Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More Dying Newspapers

The next two weeks at the San Francisco Chronicle are going to be bloody.

The paper announced recently that it would lay off 100 of its 400 editorial employees, including 20 in management. The first casualty was announced this week: Rosey Rosenthal, who has served as managing editor, the paper’s #2 position, will be gone as of Friday.

The deep cuts will complete a winnowing of the news staffs of all the Bay Area papers, started in the fall when Dean Singleton’s Media News bought out the former Knight-Ridder papers, the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times.

Rosenthal bemoaned the newspaper industry’s knee-jerk reaction to cut reporters as a way to reduce costs, saying it would come back to haunt the papers in the future.

"The reality is that in the last 10 or 12 years, the biggest creators - the journalists - have not been part of the conversation, the decisions," Rosenthal told Editor and Publisher. "Most newsrooms are getting smaller. The industry for 12 years has been in retreat."

Rosenthal also said he was not sure what impact the coming cuts would have on the paper, or why it has had to resort to such measures given the quality of work his staff produces. "I don't really understand it," he said of the Chronicle's poor financial situation. "I don't know why it has been such a difficult situation for the Chronicle on the business side."

Newspapers are cutting staff because readership of papers is declining and advertising dollars are drying up. More and more people are getting their news from the Internet – websites, blogs, podcasts, etc.

The irony is that news aggregators like Google and Yahoo! News gather stories written by trained journalists and clump them together on one page. But if there are fewer reporters getting those stories, who will produce the news?

UC Berkeley Journalism Professor Neil Henry posed this question in a recent op-ed piece for the Chronicle. He essentially accused Google and Yahoo of stealing content and challenged the companies to “pay up" by donating funds to train young journalists. (Like those Henry teaches at the J-School.)

"Not long ago, billionaire real estate executive Sam Zell, who earlier this year purchased the Tribune Co. family of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, made this point quite bluntly,” Henry wrote in his opinion piece. “He likened Google and Yahoo to modern- day pirates ripping off treasure produced by others. According to the Washington Post, Zell told a gathering at Stanford University in April, "If all the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be? Not very."

This is an important point. You would think the news aggregators could pay a licensing fee to post content. It would be a way to sustain their lifeblood – the reporters who get the stories – and probably could be incorporated into their business models.

Who will make that happen? It’s not really part of the dialogue or the thinking. If Google founder Sergey Brin can invest $3.5 million in his wife’s fledgling startup company, why can’t he tell Google to put a similar amount back into the news business?

If that kind of thinking doesn’t catch on, the next set of headlines will be about a new round of staff cuts. Pretty soon there won’t be anyone to report the news.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

E-Mail as History

As a biographer and historian, I often wonder how future chroniclers are going to make sense of the lives of people living in the 21st Century. When looking at the life of my great great grandfather, Isaias Hellman, I reviewed at least 80,000 pages of documents, including letters, diary entries, shopping receipts, telegrams, and newspaper clippings. The historians of the future won’t have a paper trail to follow to glean insight into people’s lives.

That’s why I was happy to see this article, which talks about the British Library’s attempt to document modern day life by collecting thousands of emails. The library has asked ordinary citizens to submit emails that show both monumental and innocuous occasions. The response has been overwhelming: the library has collected close to 14,000 emails for its “electronic time capsule,” including messages about wedding proposals and lousy food at a neighborhood restaurant.

Ed Champion Deserts the Bay Area

Ed Champion , who writes the blog Return of the Reluctant, threw a goodbye party for himself Monday evening in San Francisco. He’s leaving the Bay Area for the wilds of Brooklyn, where he will continue to blog prolifically and write freelance articles for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications.

The highlight of the evening for Ed, it seems, wasn’t the karaoke or the cluster of friends gathered at the Old Mint Bar on Market Street to say goodbye. It wasn’t even the presence of his close friend and fellow blogger, Sarah Weinman. It wasn’t me, either. It was the fact that Howard Junker, the editor of Zzzyvaa, showed up and drank a pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I was glad Howard showed up, too. I was afraid I was going to be the oldest person at the party, but Howard took that role. But one giveaway sign that we are in our golden years is the fact that we both drank one drink one beer and left, leaving the singing of old ditties to others.

This was the second time I talked to Ed in person. But like lots of on-line friendships, I feel like we started a conversation a few years ago that is still continuing, So even though Ed is moving to Brooklyn, I will still learn a lot about him through his blog posts and Bat Segundo podcasts.

But I did learn one thing about Ed last night: he has a lot less hair then I realized. No hair, to be exact.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Just Stuff

The fabulously wicked Miss Snark, whose blog has attracted 2.5 million readers in the past two years, is closing down shop. She posted the news on May 19, and two days later had received more than 450 comments of dismay. No more gin-swilling, I love George Clooney comments!

The Believer magazine asked its readers to rank their favorite books of 2006. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, leads the list. The publishers left off the names of two of the winners because they apparently work for the magazine. Let’s see, who they can be? Dave Eggers is a good guess. How about his wife Vendela Vida or co-editor of the magazine Heidi Julavits?

The best part of list is the comments section.

If you want to read one more tired rant of how bloggers don't know anything about book commentary and can't possibly contribute to the national dialogue about books, read this piece by Time reviewer Richard Schickel in the Los Angeles Times. And yes, he once admitted he never reads blogs.

Then go to this Technorati page and see the myriad of responses from various bloggers.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Bits and Pieces from around the Bay Area

I was saddened to open my Chronicle this morning and see that Terry Ryan had died.

Ryan was the author of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio: How My Mother Raised 10 Kids on 25 Words or Less, a moving memoir of her mother, who was married to an abusive alcoholic but who raised ten children by writing award-winning ditties for companies.

The book was a bestseller and it was turned into a wonderful movie starring Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. Unfortunately, the movie did not do very well at the box office. It’s a moving and well-acted tale and it definitely worth moving to the top of your Netflix queue.

The Chron’s Heidi Benson wrote a lovely tribute to Ryan, who was 61 and died at home after battling cancer.

There is a lot of journalism news today as well, most bad but with one glimmer of good:

The Chronicle Plans to Cut 100 Newsroom Jobs

End of an Era at the Oakland Tribune

Stephen Buel, editor of the East Bay Express, buys paper from Village Voice Media

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Tribune Moves Out of Its Landmark Tower

The cuts by the MediaNews Group are felt again, although this was probably a long time in the making. The Oakland Tribune is moving from its landmark tower in downtown Oakland to a much more innocuous building near the Oracle Areana, McAfee Coliseum, and the airport, which hasn't yet garnered a corporate sponsor.

The Tribune has had a presence in downtown Oakland since 1874, except for an eight-year hiatus after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

I always liked the Tribune Tower. It's funky and worn down, but authentic. Downtown Oakland feels the same way, although it has acquired a bit more gloss in recent years. Somehow the move feels fitting, though. Dean Singleton swooped in to buy most of the region's newspapers and he is blending them into a homogenous product. Leaving the tower is another step toward a monopoly.

The New York Times has an article today on the publishing business, which is run in a completely different manner than any other business. It's about the mystery of a bestseller: why some books catch fire and others don't. The overall message, though, is that the publishing industry just buys lots of manuscripts, publishes them, and hopes some stick.

There's been a lot of ink recently of the virtue of book review sections compared to literary blogs. They seem like two different things to me, and I don't really understand the fuss. The book review sections have a gravitas that litblogs don't, and lit blogs are more creative and nimble in their coverage of the book industry and new authors. Both types of conversation are important, although this one seems to have devolved into the establishment vs. the upstarts.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting take on the debate.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Power of Nonfiction

Garrison Keillor gave the keynote speech at the J. Anthony Lukas awards and it was so amazing the New York Observor decided to print it in its entirty. Here are a few excerpts, in which he lauds writers:

"Nonfiction has this power to turn our heads around and to really shake us. Books that come at our mythology and give us a clearer view of the world and so do such a great service for us. I do not know any movie that I’ve ever been to that really changed my mind about anything. I can’t think of a single song that did. And I don’t know–I could think about works of fiction. But for sure works of history and biography have."

I like this part, too:

"But I believe in writers. I believe that they are out there, and they are at work. Great entrepreneurs: I believe in ambitious writers who are not satisfied with being promising, who are not satisfied with making a small display of cleverness and intelligence, but who take on enormous subjects–the bigger the better. And they are at work–they are at work all over this city. And not only at universities, but in the reading room of the New York public library. They are at work in rooms in apartments, in basements in Brooklyn. They are everywhere: they are all across this country. They are in garages and they are in bedrooms in their parents’ homes and they are at work, grappling with enormous subjects. Some of them with contracts, some of them without. Some of them subsisting, but working toward an enormous, enormous good. They are at work at computers, with books stacked on the floor around them, and on tables, and notes: legal pads, scribbles here, index cards, post-it notes all over. A whole great beautiful chaos of material. And they are just trying to get the job done.

They’re working at this as you would work at any other difficult task. It’s like a major illness–having a book in the works. There are good days and bad days but you just keep going. You avoid the temptation of the telephone. You put off the e-mail until evening. The Internet–an enormous temptation, right there inside your computer. And all of this off–you stave this off. A straight act of character and dedication.

You try to keep a life going. You try to raise a child, or children. You try to be a spouse, you try to have friendships, and have social occasions.

People ask you, “How is the book coming?”

You say, “It’s comin’ great.” What else you going to say? You’re sick of it. You don’t want to talk about it.

Your editor, asks, “How’s the book coming?” And you say, Well, ahh, er...It’s coming slower than I thought it would....problems. But I’m hopeful–I’m still hopeful. I can’t make any promises, but I’m hopeful. And then it comes out, it actually comes out. And people ask you, “How does it feel? It must feel great.”

It doesn’t, actually. To your great surprise. You were thinking it might feel great. But it doesn’t. You feel of course a sense of relief. An enormous amount of time is now yours, which had been devoted to other things. And that’s confusing. And you feel a sense of disbelief in a way. But also a sort of grief–that this enormous thing has now moved on. What are you going to do with your life now?"

The Police Report on David Halberstam's death has been turned over to the San Mateo County District Attorney's office. Apparently, it doesn't conclude which party was at fault.

Meanwhile, his widow has been comforted by the thousands of condolences she has received. (via Romenseko)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Prizes and Kudos

Columbia University announced its J. Anthony Lukas prizes this week, and the book-in-progress award goes to the tale of a white mob that attacked and killed more than 100 members of a black sharecroppers union in Arkansas in 1919.

Robert Whitaker will get $30, 000 to complete his book, which will be published by Crown. He’s the author of The Mapmaker’s Wife and Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill. He has also won the George Polk Award and an award from the National Science Foundation for previous work.

Lawrence Wright won the $10,000 J. Anthony Lukas prize for The Looming Tower: Al Queda and the Road to 9/11. (I have got to read this book, it has won so many prizes.)

James T. Campbell won the $10,000 Mark Lynton History Prize for Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005.

Alice Schroeder, the author of an upcoming biography of Warren Buffett, had never written a book before she sold the proposal. Her advance? $7 million. The publisher, Bantam Dell, is obviously banking on the immense popularity of Buffet. It should be a good read because Buffett opened the files of Berkshire Hathaway to Schroeder and instructed his friends and family to talk to her.

“While Schroeder knew insurance and business, she had to learn the craft of writing - setting a scene, recording dialogue, capturing the story of Warren Buffett on paper,” according to an article in the Omaha World-Herald.

"Warren deserves a story that is told in a way that will really bring to life his uniqueness and how much larger than life he really is," she said. "I tried to use his own words as much as possible. I want the reader to feel they've had a long conversation with him."

The writing also was challenging because the book, largely chronological, will have excerpts of Buffett's letters and other writings.

"He's a masterful writer," Schroeder said, with an engaging, conversational style. "Writing alongside Warren Buffett's quotes was an immense challenge. If the book succeeds, people shouldn't feel jarred when they go from his words to mine."

It’s almost Memorial Day and while many people cook hotdogs and hamburgers to celebrate the coming of summer, Susan Ito remembers her father. He died seven years ago around now and she has written a lovely essay about him at Literary Mama.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman for Obama in '08

I have a feeling we are going to see a lot more of these.

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman are raising money for Barak Obama through a personalized appeal. They've set a goal of $25,000 and have raised $7,250 so far.

I didn't get a personalized request, but Wendy from The Happy Booker did.

"We think that candidate is Barack Obama," Michael and Ayelet write. "We know Barack — Ayelet went to law school with him, Michael's met him. We have seen him speak, and were impressed by the restrained, focused eloquence he brings to bear, the way he held and engaged and moved an overcrowded room"

They know everybody.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Tidbit Update

Peter Jackson, he of the Lord of Rings fame, was so wowed by The Lovely Bones that he adapted the screenplay himself and wants to direct.

“I can report that the response is overwhelming to the very stylized and very dark drama that's literally haunting: it's about a ghost. As good as the script is, the final deal for The Lovely Bones, with terms and all, will surely be as big as Jackson's King Kong-sized talent,” reports Nikki Finke.

Charles J. Shields couldn’t interview Harper Lee for his biography of her. She told all her friends not to talk to him. Shields describes the process he went through to track down information. (via Return of the Reluctant)

Pat Holt, the former editor of the Chronicle Book Review, challenges editors to stir things up by creating a panoply of choices in a section.

It’s Michael Chabon week all over the country. His picture graced the entire front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review section last Sunday, and he was the featured cover story in last Sunday’s New York Times Arts section, where a reporter followed him around Sitka, Alaska, the site of his fictional homeland for the Jews. Oh, and don’t forget Michiko Kakutanti’s rave review.

The Los Angeles Times posed him on his front porch in Berkeley in a spread on Tuesday, the release date of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon was in New York on April 30 for a book release party hosted by his friend, the editor of Details.

Chabon is a Berkeley boy, and he isn't letting down his hometown. He will be at Cody's Books in Berkeley (there is only one store left now, on Fourth Street) on Saturday May 12 at 7 pm.

He'll also be talking to Vendela Vida at City Arts and Lectures on May 7.

Is There a Dust-Off: Newspapers versus Lit Blogs?

Mokoto Rich of the New York Times examines the demise of the newspaper book review section and questions whether literary blogs can fill the void. While most bloggers quoted in the piece (Ed Champion, Maud Newton and Mark Sarvas) have long said that blogs provide an alternative, not a replacement for, book sections, author Richard Ford clearly misses the point:

“Of course literary bloggers argue that they do provide a multiplicity of voices. But some authors distrust those voices. Mr. Ford, who has never looked at a literary blog, said he wanted the judgment and filter that he believed a newspaper book editor could provide. “Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership,” Mr. Ford said, “in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

While there may be some irresponsible hacks out there pimping idiotic literature, most bloggers are hyper-responsible. After all it’s their name they are promoting day after day and forever on the Internet.

The difference between book review sections and literary blogs, as I see it, is personality. Traditional book reviews are more subdued and journalistic while posts on lit blogs tend to be opinionated and personal. Bloggers can rant and spew invective, but most don't. Instead they focus on things that fascinate them. Maud Newton writes a lot about Mark Twain, Mark Sarvas is a John Banville junkie. I write about the intersection of books, history, and journalism. Literary blogs are not for everyone, but can be fun to read.

CRITICAL MASS is running a series of interviews with book review editors as part of its campaign to call attention to the decline of these once-ubiquitous sections. The latest to hit the dust is at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, where the book editor has been reassigned to other duties.

San Francisco Chronicle book editor Oscar Villalon relates the outrage of readers when its book section was temporarily folded into another section. It’s now a stand-alone, down from six to four pages on Sunday, but with more reviews throughout the week.