A Faithful Reader's First Impressions of Freshened Features

The Chicago Tribune‘s Books section, as threatened, finally showed up in the Saturday paper. As part of the general trend of declining book coverage in newspapers, this isn’t as alarming as the Atlanta Journal Constitution‘s decision to eliminate the job of the books editor, but taking Books out of Sunday does seem like a turn for the worse.

The Trib, of course, is billing its changes as an evolution, even an enhancement of coverage. And while they have added more total column inches of book coverage, fewer people will see it, so there’s no net gain. But this section needed some kind of a shakeup, so maybe the charitable view is that some change is better than no change. We’ll see.

A few first impressions:

Saturday

Elizabeth Taylor’s note in the Sunday paper reminded “faithful readers” that Books would now be found on Saturday and touted the supplement’s “freshened features.” It looked like more of the same to me, however, albeit with a slightly redesigned layout (liberal use of horizontal rules) and maybe even a few more reviews than usual (the whole thing measures 16 pages front to back).

I didn’t spot any new features — “From the Precincts,” “Chat Room,” and “Theme Park” all looked about the same. The “Literary Events” section is still dominated by paid ads. Wouldn’t it be nice if they listed all noteworthy literary events free of charge but charged for photos and premium placement?

One item of concern: “Crime Watch” is written by Paul Goat Allen, not Dick Adler. Is Adler on vacation or is this permanent? I have no idea. Nothing against Paul Goat Allen, but let’s not go changing everything.

Sunday

Page 10 covers books the way the Tempo section covers the news: lite. Julia Keller, the Trib’s overworked cultural critic, now writes the “Lit Life” column. “In Brief” blurbs three items pulled from the wires, and “Reviews Online” seems to promise five web-only reviews — until you read the fine print and realize that the reviews ran on Saturday. The “Literary Directory” reprints Saturday’s stuff, minus photos, with a few library events thrown in.

Nothing against Julia Keller, but even her boundless reserve of interest in the world seems to have been put to the test by her assignment to tells us what every news event means. And it’s unfortunate that, instead of reaching out to someone with specifically literary credentials, they instead reassigned someone in-house to the beat.

If the switch to Saturday was inevitable, at least they didn’t leave it at that. The fact that they kept a page open for books in the Sunday paper — and added a new column — shows at least an attempt to add some value for BookPeople (TM). (Hopefully it’s not just part of a six-month plan to wean us off Sunday book coverage entirely.) But if the change presented an opportunity to try something truly fresh, it’s a missed opportunity. Here’s a radical thought: if you’re not getting enough readers and advertisers to support your Books section, why not try a radical new approach?

The TribBooks blog will be launched “this month” so I’ll be watching for that.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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