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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Plain Dealer Scaling Back Books Coverage, Local Freelancers Mourn

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2015 at 12:41 PM

click to enlarge SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
On Tuesday, one longtime contributor to the Plain Dealer's books section published a post on his personal blog lamenting the fact that — according to him — the local paper would no longer be paying freelance contributors. 

"Instead," Daniel Dyer wrote, "to save a little money, they were going to publish reviews taken from their wire services."  

The news was duly Tweeted out by vindictive (but often painfully on-target) Plain Dealer watchdog @1801SuperiorAve. 

Dyer gleaned his information, he told Scene, from a conversation he had with his editor Joanna Connors back in August. Connors took over the books section (which is these days little more than a page in Sunday Arts), after veteran books editor Karen Long left in 2013 to manage the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards for the Cleveland Foundation.

In recent weeks, Connors has been reassigned from books to movies. She's now the paper's primary film critic after Clint O'Connor, the PD's movie guy since 2005, accepted a buyout in the latest round of layoffs. Connors is no stranger to the film beat, though, having written about movies before Clint took the job.

I myself wrote freelance book reviews for the PD in 2011-2012, while I was getting a Masters at Cleveland State and then on a reporting fellowship in Europe — Sam Allard is a critic in Sarajevo! —  and Dyer's experience resonates. I can confirm, among other things, the inflation-proof $150 freelance rate.

But most local critics, it turns out, care much less about the money than they do about having a venue for local voices to critique and celebrate the national literary scene. Hard as it may be for some folks to comprehend, most of the nation's exciting new writers, to say nothing of the esteemed veterans of the literary world, do not live or work in Northeast Ohio. (Though some do!)

One misconception, though, at least according to the PD, is that local writers will no longer have an opportunity to get reviewed.   

"Over the last months," Dyer wrote, "virtually all the reviews have come from other if you want to know what the LA Times reviewers think, you can either check immediately on the Internet, or you can wait till Sunday and buy the Plain Dealer... I believe that removing reviews by local writers just gives some PD readers/subscribers yet another reason to drop the paper, but I feel bad about the local novelists, poets, and writers of nonfiction who now have no "hometown paper" to review their work." 

PD Features Editor John Kappes says that's not the case.  Indeed, he says that despite some of the scaling back, the paper will still be committed to covering books by established local authors, or books that have a "strong Northeast Ohio connection." 

"Last week, for example, Michael Sangiacomo reviewed Derf's new graphic novel, "Trashed,"" Kappes wrote Scene in an email. He said that the books section, which he suspects will continue to occupy a single page in the Sunday Arts section, will also continue its rotating column of capsule reviews — mysteries, audiobooks, and YA releases — and a weekly paperback review, both of which will continue to be written by local paid freelancers ("or the occasional staffer.")   

"Beyond that," Kappes wrote, "we are devoting our resources to coverage of arts and entertainment with more of a local focus than reviews of national books can provide." 

What went unsaid was that with Connors now covering movies, there's simply no one left to marshal a stable of regular freelance book critics. In addition to reading and writing for the section, the books editor was responsible for maintaining contacts with publicists in New York, assigning, editing, and scheduling reviews to and for the local crop of contributors, and taming a library of review copies which continually flow into the paper from publishers nationwide.

Recall that the Plain Dealer, all evidence to the contrary, is still a major national newspaper, and publishers recognize the value of a book review in its pages. 

But the one administrative support employee dedicated to the books section was let go in an earlier round of layoffs. Scene's speculation (which has been corroborated by a PD source who asked not to named) is that when Connors started covering O'Connor's film duties, there was no one left to cover Connors' corresponding duties in books. There's simply no one left. 

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