STEPHEN SMITH: Hitting Home: Loss of N&O's Peder Zane Comes as a Blow
Reports of the death of the newspaper industry might be a trifle exaggerated, but cutbacks in newsrooms across the country are a sad reality for journalists and readers alike.
Last summer, The News & Observer of Raleigh offered buyouts to 300 employees, and since that time, there have been further job cuts.
For anyone who reads "the Raleigh paper," the transformation is obvious -- and disheartening. There are fewer weekday pages, fewer features, fewer hard-news stories, and thus less comprehensive coverage of life and turmoil in North Carolina and the world. The Monday edition hardly exists. Its op-ed page is downright anorexic. And timely sports coverage has not only diminished, it's almost vanished.
But for this reader, the moment that brought home the severity of the recession and magnitude of the paper's downsizing occurred on April 19, when columnist J. Peder Zane published "As I Take My Leave," his final column for the N&O.
For more than 12 years, I've unfolded the N&O every Sunday morning and turned immediately to the book page, or more recently to the Arts & Living section, to read Zane's column. And what I know is this: The N&O will be a lesser paper without him.
Zane was a rare bird to begin with -- a book-page columnist, a luxury few newspapers bother with in a time when canned book reviews and cribbed PR packets dominate many book pages, if newpapers even have book pages.
Zane's reviews were always insightful, fair, expansive, and thought-provoking, and he had a rare gift for organizing the page and selecting the correct books to be reviewed. He never shied away from literary controversy, and he wasn't intimidated by big-name authors.
He kept the literary community up to date with area readings at libraries and bookshops, and he initiated the inclusion of original poetry and fiction in the book section. More to his credit, he prevailed upon Fred Chappell, the state's poet laureate at the time, to write critical essays for the N&O, a coup as far as the N.C. writing community was concerned.
Moreover, he published at least two books while he was book-page editor -- "Remarkable Reads: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books," and "The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books," both published by W.W. Norton & Company. Zane compiled a list of the greatest books by British and American authors, and he came up with "Anna Karenina,""Madame Bovary," "War and Peace," "Lolita," and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," a ranking with which few readers would disagree.
But his greatest contributions were his columns, many of which were only tangentially related to the publishing world. After he was promoted -- at least I thought it was a promotion -- to edit the Arts & Living section, he ventured off into territory that involved a degree of risk for any writer working in the South, as with his columns advocating the removal of the Confederate monument located on the grounds of the old state Capitol. Zane took a lot of heat for suggesting we change the past, but he took it gracefully and replied logically.
His writing was always energized, and his columns flowed with an effortlessness that can only be achieved through vigorous revision -- he no doubt worked hard to eliminate that worked-on feeling. I never read a Zane column that didn't teach me something of value.
A few years ago, Zane spoke at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, discoursing on the written word and book reviewing, and I had a chance to talk with him at lunch. He was knowledgeable and exceedingly modest -- and we shared an enthusiasm for the Oxford American, the finest literary magazine now published.
Last fall, he presided at an induction to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Before the ceremony, I asked him about the layoffs at the N&O.
"I'm not out of the woods yet," he said.
Unfortunately, he spoke with his usual insight.
Contact Stephen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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