For more than 25 years, I worked as an editor at a monthly magazine. My entire salary was paid, ultimately, by advertisers. It would be churlish of me to bite the hand that fed me. And yet, the destructive effects of advertising are hard to ignore.
The difficulty is, when advertisers are spending thousands of dollars every month (or, if the ads are in a newspaper, every day), they start trying to throw their weight around. The idealistic view of advertising is that the advertiser buys page space in which to display their ad. The reality is that sooner or later most advertisers will start trying to influence the editorial content of the publication.
They may object loudly to a feature that has already been published, and pull their ads (temporarily or forever). More subtly, they may suggest features that they would like to see published, features in which their products are favorably highlighted. It’s also very standard in the music industry for editors to be provided with free software and even hardware, a topic that would take us far enough astray that I may explore it in a separate blog entry. (Full disclosure: I have certainly benefited, and very significantly, from this practice.)
Various publications handle these pressures in various ways. Or rather, various publishers handle them in various ways. Ultimately, it’s up to the person sitting behind the publisher’s desk to decide how to respond to the pressures that are brought to bear.
From 1975, when Keyboard launched, through 1988, when the music magazine group was acquired by Miller Freeman Inc., the publisher was Jim Crockett. Jim was able to maintain a fairly effective barrier (the industry term is “firewall”) between the advertising side and the editorial side. The business was successful, which meant he could afford to take the high road — but also, he had been a writer and editor first. He understood the issues.
When Miller Freeman took over, little holes began to appear in that wall.
By the mid-1990s, when Greg Rule was the editor of Keyboard, the holes were too large for a little Dutch boy to plug any of them with his thumb. I remember Greg saying, more than once, that he wanted advertisers to “feel the love.” By this, he meant that he wanted advertisers to see that the editorial package (the features, columns, product reviews, etc.) supported their business in one way or another.
I am no longer on the staff of Keyboard, so I can’t speak to how such pressures are handled today. My strong impression is that the current editor, Steve Fortner, works very hard to put out a magazine that readers will find genuinely relevant and useful. But Steve is working within a business climate so harsh that I’m glad I’m no longer part of it.
The Internet has made life enormously more difficult for all print publications, for several reasons. Primarily, manufacturers now have potent new ways to reach potential customers, and readers have grown to expect content for free. But the firewall between advertising and editorial at Keyboard started to erode years before the Internet came along.
It’s the readers who are hurt by this erosion. Thought-provoking or inspiring features are not published — they’re never even considered. Hey, remember when Keyboard published long interviews with classical pianists? When was the last time that happened? Several factors have influenced the shift in content, but first and foremost, the mandate coming from the front office is to provide endless reams of coverage of new products.
Uncritical coverage, that is. To the best of my knowledge, the product reviews published by Keyboard (and I’ve written an enormous number of them over the years, both while on staff and, since 2002, as a freelancer) are honest, but even beneath the flimsy umbrella of technical honesty, stuff happens.
First, products that are badly designed, no matter how heavily advertised, tend not to get reviewed at all. Okay, it makes more sense (up to a point) to devote your limited page space to great new products that readers will want to know about. Even so, failing to call a turkey a turkey is dishonesty by omission. Second, because of the chronic shortage of page space in the magazine, there’s less room to discuss a product’s faults when you do review it. Faults that the reviewer judges are minor (however crucial they might be to a few musicians) tend not to be mentioned, in order to devote the limited space to the major features of the product. To be fair, the major features may be quite cool, but again, this is a case of dishonesty by omission.
Third, all product reviews go through a fact-check process prior to publication. The manufacturer is sent a draft of the review and given a few days to respond. Sometimes, the fact-check is exactly that. I’m always grateful to have the manufacturer point out to me that I’ve misunderstood a technical point — and believe me, it happens. But all too often, the “fact-check” is seen by the manufacturer as an opportunity to spin the review in a more positive direction. Where negative facts are mentioned in the review, the manufacturer will request that the negatives be presented in a dry, factual tone, a tone devoid of color and emotion. Naturally, they’re pleased for the positives to be presented in terms that are glowing with excitement! But defects are quite generally reported in a dull monotone, or hedged around with qualifications that the manufacturer has craftily articulated to the editor.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used the word “limitation” in a product review, when what I wanted to write was something like “stupid and inexplicable design flaw.” As a writer, you become so indoctrinated by the way things work that you don’t even try to write what you really think. Unless you think the product is terrific, of course. In that case, go for it!
The underlying problem is that the business people who run most magazines (not speaking specifically of Keyboard here, but if the shoe fits, wear it) care nothing at all about the readers. To them, the readers are no more than a product that they can sell to advertisers. The readers’ real needs don’t enter into the business calculation at any point. The readers’ needs and interests come into play at only one point: The circulation numbers have to be kept pumped up so that the advertisers can be assured of more eyeballs gazing at their ads.
Designing and maintaining an editorial package that will inspire long-term reader loyalty is not important. Such a package would be more expensive to produce, and it wouldn’t appeal as strongly to advertisers. The only thing that matters in the business office is the quarterly bottom line. Once the reader has bought a heavily discounted subscription … well, they won’t be renewing their sub until next year, and that won’t happen in this quarter, so we’ll worry about it later. Right now, we need to keep those ad dollars rolling in and not spend a nickel more than we have to on paper, staff salaries, or freelance writers.
It’s sickening, and I see no practical way to turn it around. I’m glad I’m retired, because I no longer have the patience to cope with this stuff.