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Representative Journalism

Representative Journalism: Hire More Book Review Editors — Part I

When the Atlanta Journal-Constitution cut its book review editor, I started thinking of  how it might have been a different scenario in the Representative Journalism world. Then came the Columbia Journalism Review’s cover story by Steve Wasserman entitled Goodbye to All That: The decline of the coverage of books isn’t new, benign, or necessary. I knew it was time to show how every region could have its own book reviewer.  It seems a natural Representative Journalism topic. So let’s start with Part I today with Wasserman’s excellent article, which I alternatively hate and love, setting the stage, and then later in the days to come I will  lay out Part II, a scenario I believe will work.

With a touch of disdain Wasserman writes of the “the faux populism of the marketplace,” instead deciding when he was the  book review editor at the Los Angeles Times: 

I would simply have to rely upon my own literary acumen and taste, cross my fingers, and hope that a sufficient number of the newspaper’s readers would find in themselves an echo of my own enthusiasms.

There is also this dismal of populism:

Sure, two, three, many opinions, but let’s all acknowledge a truth as simple as it is obvious: Not all opinions are equal.

I agree with him, but he by default dismisses all the people who buy books worthy of reviews, enjoy the books and enjoy talking to others who have shared the experience. Rather than taking the Columbia Journalism Review/Nick Lemann stance of holding audience at arm’s length by stiff arming them directly in the face, they should embrace those book lovers and bring them into the fold.

So that brings me to my idea of how to have more great book reviewing spread across the nation. I would use high quality standards as Wasserman advocates, but without his almost palpable hatred for lay opinion even that offered by people learned enough to love the very books he most wants reviewed. He  writes:

 If I had a bias—and I did—it was toward paying attention to the unknown, the neglected, the small but worthy (and all-too-often invisible) authors whose work readers would otherwise not have heard about.

He also provides us with another — among many fascinating – truism:

people who buy books do so not on the basis of any review they read, nor ad they’ve seen, but upon word of mouth. What’s worse is that most people who buy books, like most people who watch movies, don’t read reviews at all. For those who do, however, reviews are an invaluable way of eavesdropping, as it were, on an ongoing cultural conversation of critical importance.

I am not sure if Wasserman actually heard himself write that part about “word of mouth,” you know as in conversation. That’s a key I will get at when I talk about Representative Journalism.

The other keys are plucked from Wasserman’s piece; for example,  when he speaks of how his LA Times book review sections had comparatively low readership, but:  

The core readership …  the paper’s “Cosmopolitan Enthusiasts” amounted to about three hundred and twenty thousand avid and dedicated readers for whom the weekly Book Review was among the most important sections of the paper.

Here is more:

…The New York Review of Books, the most profitable and erudite and influential review publication in the history of modern American letters. It enjoys a readership of 280,000—readers who remain loyal to its unflaggingly high standard—and has been in the black for nearly forty years.

I checked out its website, it charges $69 a year for a subscription. Now one more vital piece of information from Wasserman, whose attitude, as I mentioned above, I both love and hate. This part I love because I so fully agree with him:

I was convinced that because readers of book reviews are among a paper’s best-educated and most prosperous readers, it might be possible to turn a cultural imperative into a profitable strategy.

And here is the key to Representative Journalism now foreshadowed by Wasserman, who while talking about the resurgence of high culture writes:

There is money to be made in culture, if only newspapers were nimble and imaginative enough to take advantage of the opportunities that lie all around them…

The truth is that many people everywhere are interested in almost everything.

In 2005 there were about 222 million people over 18 years old in the USA. If only 5 percent of them loved to read books that would still be 11 million people. The average household have about two adults in it, so that leaves us with 5.5 million potential households. In Part II we will see how to tap in those 5.5 million potential households via Representative Journalism.

2 Responses to “Representative Journalism: Hire More Book Review Editors — Part I”

  1. Representative Journalism - Blog - Part II: Ensuring Book Reviewer Jobs Everywhere Says:

    [...] ended Part I of this two-part post on how to save and produce book reviewers jobs everywhere with this CJR quote [...]

  2. 2recalcitrant Says:


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    Leonard Witt

    Leonard Witt is the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University and the chief blogger at

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