One of the most critical issues a book review editor faces is in how to cover a book written by one of its staffers or regular contributors. So when HEARTSICK, the much hyped thriller by Oregonian columnist Chelsea Cain, was published last week, the paper had to figure out how to approach what might seem very biased coverage. “Would anyone who knows the connection between author and newspaper ever believe the review or article is an independent piece unbiased by the existing relationship?” asked the Oregonian managing editor Therese Bottomly.
The solution proposed by the Books section was a self-interview by Cain. Jeff Baker, Books editor, says The Oregonian already had profiled Cain in 2004 and had published a news item when she got her book deal. Now that publication of the book was imminent, a Q&A was the preferred option, in his view, but Baker couldn’t do it (as her sometimes editor). Time was growing short, and Barry Johnson, arts editor, suggested a self-interview, first as a joke. But the idea grew on him, and Baker signed on. “I thought it was a great idea, if executed properly, and pitched it to Chelsea,” Baker said. “She loved it and wrote what I thought was a smart piece that was light and covered the factual bases.”
But did it serve the paper’s purpose? The editors say no. “The Oregonian should have commissioned an independent freelance review, as it does for staff-written books. The review could then have also disclosed Cain’s connection to The Oregonian,” Bottomly concluded. “That approach would have served all of our goals: to be transparent with readers, to preserve editorial independence and to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest and to give readers information they want.”