and the page one stories, but that’s it. BTW, it appears they are getting rid of Highway One as well. Considering this is SoCal and we are obsessed with cars, it seems odd to be dumping it. Luckily they have moved the columinists to other spots, but still.

    And how can the LAT justify a book festival when they don’t even have a book review?

  • Lynn Reynolds // Jul 28, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Kassia – Your sports analogy is right on target – sports lovers actually get something useful out of a newspaper’s sports section and they aren’t made to feel inferior based on which sports they like or what teams they support.

    If sports sections were run the way most book sections are run, there’d be massive coverage of, say, polo and synchronized swimming – with a lot of snide, condescending remarks about those lowbrow lovers of football and baseball. And most actual sports lovers would have stopped reading that section long ago as a result. In fact, they’d probably be doing what book lovers have already done – turning to the web for a broader, less judgmental selection of articles and reviews.

  • carol stanley // Jul 28, 2008 at 10:22 am

    Is the trend to eliminate book reviews from newspapers in general. Will this make internet reviewers more powerful? Promoting a book is a daunting experience. Internet, TV, Radio, print, etc…Where does one go? And we know there are a gazillion new books coming out daily by traditional, pod, self etc…..Authors have to be marketing geniuses or know Oprah personally. Even traditional publishers are standing back on the marketing end unless you happen to be Madonna, Paris Hilton or Britney Spears…Oh well we just keep plugging along…Carol Stanley “For Kids 59.99 and Over” to be released September1.

  • alicia // Jul 28, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    You’re doing great! I was so surprised to turn the news on and see someone I knew (and not being arrested). I love what you said about passion for books.

  • David Plumb // Jul 28, 2008 at 2:56 pm

    Kassia,

    This editorial’s excellence lost it’s juice on PBS. The time frame was short, but much of the integrity you were trying to present remained at large.

    Having been on TV myself, I know the “truth” of the word often gets parlayed.

    David Plumb

  • Alan // Jul 28, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    I am one of the 300,000 that Steve Wasserman was talking about. I did look forward to the book section (as well as editorials and opinion) of the LA Times, notwithstanding that I also get the New York Review of Books! And this latest cut by Zell is making / forcing me to reconsider my subscription to the Times. Maybe I’ll subscribe to the Ny Times.

  • Wally Hanley // Jul 28, 2008 at 4:23 pm

    Fortunately I have just renewed my subscription to New York Review of Books , Previously I had already started taking the NY Times national daily, The Economist and Science Weekly.
    I am reminded of H.L. Mencken, newspaperman, who may very well have said ” No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. ” LAT seems hell-bent to prove him wrong.

  • pieta // Jul 28, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    K, the man on the Lehrer Report with you, was that Wasserman? I have to say, he sounded like most newspaper editors whenever anyone points out that newspapers are dying and they themselves are partly to blame. Defensive, elitist, out of touch. Newspapers could actually have made themselves indispensable, in politics, for example, by doing the sort of great investigative work no online source could duplicate. But instead they took the lazy way out, putting their money into “pundits” rather than reporters (you know, like “opinion” is so hard to come by these days :), and loudly asserting that mere access to power is valuable, even if it means your news is co-opted.

    But the bottom line is… people need a reason to pay for something they can get for free (like a local newspaper… they’re all online now). If I want to read reviews of a book, I check the customer reviews on Amazon first, then I google the book and read what comes up. If some reviewer is particularly insightful and cogent, I’ll probably read him/her again, but there’s no reason a local reviewer is going to have more credibility for me.

    But probably newspapers are doomed anyway. And I have to feel sorry for the staff, which must feel blindsided by the rapidity of the change. But what that man on Lehrer was saying sounded to me to be the same defensive stuff that newspaper editors all seem to say now– an unwillingness to learn from experience and also from people, including those dirty unwashed bloggers, who really have a clue about the future of information.

    I must say, I have been amused and appalled at the blogger-antipathy that columnists (esp magazine columnists, who are all online now too, so…?) have been exhibiting lately. Some blogger coined the term “pearl-clutchers,” and they really do sound like little old ladies clutching their pearls. What happened to the tough rough profane newspaper guy? Oh, yeah, they all got laid off and now they’re blogging. :)

  • Betsy // Jul 28, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    The only reason I bought the Sunday LA Times was for the book review section. I subscribe to the Sunday NY Times and will stick with that (and their online material) and depend on them for heads up on new books. Although I am here on the internet a lot (but only found your site because of the Lehrer news hour) it is not a substitute for the newspaper book review sections.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 28, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    Lots of interesting comments. I’d like to start by addressing those who are subscribers to the New York Review of Books: yes! There is an excellent example of a publication serving its community and serving it well. Subscribers are looking for a specific type of conversation and are generally satisfied by what they get. I think that’s awesome, I really do.

    I too was one the 300,000, but dropped out when I found better, more diverse discussion online.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 28, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    Yes, Pieta, that was Steve Wasserman. I understand where he’s coming from. And I do agree with a lot of his point, but we do differ on certain fundamental points. Though we’ve never met in person, we’ve disagreed on these points for years.

    For example, I disagree with his comments about the quality of writing online. First, of course, there are a lot of professional journalists and writers who write for online publications. And I’m not convinced that there is magic training to make a print-based reviewer more, well, authoritative than an online reviewer. For me, a key part of reading reviews is developing a trust relationship with the reviewer — you want, ultimately, to find someone whose taste matches yours. If that person tells you to read something outside your comfort zone (and everyone has a comfort zone), then you’re likely to do so.

    Of course, sections like the LATBR don’t only provide “reviews.” They also provide critical analysis that provides a greater perspective on books and trends and the world. Again, you find great quality online.

    Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of really bad stuff out there. The good sites, the good writing, the smart analysis, that has a way of rising to the top and building a following of passionate readers.

    It’s not an either/or world out there. Online isn’t competition for real world. I think what gets forgotten in this conversation is that we all come to books differently, want to talk about them in different ways. We need more breaking down of barriers between the face-to-face, the print, the online, the virtual worlds when it comes to building thriving book communities.

    We’re all really here for one reason, or at least we’re here for one reason (except the dude who thought I should lose weight in the 24-hour advance notice window I had … he’s just here to be a jerk!). You love your book reviews in your newspaper? Tell the paper’s editors. Make a fuss, make it loud, make strong. Make sure they know they’re not serving you.

    I was a bit surprised by the lack of outcry when it was announced that the LATBR was folding, though book coverage is not totally going away. I expected more. Wanted more. If you truly find this part of the paper important, raise your voices.

  • Harriet Sobol // Jul 28, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    I live on the East Coast so the loss of the LATBR
    is only meaningful because one more newspaper will have no book section. The NYT book section is also packed with all the ads and is easliy discarded.

    I am continually searching for literary fiction for book groups I lead. My list consists of primarily of fiction from other countries and cultures. The web offers enormous support to my efforts. Travel blogs, web magazines and literary blogs provide fabulous background imaterial for my greoups’ discussions. There is however, difficulty in finding helpful literary blogs because as far as I know, there are no good indexes.
    Do you have any suggestions of blogs which specialize in international fiction.countries and

  • Harriet Sobol (correction) // Jul 28, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    I live on the East Coast so the loss of the LATBR
    is only meaningful because one more newspaper will have no book section. The NYT book section is also mixed with all the ads and is hard to find and easily discarded.

    I am continually searching for literary fiction for book groups I lead. My list consists primarily of fiction from other countries and cultures. The web offers enormous support to my efforts. Travel blogs, web magazines and literary blogs provide fabulous background material for my groups’ discussions. There is however, difficulty in finding helpful literary blogs because as far as I know, there are no good indexes.
    Do you have any suggestions of blogs which specialize in international fiction.

  • Ami Greko // Jul 29, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Fabulous post, Kassia. Working in publishing feels better with you writing about it.

  • Susan // Jul 29, 2008 at 8:24 am

    Harriet, Have you been to the litblog coop? It’s a loosely organized group of literary bloggers: http://lbc.typepad.com/

    They might help you find the literary fiction that you seek.

  • Melody // Jul 29, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Now is the time to turn to magazines like Bookmarks that have a wonderful cross-section of reviewss and pretty much something for everyone.

  • Mike Cane // Jul 29, 2008 at 9:41 am

    @Harriet: You might this for international crime fiction:
    http://internationalnoir.blogspot.com/

    I think the failure of all book review sections is mainly the fact the reviewers are more interested in displaying themselves rather the material they are allegedly writing about. Plus, criticism from MSM sources is mostly dead, a Command-and-Control model subverted by the Internet. This makes it harder for writers right now, but I think it will ultimately be better.

  • Jim // Jul 29, 2008 at 10:24 am

    I kept waiting for Wasserman to go all Buzz Bissinger on your ass, but he pulled away from it at the last second.

    However, it struck me: the old media dudes have no reason why people become bloggers. It’s a mystery to them. I mean, if you can write well, why aren’t you writing for them?

    I don’t think that they get that not every single well-versed, passionate writer about a particular subject ends up writing about it for a huge corporation.

  • kate // Jul 29, 2008 at 11:23 am

    kassia: YOu need an editor! You go on much too long. Noone can wade through all of your writing. That’s why we have seasoned journalists who have studied how to write and how to edit their writing. Noone reads work that goes on and on, repeating itself and being boring. Stick to the point, leave out unnecessary words.
    I’m a former journalist.

  • Laurie Viera Rigler // Jul 29, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Hear, hear, Kassia! Great post, and you were splendid on Lehrer. Progressive thinking and passion are what make any forum a viable one.

  • Cheryl Rofer // Jul 29, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Kassia: I’ve written a piece that puts your discussion with Steve Wasserman into a larger context of what expertise means.

    And hey! We do book reviews at WhirledView too.

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  • jedrury // Jul 29, 2008 at 3:58 pm

    Watched Kassia on PBS and was most impressed.
    I enjoy this debate.
    Will keep this site for periodic updates.
    Thanks

  • MJRose // Jul 30, 2008 at 4:36 am

    Kassia, you did great on PBS. And this essay is an important one. The idea that there is no professional journalism online has been a myth since we both got into this biz. And that’s just about 10 years ago, right?

    And I’m with you on reviewing male/ women issue too – and the NYTBR is still failing to address that.

    Publishing still supports the NYTBR but so much less than it did five years ago. And as someone who does web marketing for publishers and authors I can see how seriously the industry is pulling ad dollars out of print and putting it on the web – for one reason and one reason only – its affordable. With the number of books being published the industry can’t come near advertising even 10% of them online no less in print media.

  • Austin // Jul 30, 2008 at 7:06 am

    Hi Kassia– Congrats on another insightful post, and nice job on the PBS. We did a little tribute to Booksquare yesterday at the Abbeville Manual:

    http://abbeville.wordpress.com/2008/07/29/marginalia-booksquare/

    Keep on keepin’ on!

  • David Thayer // Jul 30, 2008 at 7:25 am

    Kassia, I’m sorry I missed you on Jim Lehrer. I don’t have Tivo although I feel entitled to it.
    Your essay touches many good points all well expressed. Our beleaguered yet beloved industry
    is a rundown mansion with a foreclosure notice pinned to the front door not because of newspapers but because major publishers seem to think they’re target audience is one another.

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  • Muzz // Jul 30, 2008 at 9:44 am

    The segment is up at pbs.org — you can read the transcript or watch the streaming video…

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  • lucinda // Jul 30, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Kassia, thanks for your kind comment in my post. I hit “post” on that thing with great dread that I would ruin my book reviewing career forever (sorry Sir Wasserman) and piss off someone who might very well be a like-minded soul (you). Nonetheless the rant was too good not to post. I just stared, aghast, at the interview. Maybe you did do a fantastic job, as many of your commenters say here, but they sure edited it to make you look like a small fry next to Wasserman’s pontificating B.S. I’ll save my breath ‘splaining my take on the whole thing, which reminded me of nothing more than a staged cage match–here’s my full rant, as a former writer for, and fan of, the LATBR–and also as a champion of internet publishing: http://la.metblogs.com/2008/07/29/the-vast-democracy-wall-that-the-internet-provides-vs-the-la-times-book-review-rip/

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  • Harriet // Nov 29, 2008 at 9:08 pm

    A belated thank you to those who suggested sites and blogs where I might find titles from other countries. I suggest a terrific novel, SAMIRA AND SAMIR by Siba Shakib to all of you. It’s the story of a tribal chieftain in the Hindu Kush, who raises his daughter as a boy, in order that he, the chieftain keep the respect of his tribe. The people in my book groups loved it. It’s particualrly timely because of the setting. Check supplemental information on my Web site.

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