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. These publications are the ones that, in my opinion, don’t have much of a life to begin with, are looked down on by both the industry (editors, at least) and readers (who are not stupid). These publications are the ones that will certainly never gain the level of trust needed to sustain an audience of engaged readers. This is not the common practice; in fact, I find it to be the exception rather than the norm. It certainly is not an accepted practice.

So why are some in the industry up in arms over the Time magazine cover ads? For exactly the reason Garfield says: “let’s say the next Time Person of the Year may well be the “Can you hear me now?” guy.” Or the Verizon CEO.

That type of advertising infringement is an extreme and takes the editorial control away from the editor, whose job it is to know what will resonate with readers, to engage them and to build trust with them.

When you start selling ads on magazine covers, however small and clearly labeled, that is the fear—that that control will be whittled away (yielded to the advertiser) until the Verizon CEO is Time’s Person of the Year. Maybe that won’t happen, but that’s the reason lines have been drawn that say that you just don’t do that. As we in the editorial industry often say, “When you give a little, it opens up a whole new can of worms.”

It’s a legitimate fear. Revenue from advertisers is extremely difficult to turn down, and advertisers are known for pushing for as much infringement into editorial as they can get. (And it’s understandable for them to try.) It’s a fine line that has been the setting for a never-ending battle between publishers and editors.

But Garfield’s comment that most upset me is “don’t tell the readers.” You publish an article for the masses to read, and suggest that virtually the entire industry is involved in a conspiracy to trick the readers. WHAT??? If there are several nails in the coffin of the magazine/media industry, you just sealed it shut.

Sweeping generalizations like this do nothing but hurt the industry. Why? There are so many magazines out there with quality editorial that serve readers in so many industry segments: mass market, enthusiast, business-to-business, association, etc. And so many magazine editors (as I said, I believe it to be the majority) protect editorial standards at all costs.

Editors are good at what they do for several reasons, but the really good ones protect the reader from being tricked (to the contrary of what Garfield suggests). I seriously doubt Time Inc. has intentions of “tricking” readers, regardless of what develops from this new cover-ad initiative. But they have opened a can of worms, and we’ll have to see what that can of worms becomes.

Editors have even resigned when pushed too hard to compromise on the ad-edit separation, as they built their careers and a great deal of trust on this long-established separation, and won’t risk confusing or tricking the reader. How about telling the readers that?



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