Newspaper book sections have been shrinking and disappearing for years, but rarely has the reaction been as vociferous as in the town that likes to call itself America's Finest City.
When the San Diego Union-Tribune – San Diego's daily newspaper – sacked Bob Pincus, a longtime journalist who served as arts critic and book editor, locals geared up a campaign to save his job and restore arts and book coverage. Protesters harangued the newspaper's editor, attracted hundreds of supporters on the Internet and organized a well-attended forum where they confronted the paper's editor.
The San Diego Union-Tribune has largely been unmoved by the protests from book readers. The paper's weekly book section occupies just a page (along with ads) in the Sunday edition; it used to be a stand-alone section.
The single page is still a victory of sorts, says local literary agent Sandra Dijkstra, who feared the book section would vanish entirely.
"The cultural level of the town keeps on diminishing as these kinds of cuts go forward," says Dijkstra. She believes local reviewers – and a local book section editor – contribute to a conversation about books.
Members of the local arts and book communities may feel especially stung by the newspaper cutbacks because of San Diego's reputation, or lack of one. While it's the nation's eighth largest city, San Diego has long toiled in the shadow of Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's much better known for its beaches and zoo than its authors and artists.
From the newspaper's perspective, the challenge is figuring out how to make a book section profitable. Book publishers and chainstores generally prefer to advertise in national publications, if they advertise at all. Independent bookshops might buy ads, but they're struggling to survive.
At the same time, the Union-Tribune is embracing ever more local coverage, figuring it makes more sense to devote its resources to stories that readers can't find elsewhere. Extensive book reviews don't fit into its vision.
Dijkstra is unswayed. Earlier this month, she helped organize the forum, which drew 150 to 200 people.
One forum panelist, a blogger with the local public radio station, told the audience that the Internet is picking up some of the slack left by newspapers when it comes to arts coverage. But book blogs aren't a replacement for high-quality local newspaper book sections, says Lizzie Skurnick, who runs a book blog called The Old Hag from Jersey City, N.J.
It's true, she says, that some book sections deserved to collapse because they failed to engage readers. But at their best, she says, the sections create a community around books, a place for people to gather.
When such a community vanishes, she says, "that's a loss whether it's on web or in print."
So what should you do if you mourn your own local book section? Head to your computer.
Literary agent Dijkstra says the Internet has been crucial to her fledgling movement. Years ago, she says, she fended off a threat to the Union-Tribune's book section by distributing letters to bookstores and asking patrons to send them to five people they knew and, for good measure, to the newspaper's publisher.
Now, thanks to the Internet, "it's easier than ever to round up a posse of people to stand up and be counted."
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer and book critic in San Diego.