Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Goodbye, Los Angeles Times Book Review

When the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News were imploding a year ago, I wrote extensively about the layoffs and the damage the downsizing would do to local news coverage.

Well, the newspaper business has only gotten worse since then, with draconian cuts at papers around the country almost a weekly occurrence. At some point I made the conscious decision not to follow the news on my blog. It was too depressing to dwell on the collapse of an industry I had so eagerly joined in 1984.

But I can’t stay silent anymore about what is happening to the Los Angeles Times, one of the country’s best newspapers. A lot has been written about how the new owner Sam Zell has insulted reporters throughout the former Tribune chain and how he instituted a byline count as a way to determine which reporters to fire. While he was once regarded as a savior from the Tribune company, he is now regarded as a loose – and dangerous – cannon.

The LA Times laid off 150 reporters in the past month, an astonishing number. I don’t even know how the newsroom is coping with the sudden downsizing. The latest publisher is also out. There have been so many editors and publishers in the last few years that it is hard to count.

But I have to speak up about the decision to fold the Los Angeles Times Book Review section. Apparently, this Sunday will be the last time the book review will stand alone. In August, book reviews will be folded into the Calendar section.

This is a travesty. The Times book review is one of the most interesting sections in the country. Its reporters, like Josh Getlin, who was laid off, consistently produced excellent glimpses into the world of authors and publishers. As the writer and lawyer Daniel Olivas observed, the Book Review created an intellectual framework for a city that is better know for its vapid pursuit of looks and glamour than discourse and discussion. It’s influence was even broader than just in Los Angeles; many others read the reviews on its website, providing an antidote to the New York-centric view of books and writers.

And I have a personal regret. My book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, deals extensively with the development of Los Angeles from 1859 onward. I had fervently hoped, even fantasized, that my book would be prominently reviewed in the Los Angeles Times when it comes out in November. I believe my book has new information about the creation of Los Angeles, particularly how Hellman, acting like a behind the scenes puppeteer, created lending policies that transformed the state. It is, I think, an important and not well-known aspect of California history.

My subject isn’t sexy or glamorous or even timely. But it has merit and it makes a contribution. The demise of the Book Review and other book sections in the country means a lessening of information, a truncation of the exchange of ideas that don’t always fit into the current celebrity-crazed marketplace.

My forthcoming book is only one of thousands coming out. If the Book Review is going from six stand-alone pages a week to a smattering of reviews in the Calendar section, how many books will go uncovered? It’s already exceedingly difficult to get a book reviewed; now it will be that much harder.

I hope that Sam Zell and his minions reconsider their decision and let David Ulin, the editor of the Book Review, and his cadre of reviewers continue creating one of the most interesting public intellectual centers in Los Angeles.


Anonymous said...

Yep, it is really sad that the LA Times is dropping the book review section. The NY Times is still ok, but it is fairly well controlled by the big publishers and lacks the diversity it used to have. Online is where one has to go know if they want to find some good books.

Anonymous said...

Frances, I agree that this is an absurd defeat for literature, and I'm sorry it might affect your book's fortunes. Online is fine, but I have another fantasy. Imagine a Los Angeles Review that combined book, film, and art reviews. The New York Review of Books started during a newspaper strike and is doing fine forty years later. Maybe someone with resources and vision will see the opportunity here.

Anonymous said...


Sorry I cannot share your regrets about the declining fortunes of the LA Times, a publication I spent years battling on behalf of a client in a defamation case. The paper's conduct, including that of highly-respected former editor John Carroll, was thoroughly contemptible from beginning to end.

While one lawsuit -- and the conduct of the lawyers, editors and reporters in connection with it -- should not damn an entire newspaper, the case was nevertheless illustrative of the corruption that occurs in even our better media outlets when too much power is concentrated in one institution, (see, e.g., the reporting of Judy Miller in the run-up to the Iraq war, and the ensuing campaign to enshrine her as a hero of the 1st Amendment).

The fact is, the old media of centralized reporting by "trusted" institutions has already been shredded, in part by shoddy standards and intellectual vapidity within the culture of journalism itself, but more so by an outmoded business model that is faltering ever-more dramatically with each passing day.

To me, the interesting question is what is going to evolve to replace it. But, make no mistake, the dinosaur is already on its last legs. (See Lewis Lapham's column in the new Harper's, re: Tim Russert, for an entertainingly-written take on this subject.)


Alex Kline
San Francisco, CA

Anonymous said...

"If you don't want to work, become a reporter.
That awful power, the public opinion of the
nation, was created by a horde of self-complacent
simpletons, who failed at ditch digging and shoe
making, and fetched up in journalism on their
way to the poorhouse."

Mark Twain
Connecticut Evening Dinner Club, 1881