Readers and advertisers aren't at odds

Walter Isaacson, a former editor of Time, is keen on micropayments as the path to salvation for newspapers. Scott Rosenberg pithily explains the problem with micropayments and Kay Steiger explains some of the other problems with Isaacson’s view.

But what struck me was the misunderstanding Isaacson has about advertising:

Henry Luce, a co-founder of TIME, disdained the notion of giveaway publications that relied solely on ad revenue. He called that formula “morally abhorrent” and also “economically self-defeating.” That was because he believed that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue.

I’ve run both ad-supported publications and subscription-supported ones. One of the basics of publishing I learned very early on is that the one thing you can’t live without is readers. No one will want to advertise in your magazine (or newspaper or website or what have you) if no one is reading it. So wherever your revenue comes from, you have to serve readers first. So there doesn’t need to be any weakening of the bonds readers feel.

3 thoughts on “Readers and advertisers aren't at odds

  1. David Derrick

    I earned my living from ad-dependent publications (they were often good editorially), but I agree with Luce. There’s something depressing in the sight of piles of free newspapers in airport lounges. In London the always-free newspapers are all bad and you wouldn’t expect otherwise. And they’ve killed (more or less) what was once a fairly decent paper, the Evening Standard.

  2. David Derrick

    And it certainly isn’t always true that advertisers won’t advertise if nobody is reading, since they often advertise in publications which offer no research. They might be reading. On the other hand, they might not.

  3. Doug

    Here’s what I wrote to Isaacson:

    Dear Mr Isaacson,

    I read with great interest your essay on saving newspapers, in no small part because they are near and dear to my heart. I have seen first-hand what good newspapering can do: I was lucky enough to be part of the blossoming of English-language papers in Central Europe after the fall of Communism.

    Henry Luce was right about a publication’s first duty being to its readers, not to its advertisers. But in this day and age, particularly after the political era just past, that needs an extension. A publication’s first duty is to its readers, not to its advertisers, *or to its sources*. Time and time again, news publications present stories whose first purpose is to get the sources’ views before a larger audience. Whether or not readers are accurately informed is incidental. Readers have caught on to this game, and the papers are paying the price.

    One of the most egregious examples is a New York Times reporter agreeing to identify Scooter Libby as a “former Hill staffer” at a time when he was serving as Chief of Staff to the Vice President. What journalist whose first duty was to readers would ever do such a thing? What institution whose first duty was to readers would allow it?

    Alas, this is not an isolated example, particularly in coverage of Washington. A publication’s bond with readers may weaken if it does not depend on them for revenue; a reader’s bonds with a publication will weaken if it is not straight with them. News publications have been burning their most precious resource, credibility, at a prodigious rate for years. Is it any wonder that readers are looking elsewhere?

    Incidentally, I came to your essay via a link from Daily Kos. You may have heard of them.

    Best from Tbilisi,

    Douglas Merrill


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