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Regarding Media

Bastions of Braininess Rethinking Priorities

April 19, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

University presses, one of the pillars of American intellectual life, are in trouble, beset by mounting financial losses and an ongoing identity crisis.

The latest victim of this trend is the University of California Press, the West's most prestigious publisher and, as measured by sales revenues, one of its largest.

As part of a general retrenchment, the UC Press no longer will produce books on philosophy, architecture, archeology, political science or geography. It will publish dramatically less literature and far fewer works of literary theory. Twelve jobs already have been eliminated through attrition, and further job cuts are planned.

"We lost more than $1 million last year, and other large university presses had losses in the same range," said Lynne Withey, the acting director of UC Press. "In fact, all of the major university presses lost money in the last fiscal year. Some of us just lost more than others."

Although the press is one of the nation's most important scholarly publishers, the University of California subsidizes just a little more than 7% of its budget. The rest must come from sales revenues, which last year amounted to $15 million from books and $3 million from journals.

"It was a very bad year for the big university presses," Withey said.

"We can't just trim a little here or cut a little over there anymore. We need to make changes in the kinds of books we publish."

To decide what those changes would be, the UC Press enlisted the consulting firm of McKinsey and Co., which offered its help pro bono. The consultants' recommendation, according to Withey, was that UC follow the lead of MIT and reduce its list to those fields where its sales are strongest. MIT, for example, now publishes works in only a handful of disciplines and subspecialties, including art and architecture, cognitive science and German philosophy.

McKinsey, Withey said, "came up with a formula under which we will do 80% of our business in six fields where we're already strong"--history, anthropology, sociology, religion, biology and natural history.

"It was very hard to abandon things like philosophy, which is a core discipline in the academy," Withey said. "The whole process has been a series of painful decisions, but we didn't have any choice in the matter."

At least one UC scholar was, well, philosophical about the cutbacks. "Given the reality of the marketplace as a force in our lives, there is only so much money you can lose," said John R. Searle, a professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley. "Obviously I want more books to be published--especially, good philosophy books--but you can't go on losing money on them forever," said Searle, whose work has made him one of the world's most important philosophers of mind and language.

But another of Berkeley's leading scholars disagrees. "Even apart from this cutback, the mandate of university presses has been gravely undermined over the past few years," said Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature. "The idea originally was that bringing out serious works that were a contribution to scholarship, but not viable for a commercial publisher, was the university press' obligation to the world of knowledge.

"Let's say, for example," said Alter, "that you were doing a monograph on an obscure--now unread--English romantic poet. Traditionally, a university press would feel they needed to publish that work, though perhaps only in an edition of 800 copies. That impulse is almost entirely gone."

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State of Broadcast News

Sunday, the deans of America's nine leading journalism schools will gather at the Bay Area home of philanthropist Walter H. Shorenstein--founder of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government--to discuss "the terrible state of broadcast news," according to their host, Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's graduate school of journalism.

Schell said he would like to see the deans "knit together a collective voice" with which they can address "commercial broadcasting's long slide away from quality news coverage."

"On our minds most selfishly," Schell said, "is the question of where our students will be able to find dignified jobs in broadcast news. Hardly a week goes by that I don't have trooping through my office somebody in television news who is looking for a place to jump. Many are broadcast journalists at the top of their careers, people in good outlets with big salaries. They feel deprived of dignity by what they have to do. They're depressed, and I don't blame them.

"So we thought we might all get together and talk about what we can do. I think we all agree that we need to do more research on exactly what the drafters of the Communications Act of 1934 had in mind when they said broadcasters have 'to operate in the public interest.' What is the role of the marketplace, which in my mind is deeply implicated in the qualitative implosion of broadcast news?

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