by David Kopel
In a recent issue of Westword, Singleton said that he signed the Joint Operating Agreement with the News because the business arrangement would give him the resources to move the Post from a good newspaper to a great newspaper. To test that commitment, let's take a look at the Sunday book review section, "Books & authors."
A book review section is especially good place to judge a newspaper's commitment to high-quality journalism. Focus groups of readers almost never claim that book reviews are important to them; so even profitable papers have been slicing away at book reviews, to boost profits. So if the Post is determined to raise quality, the Sunday book section might offer an opportunity to surpass some better-known papers.
Last week's "Books & authors" section was eight pages, as it always is. It contained seven full-size reviews, an interview with an author, plus local and national best-seller lists and a calendar of the week's book events. Good enough for the top five?
Well, it's not even close to the clear No. 1, the The New York Times' "Book Review." A typical recent issue ran 24 pages, with 11 reviews, most of which were about twice as long as the average Post review. The New York Times also had a letters section, and more extensive best-seller lists. Most reviews are accompanied by an illustration, whereas the Post simply supplies a picture of the book jacket, except for the book featured on the front page of the section.
The Times' "Book Review" is no longer the most important source of book reviews in the United States; that role as been taken over by The New Yorker magazine. But it's still easy to see why The New York Times has the only newspaper book review with significant independent sales, not just as an insert in the Sunday paper.
The Washington Post's "Book World" easily wins second place, with 16 pages and 14 reviews, many of them lengthy. The edition I bought also had a full-page devoted to short reviews of "arctic books," another full-page of short reviews of music books, plus a letters section. Notably, the staff box for The Washington Post "Book World" lists 11 people, while The Denver Post "Books & authors" has only full-time editor, Tom Walker, assisted part-time by some folks from the features section. Even though several of The Washington Post staffers are part-timers, The Denver Post appears to squeeze out a lot more productivity per employee than its Washington Post counterpart.
The Chicago Tribune's book section runs eight pages in broadsheet format, equivalent to about 16 pages in a smaller tabloid format used by The Denver Post, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The reviews in the Tribune are quite long and accompanied by excellent pictures, thus allowing people interested in an art book, for example, to see some of the actual art.
While The Denver Post book review isn't even close to being one of the top three in the nation, it's not too far behind numbers four and five: the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Both are 10 pages (tabloid format, and not counting the two-page short story in every issue of the Los Angeles Times book review). The Times reviews tend to run somewhat longer than The Denver Post reviews, partly because the five-column format of the Times gets more words on the page than the four-column format used on the middle four pages of the Post book review.
The Denver Post comes close to tying for fifth place with the San Francisco Chronicle, whose book section runs 8 to 10 pages, and which has lost some credibility because it was recently combined into the Sunday "Datebook," losing its status as an independent section.
And if The Denver Post is only slightly behind the San Francisco Chronicle, it's well ahead of the rest of the competition. Other papers make the book review part of an entertainment or opinion section rather than an independent section. The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle, The Dallas Morning News (in that order) probably come closest to The Post, but don't equal it.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer / Seattle Times and the Las Vegas Review-Journal / Las Vegas Sun also happen to have joint-operating agreements to create a single Sunday newspaper. Their book reviews are pathetic, not even rising to the level of The Boston Globe, which at least supplies three very good broadsheet pages. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's book coverage is also miserable.
Finally, if one figures in the Friday "@home" section, which has 3 to 4 pages of book reviews, then the combined Post / News book reviews would land in fourth place, surpassing the Los Angeles and San Francisco papers. But I presume Dean Singleton wants to make it into the top five without any help from the News. All he needs is one more full-time editor on the book section, and 12 pages a week instead of eight.