In the beginning was the word. Advertising came later. Much later. But here we are in an era when editors are under more pressure than ever to bend, to accommodate advertisers, even at the cost of editorial erosion.
With a recession likely, magazines may be heading into the worst advertising drought in years. There will be less ad revenue, costs will be out of line and rising, and the pressure from advertisers is going to rise as well. At risk is publishing integrity, the separation of editorial and business matters at a magazine.
In an earlier era, publisher Henry Luce was fond of extolling the separation of “church and state” at Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated and his other publications. The credo that he worked with was written into his will when he died in 1967: “Time Incorporate is now, and is expected to be, principally a journalistic enterprise operated in the public interest.”
If Henry Luce were alive today, he would die. In the United States of Amarketing, magazines yield the editorial floor to advertising routinely. City mags rarely bite the hand that feeds them in their “Best” awards. There once was a time when these popular issues were called “Best & Worst” awards…but it’s all-best all the time now.
Pseudo magazines like airline publications are, for the most part, in the hands of advertising directors at contract publishing companies. Editorial is filled with favors, free trips, perks that require adoring coverage, and stories that are almost pure filler.
At many b-to-b’s, the pressure to yield to an advertiser’s demands is even more intense, for here advertisers have been courted and led to believe that the publication exists for them.
Some editors even go along on sales calls, rationalizing that while you must be a strong editorial product before you can be a business success, the job of a magazine is principally to make a profit. Or, as Mark Twain once observed, “Virtue has never been as respectable as money.”
Why do editors end up forced to think like the ad-sales department? Because most of them report to a publisher who has come up the ladder from the ad-sales side, and who doesn’t understand editorial very well, if at all. Some editors are even dubbed associate publishers. It is no surprise then that they manage the publication like the advertising vehicle it has always been for them.
Now considered a quaint oxymoron at some books, publishing integrity means that readers’ interests are placed ahead of all other considerations. This means keeping the reader in the room, and rejecting pressures from advertisers that blur the line between editorial and ad-driven content, which would diminish the publication’s credibility and integrity.
Some guidelines for separating church and state in tough times:
Ad reps should not promise edit review to advertisers.
Ad reps should be the first line of defense for editorial.
Ad reps should sell space, not editorial.
Editors should not make sales calls.
Editors should not promise editorial review to advertisers or contributors.
When providing product information, stories should focus on the user’s side, what the reader needs to know (not what the supplier wants to sell).
Editors should not make promises of editorial coverage to advertisers, PR firms, or the ad sales staff.
Publishers should not tell editors what stories to run or not to run.
Finally, a magazine should develop a written statement of advertising and editorial policies that provides fair treatment for all editorial and advertising parties and protects the publication from even the appearance of favoritism. Whether the times be easy or tough, publishing honesty is always the best policy.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of
Journalism, Ohio University. He is a partner at Brady & Paul
Communications, a publishing consultancy, and conducts editorial
workshops for professionals. For information on his Interviewer’s
Handbook: A Guerrilla Guide for Reporters and Writers, his Web site is johnbrady.info, or you can e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com.