Media World: Are magazines selling out to advertisers?

Recently, The New York Timesexplored the increasingly blurry question of journalistic integrity. Many magazines, desperate for revenue, are edging closer to selling cover space to advertisers, and media watchers are trying to define the line between editorial and advertising content.

Right now, the primary defender of journalistic integrity is the American Society of Magazine Editors. The ASME, which runs the National Magazine Awards, rules on the dividing line between editorial and advertising, and only rewards those magazines that, in its estimation, keep the two separate. Unfortunately, in an age of dwindling readership and plummeting revenue, many publications are having to make the painful choice between their survival and their eligibility for the prestigious NMAs.

In the idealized, Clark Kent school of dedicated journalism, integrity is an absolute, and a writer never, ever, ever modifies his or her story to suit the whims of his readers, advertisers, and editors. In reality, however, journalistic integrity is a lot blurrier. Editors and writers choose stories with an eye toward their audience, and skew their reportage toward what their readers want to hear. While news outlets routinely hire writers that contravene their dominant philosophy, these nods toward a broader spectrum often go under the moniker "the token conservative," "the other side," or "Alan Colmes."

The question, then, becomes where, exactly, the line lies between reasonable and excessive editorial involvement. One editor I know, who still works at a regional magazine, used to regularly inveigh against the dangers of "editorial sluttiness," a term that could be defined as "stories in which the reportage panders to the desires of a particular advertiser or other powerful audience." Even so, the editor in question tasked one writer with doing an article on unfair tax levies on rich property owners. When the reporter discovered that the municipality was actually cutting major tax breaks for wealthy homeowners -- including the magazine's publisher -- the editor quickly killed the story.

One doesn't even have to go to such lengths to find a case of weak editorial morals. After all, the very media outlets that report on celebrities and popular trends have a major role in creating those trends. In a very real way, even a negative movie review is a form of advertisement, in that it draws attention to a flick. More to the point, popular magazines survive by giving readers what they want, and most magazines that routinely challenge their core readership don't tend to stay in business for very long.

To be completely fair, it's important to note that editorial virtue is also a major concern in internet writing, including -- ahem! -- blogs. The process of reader response, which can be slow and Byzantine in print, is lightning-fast on the internet, and websites aggressively track page loads. These, in turn, affect everything from ad revenues to lines of inquiry to the popularity of certain writers.

(While we're on the topic, would you mind hitting the "refresh" button? Thanks!)

The defining point, which many magazines seem to be crossing, is when a publication chooses its stories based on the desires of its advertisers. While text-heavy "special advertising sections" have long masqueraded as legitimate articles, the specific metric that is currently under scrutiny is magazine covers. For many media outlets, cover advertising has long been sacrosanct, the point of no return, the line that dare not be crossed. Ignoring the fact that George Clooney's face on a cover automatically promotes his latest movie or that a shot from Watchmen is essentially an advertisement for the flick, actual paid ads are a definite no-no.

However, in an age of declining readership and falling advertising revenues, the front page may be the last hope for many magazines, and even the most respectable glossies are getting closer to crossing the point of no return. As the NYT reported, Esquire has long been designing covers that make it almost impossible to avoid reading ads, and ESPN the Magazine recently put out an interactive cover that was linked to an ad.

On a broader level, there is a question about why, exactly, the front page is the invisible line in the sand. With advertisers funding expensive 3-D cross promotions in many of Time, Inc.'s magazines, there is a very real chance that the fundamental barrier between journalism and advertising has already been breached. In the context of that development, the cover is little more than a piece of very lucrative advertising real estate.
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