Thursday, May 3, 2007

Newspapers Abdicate Literacy Responsibility

Newspaper editors struggle to retain readership, yet they do not promote a culture of literacy. I have taught college freshmen English classes for almost forty years, where I see the failing outcomes of high school language skills education. First, 30% of students drop out of high school, according to 2003 Manhattan Institute researchers. Of those who do graduate, only about one-third have college-level skills, including basic literacy. Yet as education levels decrease, newspapers replace their coverage of book news with slick advertising circulars.

Newspapers have had a declining readership for years. In March, 2007, the Wall St. Journal reported an overall decline of 2.6%. In 2006 The New York Times circulation dropped 5.8%, and The Chicago Tribune dropped 12.4%, according to Reuters. Newspapers no longer have the cachet needed to drive sales. I remember when the New York Times book review arrived in our household and we children, as teenagers, searched its pages for new fiction. Novelists like J.D. Salinger and John Updike were like rock stars. I remember reading about Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s flamboyant stateside tour. This was when literary quality was the prerequisite for review space, rather than advertisers’ leverage. I learned books and authors were important, and this aura of prestige led me to a lifelong love of language. I am honored to be the 2007-2009 Poet Laureate for the state of Kansas.

In addition to teaching English, I review books for newspapers such as the Kansas City Star. In the 1980s, the Sunday edition included a healthy budget for reviewers, and I helped the books editor fill three to four pages. As a local reviewer I could put my own spin on national publications or reflect on local writers’ efforts. I still meet people who remember those early years of the Star’s commitment to books, and my small part. Then costs rose and advertising replaced much of the book section.

I commend the current Star book editor John Mark Eberhart, who makes the most of his allotted space to review local writers or at least briefly note their books. He is one of a handful of editors who publishes poetry every Sunday, even before former U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser’s syndicated column. Yet I must search through pounds of paper to find the few book pages. In my local newspaper, the Lawrence Journal World, I turn to a section called “Pulse” to find a few reprinted reviews, features about local authors, and, luckily, because of anther enlightened arts editor—Mindie Paget—a poem.

Newspaper publishers seem to forget that it does take an entire village to educate a child. My college students seldom read books, but instead download tunes, send text messages, and surf the web. If they were to read a newspaper, they would dig to find book sections or a few columns related to literary arts. Instead they would find colorful pages designed like web pages, filled with sound-bites about movie stars.

As more news organizations increase online offerings, space is no longer a problem for book editors. On May 19, The Chicago Tribune moves its Books section to the Saturday edition to capture more readership, and additionally they expand the web version to include a blog. My local paper sponsors online author readings and interactive literary chats. These efforts can reestablish some of the former role of newspapers as advocates for book lovers.

I hope all newspaper publishers notice the connection between book culture and their own need for a well educated readership. They have an opportunity to attract new readers and also to affirm their role of educators. New generations need to see that literacy is more than just a job skill, but also entry into an exciting intellectual forum.