Here's the review/mention of my book running in today's Seattle Times: "Everything But the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks" by Bryant Simon (University of California Press, $25.95). A history professor's look into how the Seattle-based company's "explosive success and rapid deflation" casts light on a deep American need for "predictability and class standing, community and authenticity."
Sure this is fine, but doesn't this say something larger about the state of newspapers, especially when it comes to books? If the past, won't the hometown newspaper review a book about the hometown team? As all Red Room writers know, getting reviewed is harder and harder. There is less and less space everyday for book talk and reviews.
I had one journalist tell me that his editor didn't like him to write about books. But this, of course, speaks to a larger, more pressing problem, what does the retreat, the collapse of newspapers mean to all of us? What does it mean to democracy and to civic life? How can we have the public debates and discussions we so desperately need in these serious times without serious newspaper coverage and thoughtful journalism? But is serious coverage and thoughtful discussion possible in these times of relentless retrenchment?
One answer is that the newspapers of the past will be replaced by on-line sources and blogs. There is clearly promise here. The entry costs of the virtual world create a certain rough journalistic democracy, but before congratulate ourselves, shouldn't we acknowledge that this rough democracy is dependent on the bricks and mortar of the old school strucuture of a news organization -- reporters in Washington and Tokyo. Think for a moment how much of the blog-sphere operates as a reacation -- a spirited, healthy, and vibrant reaction -- to the "mainstream" press -- the New York Times and LA Times. What happens when these bricks and mortar organizations and lots of once great medium-sized like the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Seattle Times, Des Moines Register and Raliegh News and Observer stop covering stories? Already most of these once-remarkable regional outfits have cut their staffs in Washington and overseas. Perhaps more ominously, they have but their local and state (political) staffs as well. Who now will hold mayors and governors accountable? Who will do investigative reports?
The implications are obvious. If the big news organizations stop covering stories, what do the bloggers comment on? The news news media and apartment pundits aren't dependent or beholden to the old media, but they need the old media (just like writers need reviews, so that their ideas get dicussced.)
But what are the solutions? This, of course, is the hard part. I guess the first answer is easy. Buy a paper. Don't just read on-line. At this moment, buying a paper is almost a civic act. (And get your friends to buy a paper as well. Seriously. Desperate times call for lots of small acts.) What else? Here is the the hard part. Perhaps we need state funding for the press. Maybe we should subsidize our newspapers. We publically finance some elections -- for the larger democratic good -- why not the press? Clearly, this isn't on the table right now -- and this isn't probably a winable political issues, but it needs to be discussed and framed in such a way -- I know I'm dreaming a bit here -- that reporters and journalists are recognized as a larger good. I'm willing to read (and buy for) newspapers on-line, but I'm not willing to live without newspapers (or book reviews.)