Franchising the column

LI owes Scott McLemee, who writes a column at Inside Higher Education, a note of thanks for having publicized our column on academic books (appearing every two months now!) at the Austin American Statesman. We did an interview with him in January, which, rather surprisingly, was quoted in a speech by the president of the Association of American University Presses at their convention. For the first and last time in history, I actually had a tiny tiny effect on the world:

Last month, during his speech at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses, outgoing president Sandy Thatcher quoted from my interview with Roger Gathman, who writes “The Academic Presses” for the Austin paper. “The people making decisions,” Gathman had said, “have to realize that it is in their interest to encourage reading. They have to start thinking about the need to generate an audience. At that level, it makes no sense for all of your cultural coverage to point to activities that don’t involve reading.” Thatcher, who is also the director of Penn State University Press, indicated that his recent venture in editing the review section of a local newspaper, the Centre Daily Times, was inspired in part by that column.

At the time, I pointed out that Gathman’s comment about reading would seem profoundly sensible to anyone who gave it two minutes of thought – but who could spare that much time when (as it seems at newspapers nowadays) the sky is falling?”

I am planning - lazily - to franchise this column, that is, sell it to other newspapers, which could publish it a week after I write it for the Austin American Statesman. My plan is to go to newspapers in university towns - Athens Ga, Madison Wi, Eugene Oregon. The problem with the plan is, of course, exactly what Scott points out in the article - the ethos of newspaper publishing has eroded.

Newspapers are much mythologized beasts - they have by and large contributed to the "softening" of manners that is the mark of liberal society, but they have done so unconsciously, as it were - from Pulitzer to the Chandlers to the Hearsts, media owners have commonly shared the political bent of Murdoch, yet they have depended on writers to provide their materials. Writers are a feu follet breed - normally, their cultural capital is in gross disproportion to the return they make on it. Hence, they are inclined to think of themselves as badly appreciated, which plants the seed of dissatisfaction with social arrangements as they are. And of course they pass through social circles in which the bourgeois norms are bent in any number of interesting ways. This doesn't necessarily result in liberalism per se - it can easily result in extreme reaction - but it shows itself around the edges even in the day to day work of creating establishment supporting narratives.