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SF’s Literati Dismayed Over Paper’s Changes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Franciscans seldom need goading to express pride in their cultural institutions. Given a chance, they’re happy to expound on why their symphony orchestra is superior, their opera scene unrivaled anywhere west of Chicago, and their dim sum parlors the envy of the culinary free world.

So when word began leaking out a few weeks ago that the city’s major daily newspaper was reconfiguring its Sunday book review section, a howl went up from segments of the Bay Area literati. Books and the people who write and read them are taken seriously in San Francisco, home at various times to such venerable and disparate persons of letters as Mark Twain and Allen Ginsberg.

Accordingly, reports that the San Francisco Chronicle was revamping, and possibly even downsizing, its well-regarded Book Review section were treated in some quarters as a potential affront to the city’s literary self-esteem.

“You owe it to the citizens of San Francisco!” not to diminish book coverage, wrote Diane Middlebrook, a professor of English at Stanford University, in a recent letter urging Chronicle management not to “demote book talk to the status of infotainment.”

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“You will embarrass yourselves along with every literate person in town,” wrote Middlebrook, who is spearheading a letter-writing campaign over the issue.

For its part, Chronicle management says it’s not reducing the actual number of pages in the section. Instead, it is making the section wider-ranging and easier to find as part of a larger redesign of the paper, which was recently acquired by Hearst. The design and content changes, managers insist, are an expansion, not a contraction, of the book section’s literary ambitions. The reconfigured section will debut April 29, along with revamped Sunday sections devoted to lifestyles and news analysis and commentary, said Phil Bronstein, the paper’s senior vice president and executive editor.

In the past, Bronstein said, the book section primarily emphasized reviews of books. The new section will “take a more varied approach,” mixing fewer reviews with more features about books, interviews with authors, and other types of stories.

“It’s not that there’s anything wrong with reviews at all, but I think it’s like movies and any other arts, that if all you have is reviews, that’s the limits of your coverage,” Bronstein said. “There is an intellectual curiosity that I think we could reflect a lot more in the book review section.”

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Currently, the section is inserted into Datebook, the paper’s popular arts and entertainment section, which is published in tabloid form on Sundays. Though the Book Review’s pages were numbered separately from the rest of Datebook, research over the years had shown that most readers did not perceive the Book Review as a separate product with a stand-alone identity, said Liz Lufkin, the Chronicle’s deputy managing editor for arts and features. Beginning next week, the Book Section will be fully incorporated into the Pink Section, as Datebook is affectionately known due to its unusual color.

As for reports that the book section will be shrinking, Chronicle managers said that over the years the section has varied week by week from eight to 12 pages, depending on advertising and other factors. “So this is not an overall reduction of something that was consistently 10 or 12 and is going to be eight or nine,” said Bronstein.

The Chronicle’s reshuffling comes at a time when a number of book sections across the country are restructuring and/or shrinking. On Thursday, the alternative Boston Phoenix reported that the Boston Globe may be folding its stand-alone Sunday book section into another section. And even the New York Times Book Review, the nation’s most influential, has been cutting back.

In San Francisco, some observers, however, aren’t buying the Chronicle’s less-is-more argument when it comes to the prospect of a scaled-back book review.

“I think it’s a dumb thing to do,” said Benjamin H. Bagdikian, a media critic and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the UC Berkeley. “San Francisco has been a growing center not only of book publishing but a large community of writers, and it is a major book-buying center in the United States.”

Professor Middlebrook, who, like Bagdikian, occasionally reviews books for the Chronicle, said that reviews are extremely important in helping books find an audience in a media-saturated culture. “All of us do profit in having our books reviewed in the Chronicle. It does affect the sales of books,” she said.

Under the revamped section, former Book Review editor David Kipen, who declined comment, has become the paper’s full-time book critic and Wednesday book columnist, a job he apparently had wanted for some time. He is being succeeded as book editor by his former deputy, Oscar Villalon.

Elsewhere, the recent dip in the economy is bringing changes to other book sections. At the New York Times Book Review, editor Charles McGrath said the section reduced its Sunday books in brief feature from two pages to one about three weeks ago. The move was part of a paper-wide response to the current downturn. The section also lately has reduced the number of reviews it runs. “We hope it’s not permanent,” McGrath said of the changes.

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McGrath said he believes that “the damage to book sections began happening long before now. I’ve seen book sections either get dropped or dumbed down. I think people are reading as much if not more than ever, and I think some of this downsizing and dumbing down is misguided and comes from newsrooms that are underestimating their own readership.”

Asked about the response to his own section’s cost-saving measures, McGrath replied: “So far I’m surprised--we haven’t [heard] a peep, which is very odd and I don’t know what to make of it, frankly. Either they [readers] haven’t noticed, which is distressing, or they’re resigned.”

Bagdikian said that book sections traditionally have been more vulnerable to economic pressures than other parts of daily newspapers. “Book sections, like Sunday magazines, have always been the last in line when a newspaper publisher wants to justify content by its ability to attract advertising,” he said. “I think that’s shortsighted because the basic strength of a newspaper is the loyalty of its readers and the seriousness and size of that readership of a particular section.”

Bronstein said he’s been getting “a lot of e-mail from people saying, ‘Why are you killing your book review section?’ And I’ve sent e-mails in response saying, ‘We haven’t killed it, it’s still there. Please check it out and let us know what you think.’ ”

Professor Middlebrook said she intends to do exactly that.


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