Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Death of the Book Page As We've Known It

So now we know. The Roanoke Times announced a few weeks ago that Mary Ann Johnson had "retired" from its book page (funny how many people are "retiring" there these days) and that the pages would be revamped (funny how many sections are being "revamped" these days). It insisted the pages would be much better and far more user friendly and that at a time when other publications were eliminating the pages, it was re-dedicating itself to them.

During my fading days at the Blue Ridge Business Journal (owned by The Times), we were told to eliminate the books page because "business people don't read books, except maybe business books." (We didn't recommend business books because they are uniformally awful.) When I tell that to business people that tale they look at me puzzled and say, "They really don't get it about business, do they?"

Mary Ann Johnson had been paid to put together the book page with reviews by local people for nearly two decades and it was a lively, informative weekly page that I could identify with because I actually knew some of the reviewers. It was a big job. Mary Ann had to secure the books, match them with reviewers, mail them out, get the reviews back in, edit them and put them on a page in a relevant manner.

What we have now is two Times employees (the competent Nona Nelson and Heather Froeschl, who does "Names and Changes" in a manner that it is frustrating and virtually meaningless) having the book page added to their already extensive list of duties. They aren't doing it as Mary Ann did. They're relying on smoke, mirrors, wire copy and an occasional local reviewer (this a.m. James Robertson of Virginia, the Civil War expert and default Civil War book reviewer; he once told me that a book a day about the war had been written since it ended and I asked if he wasn't understating a bit). The review of the biography of John Lennon was written by a guy at the LA Times. Why wasn't it written by Chris Gladden or Emily Paine Carter, a couple of local Lennon experts? Too much trouble to get them the book, I suspect. A staff writer wrote a short recommendation of a cookbook.

Mary Ann's salary has been eliminated and the paper seems to be using the wire copy that it had ignored before. The bulk of this book page is readily available on the Internet and the uniqueness of the former page is now history.

I grieve for our industry and its tight-fisted, short-sightedness.

(Note: When longtime marketing manager Nan Mahone recently decided to leave the paper ["to have more time to devote to these interests and explore new opportunities"], Publisher Debbie Meade cheerfully related to the staff that the loss "allows us to rethink the way we provide marketing and promotions services, particularly in this challenging economy. As you know, one of the ways we are coping with the recession and strengthening our business is by consolidating or centralizing more key functions in a leaner organizational structure." It also allows The Times to cut expenditures, as it has recently with the losses of columnist Shanna Flowers and veteran reporter Rob Johnson on top of the growing pile of lost institutional memory.)

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