In the Diaspora: The ever-dying people of the ever-dying book

The written word reduces from being a pillar of mass culture to a boutique niche like jazz.

March 5, 2009 13:25
In the Diaspora: The ever-dying people of the ever-dying book

sam freedman 88. (photo credit: )

One morning three weeks ago, I opened up my e-mail account to confirm with a particular book editor that she would be speaking to my Columbia Journalism School class later that day. It turned out that there was a message from her already in my queue. She had to cancel because she had just been laid off. Scrambling to fill the hole in my syllabus, I e-mailed another editor I knew at the same publishing house, and then went to start teaching. At my first break, about two hours later, I hurried to my computer and was surprised not to have gotten a reply. So I phoned the house, asked for the editor, and learned, when she picked up the line, that she, too, had been cut loose. There is nothing anomalous or aberrant, I'm grieved to say, in such an episode. At the end of last week, a friend of mine lost the reporting job he had held for 26 years when the Rocky Mountain News, one of the two daily newspapers in Denver, folded. Over the past few months, I've watched as a veteran religion writer of my acquaintance was laid off by a big-city paper and a former student of mine had the Jewish magazine he edited halt print publication and try to hang on as a mere aggregator. In a case of art imitating life, a recent series of Doonesbury comic strips showed the fictive reporter Rick Redfern being laid off. To be a journalist or author these days in America is to be a lumberjack in Wisconsin in the 1930s or a steelworker in Pennsylvania in the 1980s or an auto worker in Michigan, well, right now. It is to be watching your industry, indeed your way of life, collapsing around you. THE HISTORIAN SIMON RAWIDOWICZ wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews, with their perpetual trepidation of extinction, as "the ever-dying people." A famous aphorism dubbed Broadway "the fabulous invalid." It's marginally reassuring to think of such gallows humor as the written word looks to be the latest casualty - not unto death but to a terminally reduced form, from being a pillar of mass culture to surviving as a boutique niche like jazz. The tragedy of journalism and publishing in America is a Jewish tragedy as much as any other kind. Every newsroom in which I've worked has been disproportionately two things - Irish Catholic and Jewish. The journalism-school faculty on which I sit has enough Jews to satisfy a conspiracy theorist: Goldman, Shapiro, Friedman, Freedman, Lipton, Fishman, Lemann, etc. It is estimated that Jews, who comprise about two percent of the national population, buy roughly 20% of the hardcover books. Which may be one reason that Israel, at least from my distant vantage point, has a print culture that remains healthy and vigorous. And it may also be a reason why Jewish books and periodicals remain somewhat hardier than the rest even in the United States. Still, I'm put in mind of what a Broadway producer once told me about his industry: it doesn't have the common cold, it has cholera. THE NEWS INDUSTRY was severely slumping even before the country's descent last fall into the Great Recession, as some are now calling our economic distress. Readership was dropping precipitously at most newspapers as young people began to access information on-line or through their cell phones. The popularity of the free classified ads on-line at Craigslist took away a reliable stream of revenue to newspapers. As troubled newspapers shut down their expensive functions - national or foreign bureaus, investigative-reporting teams, highly paid veteran writers - they gave even loyal subscribers less reason to stay faithful and thus set off a cycle of falling circulation, dwindling income and increasing cutbacks. While it's true, and in its way heartening, that the Web sites of such major news organizations as The New York Times, USA Today and CNN attract millions upon millions of visitors, advertising has not followed in a commensurate way. In part, the reluctance attests to the recognition that many of those visitors haven't gone to the news organization's site as a desired destination but wound up there for just one or two articles that they found there instead of through an aggregator like Drudge or Yahoo or a hand-tailored RSS feed. AS FOR PUBLISHING, the industry was flat-lining at best heading into the disastrous Christmas-Hanukka season of 2008. Now the venerable Houghton Mifflin (publisher of Philip Roth) is looking more like the farcical Dunder Mifflin of The Office, awash in so much debt it has officially stopped buying manuscripts and is widely expected to shut down entirely. Other houses have virtually, if unofficially, frozen acquisitions. In the entire United States, only two newspaper book-review sections remain, those of The New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. The precipitous fall of the stock market and the dizzying rise in the unemployment rate have worsened the climate for the printed word, but even a healthy climate could not have fundamentally altered the situation. The warning signs long predate sub-prime mortgages and credit default swaps. In my own 35 years as a professional journalist, I've seen afternoon newspapers die off, then most cities shrink to a single newspaper, and then many of the remaining papers pressured by corporate owners or impatient shareholders for profit margins that news organizations never produced even in plummy times. I started seeing the sunset decades ago, but I have to admit that I expected it to hold off for another generation or so. Then again, maybe that forecast betrayed a combination of fear and vanity - the fear of losing a large part of my income and self-image, and the vanity of wanting my children to always see me as a working writer, not to dimly remember it as something I once did a long time ago. On better days, of which there have been few lately, I am as capable as the next survivor of reading the entrails more optimistically. The Web site became hugely popular and influential during the last presidential campaign. Journalistic Web sites like ProPublica (for investigative reporting) and MinnPost (for coverage of Minneapolis-St. Paul) have been created on a non-profit model. Maybe the Kindle, Amazon's e-book reading device, will do for literature what the iPod did for music - attract a vast young audience by delivering the material in the Internet generation's preferred, digital form. If so, more power to Amazon. But there's no denying that the contraction of the journalism and publishing industries is the contraction, too, of something American Jews have cherished, for the jobs it provided, the education it enabled and the arguments it informed. Sometimes you don't need a death to need a shiva.

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