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Man Bites Dog

A newspaper published in a midsized city in Red State America has started running a regular column about books from academic publishers.

This development sounds so improbable that at least a few of you may reasonably suspect that I am trying to perpetrate a hoax. But no, it is true – and it suggests an interesting (and otherwise unimaginable) possibility: a few people in the newspaper world are perhaps starting to realize that they need to foster reading, as such.

Roger Gathman’s “The Academic Presses” debuted on Sunday in The Austin American-Statesman with a discussion of Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton University Press) and James Simpson’s Burning to Read: English Fundamentalism and Its Reformation Opponents (Harvard University Press). Gathman has contributed to The American Scholar, The New York Observer, and Salon, among other publications. He has lived in Austin since doing graduate work in the philosophy department at the University of Texas in the 1980s; since then, aside from writing, he’s worked as a freelance editor and translator.

His inaugural piece was striking, not just for the kinds of books it covered, but for how it handled them. Academic publishing now includes a wide range of more or less popular nonfiction – not to mention cookbooks, or guides to state bicycle trails, or whatever else must be done to pay the bills. But Gathman took on two specialized (if controversial and widely discussed) works of scholarship; and he engaged with their arguments in as much depth as one humanly can, given the length restrictions of any newspaper other than the New York Review of Books.

Austin is a university town, of course. Still, such a venture as this is simply not supposed to happen nowadays. As everyone knows, book sections are shrinking, when not disappearing entirely. But even pointing out that obvious trend hardly begins to account for what is happening.

A recent commentary by Doug McLellan (founder of Arts Journal and head of the National Arts Journalism Program) stresses a point that has largely been forgotten. The people running newspapers once understood that it was a good thing to serve niches of readers who don’t find their interests met elsewhere. And so it made sense to have a bridge column for people who love bridge, for example, and the comic strip “Nancy” for whoever the hell it is that enjoys that enjoys “Nancy.”

Attract enough such niches, and give them a reason to be loyal to your publication, and you might build up an audience. But start jettisoning “niche content” -- and just about any cultural coverage not involving the mental health issues of Hollywood celebrities is going to count as “niche content” -- and something bad starts to happen. The audience has ever less reason to remain loyal. Why would anyone go to a newspaper to learn about the meltdowns of the stars? Who would want to read about it, anyway? That’s why YouTube was invented, after all.

This paraphrase of McLennan has been very loose indeed. For his ongoing discussion of mass media and the audience for cultural coverage, check out his blog Diacritical. One implication that may follow from McLennan's analysis seems counterintuitive: Regular attention to academic titles might make a newspaper far more appealing than reviews of the latest legal thriller or movie novelization -- in some markets, anyway.

I wondered how it came to pass that the experiment was tried in Austin. During all my years of residence there, the American-Statesman never seemed like anything but a very stolid and conventional newspaper. Whenever the Butthole Surfers, a local punk band, was listed in an advertisement, they became the B Surfers. Going against the current did not seem in its nature. How did it come to pass that the paper had made such an unexpected departure? It made sense to call Roger Gathman and ask.

He had done a lot of freelance reviewing for the Statesman, Gathman said, but the idea to launch a column on university-press titles had not been his. It came instead from Jeff Salamon, the books editor. “He thought it was a way to liven the section up,” Gathman said, “to give it more of a distinctive identity.” (I later tried to contact Salamon, but he is on leave until mid-December.)

The plan for now is to run “The Academic Presses” every couple of months, focusing on two or three new books that Gathman will choose. “The ones I wrote about for this first column weren’t really related,” he said, “but in the future I’m going to try to make selections that seem more connected.”

When asked if there were any discipline he would rule out as a possible focus, he thought for a moment and said, “Well, I don’t think I would cover ... accounting.” Other than that, the door seems wide open.

His next column, running in late December, will cover two volumes on the history of science. I’ve agreed not to mention the titles, but the odds of another newspaper assigning them for review are roughly equal to those of an asteroid hitting the city in the meantime.

It turned out he has not been following Doug McLennan’s reflections on newspaperdom and niche audiences, but some of Gathman’s remarks during our chat sounded broadly similar in their logic.

“Running articles about books,” he said, “is never going to make money. It’s a loss leader. But it gets people to pay attention. You have to give them something they can’t find on television.”

For newspapers to survive, he said, “the people making decisions have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that don’t involve reading.”

So, indeed, have I thought as well, from time to time -- usually in the spirit of Sisyphus trying to give himself a pep talk.

Gathman’s points would make perfect sense to anyone who gave the matter two minutes of serious consideration. That implies a very big "if," however. Two minutes of thought seems hard to come by when the sky is falling, which is how it seems around most newspapers lately.

Whether or not anybody else ever imitates the American-Statesman in this, it is entirely to the paper’s credit that it is willing to take such a chance. But if far-sighted people did follow its example, the pool of possible contributors might be substantial. “There are a lot of people like me,” as Gathman put it, “with loads of cultural capital and no money.” You don't say!


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