Monday, April 8, 2013

FOR SALE: the American free press

(Where print publishing is headed)
My husband has spent over 30 years editing magazines. His company now publishes fewer than half the number of magazines they did a decade ago, and the number of employees has been significantly reduced. He feels some sympathy for the situation described in a recent New York Times article, "Sponsors Now Pay for Online Articles, Not Just Ads," "if the articles are clearly marked," he said, "and they don't promote the companies' products." Right, I said, and the camel's nose under the tent flap isn't hurting anybody.

I understand why magazines are turning to sponsored articles. Most of us would rather read our magazines online, though we have no intention of paying for the privilege of doing so. Unfortunately, advertisers are not willing to pay as much for online ads as they once did for print ads, possibly because consumers have learned how to block them. (I use Adblock Plus, which is great for now, but they're starting to let "more useful and pleasant" ads past their censors, which may soon render them useless to ad-avoiders like me.) With dropping revenue from consumers and advertisers, magazines have a hard time paying for original research, reporting, writing, and editing. The temptation to use sponsored articles is strong.

It's good for spouses to have common interests, so my husband and I both chose careers in a doomed industry that pays poorly. What could possibly go wrong? My work has been in book publishing, which has its own share of problems. A decade ago my little college town had a Borders and a Barnes & Noble. Now we have to get our books from Amazon or, more often, from the public library. Read another recent New York Times article, Scott Turow's "The Slow Death of the American Author," and weep.

Turow, who is president of The Authors Guild, is not complaining about his remuneration: his books have sold over 25 million copies. He simply notes that authors of e-books earn "roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty"--unless they are pirated, lent, or re-sold, in which case they earn nothing at all. And since an e-book never wears out, why would anybody pay for a new one?

I didn't put a newspaper in my toilet photo, because I don't have an actual newspaper. We stopped subscribing to the Chicago Tribune about the time a good friend of mine, seeing the handwriting on the wall, took early retirement. She's glad she did: during the last decades, hundred of editors, writers, and reporters have been laid off, and pension benefits have dramatically decreased. Like everyone else, I read my news online now. As my mother once asked under other circumstances, why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?

But what's going to happen now that we all expect to get our news, our magazine articles, and our books free of charge? If newspapers can't afford to hire good reporters and editors, news will deteriorate into shouting matches based on uninformed opinion. If magazines can't afford to pay their writers and editors, they will first try to turn into advertising delivery systems and then, failing that, go out of business. If book publishers lower royalty rates and refuse to take a chance on new or little-known authors (i.e., authors who are not yet "brands"), careful thinking and writing will be replaced by self-published schlock. Oh, right... those aren't predictions. They're descriptions of what has actually happened over the last decade.

Q. So where will our reading material come from? 
A. From businesses with products to sell, of course.

It's an American tradition. The current Supreme Court has decided that businesses have the right to sponsor political candidates. For many years cigarette makers sponsored the research that found no link between smoking and cancer. Nowadays manufacturers of sugary products sponsor dubious nutritional research. Why shouldn't businesses sponsor news, commentary, and entertainment, not only by advertising, but also by providing content? Especially if they're not specifically mentioning their own products in the articles they supply?

Well, one wonders how much of the camel will follow his nose into the tent. And one thinks of the old adage that he who lies down with dogs (or camels) gets up with fleas. For a fascinating first-hand look at how advertising influenced women's magazines before 1990, read Gloria Steinem's (possibly pirated) article "Sex, Lies & Advertising." For a fascinating first-hand look at how advertising is influencing all forms of media today, just stay online.

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