Money vs. Merit

Friday 12th July 2019
a sinking ship in the sea

Or: Why So Many Titles are Tanking


“Do you advertise with us?”

Whenever I get this response from the editorial team at a print publication, I feel sad for them.  Why?  Because it’s the defining signal that they have taken a money over merit approach to their editorial content and struck a hole in their own ship that, however small, will see it sink.

This is a fairly obvious position to take for a studio engaged in content marketing; finding and sharing stories is our bread and butter and syndicating them out through media platforms (print or digital) amplifies them and can have significant PR benefits.  But it’s not a blinkered viewpoint; it’s a fact.  How many print publications have called it a day in recent years?  Lots, because the explosion of digital consumption and changing marketing spending has made the world a difficult place for print publications.  The obvious way to make up for falling sales and ad revenue was and has been for many publications to dangle the carrot of editorial mentions and features in order to entice or secure advertising revenue.  The result is that the content of the magazine – the very articles that people purchase it to read (because nobody buys them for the adverts) – is determined to a significant extent by the organisations and brands with the deepest pockets, regardless of how good their stories are.  The whole theatre becomes an act of product placement, sometimes clever and subtle and at other times awkwardly obvious.  Readers notice; readers don’t like to be sold to when they have asked to be entertained or informed, and readers stop buying.  Then, the magazine slowly slips under.  The survivors, so far, are the free publications that have more staff on their ad sales team than their editorial team (because you can’t lose sales when you distribute your magazine for free to every dentists, doctors and mechanic’s waiting room and you can’t sell it if the content is worthless) or the publications that prioritise great stories, minimise adverts, and whose readers and advertisers are happy to pay more to support a quality product.  The Surfer’s Journal falls in to the latter camp, having run the model of only having only six “sponsors” (long term advertisers) and a price point that indicates the high quality of the journalism contained within its pages, for many decades.  And it’s one of the few remaining surf media print magazines – certainly the best and without a doubt the flagship that inspires the other survivors.

The media landscape is more dynamic right now than it has been for many decades, but print media is stabilising having been battered by the digital storm, which itself is on the wane as many online platforms have struggled to monetise and maintain their output.  What are left are the polarised fleets – the heavy-on-ad and thin-on-editorial freebies or glossy survivors, and the expensive matte-paper long-read journals.  Both have their place; but I know which I’d rather sail with if I had to choose.