Why Does the Publishing Industry Seem Set on Destroying Itself?

Publishing Industry

The Time Inc. cover ads lead to sweeping, negative generalizations about our own industry. Why?

A couple issues have stirred the publishing-industry pot in the past week: The one I want to address here is regarding the Verizon Wireless cover ad on Time magazine (and on Sports Illustrated’s new issue), and the controversy over selling ads on magazine covers.

I am compelled to respond and try to add some dimension to some statements that, to me, seemed overly harsh and far too suggestive that all media falls into one big (ugly and conspiratorial) pot. A pot that people from our own industry seem all-too-ready to piss in.

Bob Garfield wrote an article for MediaPost in which he addressed the controversy developing over the cover ad on Time magazine, and frankly, it not only got my goat, but it also perplexed me. Here’s an excerpt:

“This [controversy] over a Verizon ad smaller than a matchstick, below the address label, where scarcely a human soul will ever notice it. One wonders what value it even offers the advertiser. One wonders something else, too:

Who cares?

Yes, true — having broken a longstanding taboo, Time Inc. will no doubt in due course expand the ad hole, first to a page-width ribbon and eventually to….well, let’s say the next Time Person of the Year may well be the “Can you hear me now?” guy. And the move is a categorical violation of the American Society of Magazine Editors’ proscription against cover advertising. As ASME CEO Sid Holt said recently, when Scholastic broke the same rule: “It’s unfortunate because it has the potential to tell readers and advertisers that editorial is for sale.”

Hahahahaha. Holt didn’t mean to say it this way, but he inadvertently confessed everything: In much of the magazine world, editorial has always been for sale – just don’t tell the readers. They’d be upset if they knew. ASME’s injunction has really just been a matter of appearances.”

Who cares? I do. And I’m betting a boatload of others in the industry care, or they wouldn’t be talking about it to such a great extent. And I’m pretty sure ASME hasn’t spent time and resources developing best practices for the industry as some sort of clever facade.

Publishing Industry

Garfield goes on to use native advertising as a case in point of editorial being for sale. But native advertising is more the modern-day equivalent of an advertorial in a print publication—it’s not the same as a cover ad, and guidelines and policies are quickly being developed to protect the readers from confusion over what is an ad and what isn’t. Native advertising, like advertorials, needs to be clearly labeled. Period. Confusing the readers is the first step to losing their trust.

Yes, of course some publications and digital media brands will push this to the farthest limits, to the extent that you can’t tell editorial from advertising. That is in bad form and another area for serious concern and industry guidelines. The FCC has even gotten involved.

Perhaps it’s my background as an editor, and my significant number of editor friends and colleagues whom I admire, but his statement—“In much of the magazine world, editorial has always been for sale – just don’t tell the readers.”—made my heart sink. And editors worldwide are likely foaming at the mouth.

At least he said “much of the magazine world” (not all of it). And yes, publications do exist out there where editorial is for sale. Many of those have long since died over the years. It’s always been a short-term strategy to get the fast buck. …

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