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September 13, 2007

How The Media Actually Works

In comments here, Mike of Angle provides some expert opinion:

As somebody who worked in the publishing biz for a while, I wanted to chip in a bit here.

1) The vast majority of print publications--newspapers and magazines--are sold for less than it costs to print, ship, and distribute them. If you're going to make a profit, it's going to come from advertisers. This makes their voice more powerful than readers'.

2) It's always easier to justify displeasure on the part of readers than advertisers. If you have 10,000,000 daily readers (5,000,000 that actually pay for it, and a rate-base of 8,500,000) and 2,000 advertisers, it's easier and cheaper to replace 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 readers than x dollars of ad contracts. And their logic is correct. How many of us still deliver our eyeballs to--or even pay for--the NYT, after Judith Miller? Sure it made us mad, but we still read.

3) Advertiser displeasure is felt immediately and goes straight to the bottom line: "Mr. DeBeers is on line four and he's hopping mad about the article on diamond-mining." Reader displeasure is felt mostly in retrospect: "Dear Sirs, I was deeply dismayed to read your irresponsible and one-sided blah-blah-blah..." "Well, we've gotten twenty of these. Maybe we should consider running an Ombudsman feature." "Ahh, don't worry about it--they'll find something else to complain about tomorrow."

4) What each advertiser provides is significant and concrete--x dollars of business--while what each reader provides is variable, miniscule, and difficult to quantify. I would imagine that a publication gets its circ audited no more than twice a year, and smaller publications even less frequently. If you run something that an advertiser doesn't like, you lose money today, and you know exactly how much you lose. If you run something a reader doesn't like, perhaps they write a letter; and perhaps they stop reading. But unless they also convince 100 of their friends to stop reading, the impact is vanishingly small. And even when it's not infinitesimal (rare), and can be tied definitively to x or y article (difficult), there is the assumption with a mass-market product that 100 readers paying 75 cents can be replaced a lot more cheaply and easily than an advertiser that pulls $100,000 worth of ads. Losing readers only costs you money if its significant enough to drop below your rate-base (which is usually lower than your readership, to give advertisers a good deal). A single article cannot lose you 1% of your circ, but it can cost you 1% of your advertising. If you're going to err, you err on the side of pissing off readers, not advertisers.

The proliferation of purely advertiser-supported venues since 1950 has made print much more susceptible to advertiser pressure. The lag time between cause and effect makes advertiser pressure much more immediate, targeted, and painful than reader discomfort. And the short-term nature of capitalism (and any publicly traded business) only increases these effects.

To be blunt--and with all due respect to anybody who disagrees--to believe that readers exert anywhere near the pressure that advertisers do, shows merely that the speaker has never been the editor or publisher of anything. But people WANT to believe this, because they're used to getting the Sunday NYT for cheap.

If you want a publication to be independent, you must be willing to pay the freight. Publications are not magically exempted from the rules of capitalism just because we wish they were.

Posted at September 13, 2007 03:25 PM | TrackBack

Since our institutions operate under "the rules of capitalism," a so-called "free press" must remain a civics lesson mirage. What would that "freight" be we'd have to pay to actually maintain a "free" (independent) press? $7.50 a daily paper? Did we experience slivers or fragments of it before the latest wave of capitalist aggressiveness and conquest? I suspect so--when I arrived in NYC in 1948 there were ten daily papers, including those carrying Murray Kempton and other independent spirits. But capitalism and its handmaiden, consumption, have decimated that spirit. Citizen-readers went along. And by now, how can they miss what they no longer know?

Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 04:02 PM

Doesn't this contradict your Iron Law of Institutions, at least on the part of advertisers? Surely it makes more sense for them to cynically advertise and advance their bottom line in popular publications rather than maintain the stranglehold of the capitalist viewpoint in the press?

Posted by: saurabh at September 13, 2007 04:31 PM

It's not a "stranglehold." It's an embrace.

Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 04:47 PM

Very good analysis, depressing though it may be.

Posted by: Batocchio at September 13, 2007 05:05 PM

Thanks, Batocchio. Spent ten years trying to start a national magazine, learned these lessons the hard way.

I don't necessarily think it's depressing. Printing, then moving all that paper around, is horrifically expensive, especially in this spread-out, newsstand-light country of ours. (This explains why there is a more vibrant print culture in, say, the compact UK.) The web removes those production/distribution costs; and so it's more possible than ever to make reasonable money with a reader-centric model. The margins aren't big enough for the mega-corporations, but there's a space for profitability there that sooner or later, people will exploit.

The key is educating your readership. If readers value editorial independence--and increased responsiveness to readers' concerns--they've got to be willing to pay a reasonable price. I think the effectiveness of the right-wing in this country is largely due to their acknowledgment that people who want to change the world should be prepared to pay for it.

There's nothing wrong with people wanting to get something for nothing (or cheaply); but readers should know what they lose as well as what they gain from a publication using an advertiser-centric model.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 13, 2007 05:31 PM

"So there's no necessary conflict between ideology and making money."
Making money is the ideology of the land. Is there another?

Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 06:23 PM


That was heart-wrenching. Thank you!

Posted by: saurabh at September 13, 2007 10:18 PM

amish people are better equipped to survive a post-global-warming world than anybody else

Posted by: almostinfamous at September 14, 2007 11:13 AM

I don't know if anyone here is a fan of HBO's "The Wire", but what with all this media talk, I'd recommend it when the 5th season hits in a few months.

They've examined the drug trade, police corruption, union corruption, political corruption, and failing inner-city schools in past seasons with an eloquence and amazing storytelling ability.

Next season? They attack the media. I'm sure all of these points will be addressed throughout the season, as they've never slouched before.

Posted by: B at September 14, 2007 12:59 PM

The same pretty much holds true of radio and television, no?

Posted by: Terrible at September 14, 2007 03:53 PM

The same pretty much holds true of radio and television too, no?

Posted by: Terrible at September 14, 2007 03:54 PM

Posted by Mike of Angle at September 13, 2007 05:31 PM

Fair points. Most of all, it's important to know how the game is played.

I have a friend (a film critic) who's often said the same about films versus TV. Roughly speaking, the audience are the customers for films. For TV, they're the commodity sold to advertisers. Roughly speaking.

In any case, at some point I'll attempt a post on these issues, but thanks to you and Jonathan Schwarz for some thoughtful material for that. When people talk about the bias in media, I think they often overlook that for most outlets a commercial bias is the strongest, above any partisan leaning. (Heavily-subsidized loss-leaders such as the Weekly Standard and the National Review are another matter.)

Posted by: Batocchio at September 14, 2007 04:18 PM