Harvee, in my 30 years in newspapers, I've never see the industry under such intense pressure, as advertising revenue and readership shift to the online world. The squeeze has led many papers -- including the Baltimore Sun, where I work -- to reduce book coverage. And into the vacuum have come hundreds of bloggers.
Newspaper shouldn't blame bloggers for anything. Newspaper book sections have been slow to adapt to changes in reading habits -- how many regularly cover the social aspect of reading: book clubs, blogs or the topics discussed in Book Blog forums? Some papers, including the Sun with its Read Street blog, have changed their coverage, but most sections remain wedded to an old-fashioned formet.
It's tough to generalize about the quality of reviews -- it varies widely among newspapers, as I imagine it does among blogs on any topic. (And many newspapers use authors, professors and other outside sources for reviews rather than their own staffers.) But the great thing about the Internet is that readers can judge quality for themselves, and find a reviewer that matches their interests.
I love print reviews but I absolutely adore the personal response and the social reflection blogs offer. There are so many smart bloggers out there (Eve's Alexandria, litlove, Classical Bookworm etc) that it's ridiculous of print media writers to say bloggers are erroding the standard. It's making me sad to see so many papaers cutting down on their book review sections (the UK Times book section is so small now).
I personally feel that bloggers fill a niche. As Dave says, we fill a vacumn. And not only because of economic pressures. But also because we cover more books that newspapers could. I don't even know if the papers have ever covered half the authors I love to read, because they're not mainstream, haven't won awards, etc. And the socialization aspect of blogging isn't something that newspapers could fill, unless & until they adopt new technology.
I think print reviews, like real reviews done in independent periodicals and the daily free periodicals I get on my way to work (Metro and AM New York) give reliable opinions, and to be fair to bigger newspapers, I think the writers of the reviews would like to be honest about their reviews, but honestly, I would much rather listen to the opinion of a blogger, the same reason I would listen to the opinions of my friends, family, and Live Journal Friends Lists: I know them, therefore I can gauge my book preference based on their opinion and personality. And of course, there's the complete trust, that they're being completely honest.
Bloggers fill an important role in the book review process, entirely independent of the mainstream media newspapers and other periodicals. Bloggers can speak freely about the books they read, and provide honest opinion, undeterred by possible loss of advertising revenue. There is also a void that is filled by blogger reviewers for books from small press and independent publishers. At the same time, bloggers can provide important reviews for mid and down list books, along with the higher profile books, from the major publishers. Bloggers are also willing to review books from the major publishing house back lists, perhaps giving new life to older titles.
The overall value of blogger reviews is not one of competition with mainstream publications, but rather as an additional source of quality and honest reviews.Most bloggers have a specialized audience, who prefer certain genres of fiction and non fiction books. This targeted readership is crucial to adding word of mouth marketing to a book promotion. The more voices in mainstream or blog based media that are heard, all the better for authors and publishers. Bloggers are good partners with publishers, both large and small, and blog based reviews and interviews are a powerful source of publicity for authors and publishers.
With mainstream media cutting back on the number and types of book reviews carried, blogs fill an important review void that will only grow more important over time. Social media including Twitter and Facebook add powerful interaction between readers, reviewers, publicists, authors, and publishers. Social media, which at heart is the old general store relationship building, helps build trust and that leads to more and wider readership for a book. Blogs are a crucial link in that social media chain.
I was just thinking about book reviews in newspapers, and I can't honestly remember when I last read one. It has to be years. I read book reviews from bloggers, and have done so for a long time. I prefer the blogger reviews for their honesty and freshness. It also helps it the reader knows the blogger a bit from either long term reading, email and IM exchanges, or even from phone calls and in person meetings. It's always better to get an honest opinion from a friend. That sense of familiarity doesn't always exist, if at all, with newspaper reviewers.
I seldom read a review in the newspaper. Our paper does a very poor job of it and also has a very small number of books even mentioned. I also think authors still like to see their books reviewed in the papers, but the space there is limited to a few of the most famous and popular writers. There are so many places for an author to get their book reviewed on a blog and it's so easy then for a reader to find with a simple google.
While I enjoy reader the local city paper each morning, I fear it will soon pass. Why read national or international news that is usually at least twelve hours old when you can go online to a news site and get up to the minute news.