Newspaper book review sections are fast going the way of the mastodon. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Raleigh News and Observer recently eliminated the position of books editor as a cost-cutting measure. The stand-alone book review section of the Los Angeles Times is gone. Books coverage has been cut at the Dallas Morning News, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other papers. Novelist Michael Connelly notes these and other cuts in books coverage in an op-ed piece published in last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Connelly questions the wisdom of these “business decisions” with admirable commonsense. While book review sections in and of themselves do not generate much revenue, they attract people interested in books. In other words, readers—people for whom reading is part of daily life, who read not because they “should” but simply because they enjoy it: the people most likely to subscribe to a daily paper. Of all the activities a newspaper would want to encourage, I would think reading be at the top of the list.
And despite laments about the decline of reading, those Americans who do still read are willing to spend a lot of money to do it. In 2005, the last year for which complete figures are available, net sales of books totaled $25.1 billion. From 2002 to 2005, the compound annual growth rate for trade book sales rose 9.1 percent. Instead of seeing the people spending those billions as a market to be pursued, McClatchy et al. are walking away from them.
Of course, the shareholders of the large companies that now own so many of the country’s daily papers don’t see it that way. They see very little besides the fact that circulation is down and that profit margins aren’t as high as they would like. In the May/June 2006 Extra! author Ben Bagdikian remarked that 30 years ago most major dailies considered 15 percent a handsome profit margin. Wall Street now thinks it should be 25 percent. In pursuit of those profit margins, newsroom staff have been cut, bureaus closed and total page numbers reduced. While these measures do cut costs, I doubt profit margins will increase. When news staff are cut, reporting suffers. And circulation will inevitably drop further—if the price of a product remains the same, and the quality worsens and quantity diminishes, more and more consumers will simply stop buying it.