Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Bloodletting in the Newsroom
Means to Books

Newsgathering as we know it is having its toughest year in memory. With so many readers skidding in the blood of the newspapers they’ve loved for decades -- forever -- and newsies finding themselves increasingly wondering what the hell the next cycle might bring, even the very best and brightest of the newsgathering breed are wondering what the future will look like.

In the shadow of this bloodletting, the vultures are gathering. No matter what happens to our free presses, we need our news. And if we can’t get it in the way we’ve always gotten it, well ... some of us are prepared to take it any way we can.

You cannot expect self-interested parties -- publishers, booksellers, even authors -- to disseminate unbiased stories about themselves and those they represent. It just doesn’t work that way. And yet, as traditional media fail, that’s exactly what we are increasingly seeing. For instance, Barnes & Noble’s Review. As good as its editorial material often seems to be, does a bookseller really have any business positioning itself as as part of “the press”? Publishers are playing, too. For instance, Penguin U.S. has just launched a full suite of what it’s calling “online programming.” Last month, Kristin O’Connell, Penguin’s director of online marketing, sent out a release letting us know that most of the online “content” now available through Penguin is “created, written, shot, edited and produced by more than 30 Penguin Group (USA) executives and department team members who are closest to the content, some having worked directly with the books.”

You can tell from both O’Connell’s release and the material itself that it was created with pride, and that’s all right. But can it be created without bias? I don’t think it can. How can those “closest to the content” be expected to share an uncompromised vision with us, their potential readers or viewers? They cannot. It is, after all, not their job to do that. It is their job -- I’ll just say it straight out -- to sell us stuff. And to be good at that job -- really, really good at it -- they can never do anything but pretend at journalistic integrity. That’s just how all of this works.

There is a mad blurring going on in the media today. Born of a kind of desperate clutching for something that makes sense when held against traditional standards of doing things. In all parts of the media, people are trying to find order in chaos. And they will. Of course they will. Just maybe not right now. Right now we need to find our way. Whatever happens, though, we need our newsgatherers -- our unbiased, independent, traditional newsies. Period.

Right at this moment I’m not sure how those newsies will be getting their goods to us in five years. But I do know one thing: we must avoid the trap of taking too much of our news and information, and too many of our book reviews, from those who have the most to gain by giving all of those things to us.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

This must be said and said loud so people will listen. The fourth wall is erroding. Some days it fills me with dread.

Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 8:34:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Libby Hellmann said...

A very thoughtful analysis. And one that bears scrutiny. I wonder what the net effect of all the book bloggers will be? On the one hand, they are -- theoretically -- more objective. On the other, everyone has their favorite likes and peccadillos.

Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 8:50:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

I don't think what Penguin is doing can be called journalism or reporting, it's marketing and in truth, that's what Barnes and Noble is doing as well.

It the intent behind it is to sell a product they create or distribute, it's marketing.

And while bloggers have a different intent, there is a difference between the amateurs and the pros.

Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 9:14:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Barbara said...

And marketing and reviewing and commenting on the business are all being blended together in a way I find unsettling. Yes, you can find some trustworthy bloggers whose reviews and news are unbiased (or at least honest and not influenced by self-interest) but it takes time to discover them. And there's a huge amount of sock puppetry and self-promotion going on because writers are told they must. Most of it is a waste of everyone's time.

Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 1:55:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well met!

Sunday, July 19, 2009 at 12:19:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Mary Soderstrom said...

And what happens when the only review a book gets in media of wide diffusion is markedly different from the ones in smaller places?

I’ve just had an experience like that with my The Walkable City and Barnes and Noble itself. The book has been reviewed quite positively elsewhere but Ezra Klein of The Washington Post says in the B&N review it’s not tough enough. He doesn’t like my narrative devices either.

Okay, reasonable men (and women) can disagree, but I guess I’ll just hope people 1) notice that they spell the book’s title and my name right and 2) only read the first two-thirds which is pretty good.

On the upside, the very fact that there’s a review in the B&N publication has increased orders and the book had to be reprinted.


Monday, July 20, 2009 at 7:36:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Linda L. Richards said...

Ms Soderstrom: exactly what do you think your comment has to do with the piece in question? Review is a subjective art. Drawing ones that differ wildly has nothing to do with the size of the venue or the readership they serve. If all reviews were the same and all readers came away from a book with a single experience, we wouldn't need so many books, would we? One or three would probably suffice. Now: what was your point?

Monday, July 20, 2009 at 10:49:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Mary Soderstrom said...

You write: "we must avoid the trap of taking too much of our news and information, and too many of our book reviews, from those who have the most to gain by giving all of those things to us."

My point is: that even when a medium has a vested interest in publicizing a book (like B&N, which wants to get people into their stores to buy books) there may be some positive fall-out from their actions.

You also write: "Whatever happens, though, we need our newsgatherers -- our unbiased, independent, traditional newsies. Period." I agree completely.

As someone who has been reviewing for more than a decde in several print media, I also agree reviewing is a subjective art.

Yours truly


Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 6:21:00 AM PDT  

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