THE LOS ANGELES TIMES PROUDLY announced last week that it was as dedicated as ever to book coverage—"we have not changed our commitment," said Vice President of Communications Nancy Sullivan. Sullivan was speaking to Publishers Weekly's Wendy Werris, explaining that a new round of layoffs in the section and the cutting loose of the book section's freelancers was not to be taken as a sign of what it clearly was: a further contraction of the section's purview.
"Freelancers" in this case means not just those of us who have written the occasional review for the Times over the years but the new class of non-employees, the many people who used to be on staff and were laid off before being rehired as freelancers, like Susan Salter Reynolds; book columnists Reynolds, Richard Rayner, and Sonja Bolle were among those let go. Reynolds is a prime example of the new class of the gradually dis-employed: she has been writing succinct, insightful reviews for the Times for the last 23 years, usually three pieces a week, although often adding a fourth or even fifth in the form of a more in-depth review or feature (she is a woman who clearly does not sleep). For the first 21 of those years she was a staff writer, but for the last two she's been a freelancer. The difference was a deep cut in pay, the loss of health insurance and a retirement plan, and the outsourcing of her office to her own house. The workload remained the same.
The agonizing death of print journalism, squeezed by investors into this deplorable state, has been one impetus for our project at the Los Angeles Review of Books. We hope we can eventually raise the money from foundations, private individuals, and advertising to reemploy at least a few of the people who have been washed out to sea by the seemingly unending waves of firings and cutbacks in the print world. This week we were very happy and proud to have Salter's "Discoveries" and Rayner's "Paperback Writers" columns move to our pages. We are not yet paying them anything near what they're worth, but we hope that our mixed business model - part e-commerce, part nonprofit grantwriting and fundraising - can eventually prevail, that we will create an institution that bucks the trend of professional writers writing for free on the internet.
The layoffs in the newspaper and magazine world cause enormous harm to our friends and colleagues, but the tragedy for American culture as a whole is more profound. We are losing access to great swaths of knowledge and proficiency. Few people alive have read as many books as Reynolds, Rayner, and Bolle. Then there are the thousands and thousands of jobless journalists around the country, people with decades of experience in foreign relations, arts coverage, politics, environmental issues, economics, all forced to find other work - this is a loss no amount of updating to Wikipedia can ever redress. Perhaps worse yet, the pipeline of new talent has been plugged. The editorial book staff at the L.A. Times, according to Publishers Weekly, now consists entirely of Jon Thurber, David Ulin, Nick Owchar, and Carolyn Kellogg: all of them, too, friends of ours, all great journalists, and all obviously working in constantly diminishing conditions. Kellogg is the youngster in this group in her forties, and while this does, in my book, make her a youngster, that twenty-year gap between her and recent college graduates will not be filled - a missing generation of journalists - sinc...