Digital Panic

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For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Many newspapers are getting rid of their book reviews, in the belief, perhaps, that the more people become obsessed with surfing the Internet, the less attention they'll pay to anything more than four paragraphs long.

In reality, book reviews are falling victim to the pruning and paring going on in newspapers everywhere.

But some readers are fighting back, as Howard Kurtz noted Sunday on CNN's Reliable Sources. He cited a demonstration the other day outside the Atlanta Journal Constitution by people upset that the books editor had been let go.

The Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe have also cut back on book coverage, leaving only a few with separate sections, among them the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Kurtz ran a clip of Stephen Colbert, the fake-news host on Comedy Central, saying people "are going to read what Oprah tells them to read and they are going to like it."

Instead of book reviews, newspapers, even serious ones, are focusing on celebrities.

The L.A. Times, for instance, is looking for a "celebrity justice" reporter.

The paper's media critic, Tim Rutten, wrote on Sunday that not long ago, it was possible to spend a long and productive career in journalism without ever having to type the words "Paris Hilton." "That was then. This, sadly, is now." First, Rutten says, the tabloid media makes you famous "for nothing more than being famous." "Then it turns in a fury of righteous indignation and devours you for, well, being famous." But, Rutten writes, the serious media has joined the frenzy, and, in doing so, "checked its critical intelligence and judgment at the door." Nobody bothered to inquire very deeply into whether Hilton's 45-day jail sentence was common for the driving offense she committed.

Had such questions been asked, Rutten says, the reporters would have found the sentence "unusually harsh."

In other words, some reporters are not only working flimsier stories but doing them less well. Rutten thinks it's all because of the mainstream media's "digital panic."

Editors are "increasingly mesmerized" by the number of 'hits' Web sites get on a given story. And the tale of Paris Hilton in jailhouse overalls is perfect fodder for Web sites that crave a hit parade.

Meanwhile, in another ominous bellwether of change, at least one editor is doing away with the whole idea of reporters covering events in person.

The Web site has begun outsourcing the reporting on Pasadena City Council meetings and other local matters to two writers in India, one of them a graduate of the UC-Berkeley journalism school. Their combined salaries? $19,200.

"It's every reporter's secret nightmare," Richard Martin writes on "A rival in Asia, connected to the West by mobile phone and by modem, who can do your job just as well as you can for a fraction of the salary."

The site's publisher, James MacPherson, has the temerity to call local reporting "routine stuff" that can be done from 9,000 miles away, Martin says.

But "only someone prowling Pasadena's mean streets could really report on the city's pulsing heart," Martin says, only partly in jest.

The Associated Press quoted USC journalism professor Bryce Nelson as calling the outsourcing "a truly sad picture of what American journalism could become."

Robert Niles, the editor of USC's Online Journalism Review, says the L.A. Times doesn't cover Pasadena as a daily beat, while the Pasadena Star-News includes many stories from its sister suburban papers "instead of focusing exclusively on Pasadena."

The Center for Citizen Media's Dan Gillmor says that for the money McPherson is paying, he could hire local bloggers.

"They'd do it better, with more perspectives, and have the advantage of, uh, being there."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.



Nick Madigan