The advertisers are now the ones in charge?

Rule one, “He (she or it) who pays the piper calls the tune.’

There are other rules which you might want to keep in mind.

Rule two, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

Rule three, “Pay peanuts, hire monkeys.”


These are all simple, while tried, maxims which have stood the test of time and are bitter and cynical enough to survive even into the internet age.

But it’s the internet age that is now showing how, deep down, these three rules still count.

As well as my time consuming professions of farming, writing books and suchlike, (all guaranteed not to put too much strain on my amateur status) I also do freelance journalism.

And here again we’re seeing a field of endeavour evolve in front of our eyes. When I first sent copy to magazines, I typed it using a typewriter, double spaced, and kept a carbon copy for myself. The good copy I put in an envelope and posted it, courtesy of the Royal Mail, to the editor.

Then we had fax, which probably wasn’t a particularly big advance.

Then we got word-processors and email.

Now the editor is the important person, the editor is the one who decides what is wanted, so as a freelance, you aim to write stuff in a style that the editor will like. He or she is the customer (editors are rarely ‘it’) and your job is to keep the customer satisfied. From the publisher’s point of view the editor should know their readers and ensure that the periodical is optimised to appeal to those readers, but that’s their problem. For the freelance it’s the editor who commissions, it’s the editor who decides.

Anyway over a similar period, magazines and newspapers got caught up with technology and went onto the web. The web is fabulous, provided you don’t want to get paid. Some stuff goes behind a pay-wall and I suspect a lot of people are like me, if google leads me to an article behind a pay-wall, I just go back to google and take the next suggestion that doesn’t.

But for magazines the web offers a possible future. You get rid of two big costs, printing and distribution. So you can make your product cheaper and still make the same money. But how do you collect the money?

If the reader isn’t willing to pay who do you turn to? Well a lot of print magazines and newspapers have relied on advertisers for many years. Some have entirely relied on advertisers, giving their paper away free. OK the reader gets a free paper but editors get remarkably nervous about upsetting advertisers and the editor can find his advertising department giving him a timetable showing what sort of articles they need to go with the adverts they hope to get. Even if the advertiser doesn’t realise it, doesn’t want it and would be horrified by the prospect, the advertiser can be dictating the content.

And now I’ve come across another model. Rather than having your readers come to the webpage where the advertiser can tell how many visitors click on their stuff, you post the periodical out attached to an email. You then tell the advertiser that you’ve sent it out to 10,000 (or however many) people. You’re telling the truth and the advertiser hasn’t a clue how many of them read it.

But along with this I’ve known publishers decide that, actually, there are plenty of people out there who will write stuff for nothing, so rather than employ professionals, you just need an editor who will tidy up the free stuff (often press-releases issued by companies you hope will advertise) and frantically rewrite stuff found in blog posts and other strange corners of the web so it’s not easily traceable. This is a lot cheaper than actually paying people for independently produced content.

Now the reader might not like this, but unfortunately the reader is largely irrelevant, because the editor isn’t putting together a magazine to please readers and get more of them to buy, the editor is putting together a magazine to please advertisers and to convince them that their advertising budget is well spent.

And because they’re the ones paying, one can only assume that advertisers will get the publications they want.


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13 thoughts on “The advertisers are now the ones in charge?

  1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 12, 2016 at 2:05 pm Reply

    You get what you pay for – and that’s about what it’s worth.

    We’ve removed the gatekeepers – and now we have nothing but what sells.

    At least more people have access, but it also means more opinions clamoring to be listened to. It’s amazing how much information humans who care can take in and that any of it makes sense, and the buses still run.

    It used to seem as if there were a few opinions handed down from on high, and that was then supported in movies and books and the media. We were all on one page.

    Except we weren’t, because so many people were left out of the calculations. Ask any single mother whose husband didn’t return from WWII how she felt when the government told all women to go home from the factories and leave the jobs to the men.

    The one advantage may be that we can no longer pretend these ‘universal stories’ were serving everyone.

    • jwebster2 September 12, 2016 at 2:15 pm Reply

      we’ve removed the gatekeepers, but we’ve also phased out a level of ‘peer review’. For example I’ve regularly been told by people that “You ought to cover that story.” Unfortunately I’ve already investigated that story and discovered that it isn’t a story, or it’s an entirely different story to the one they think.
      There’s always been the issue of interpretation, but before we can even think about interpretation, we have to get the facts right and that is where a lot of the stuff on the web falls down.
      The old system was not perfect but at least there was the concept of ‘fact checking’

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 13, 2016 at 3:03 am

        There was the fact checking of responsible journalists who would be in hot water if they got the facts provably wrong – slander laws apply.

        And editors supposedly had fact-checkers available for books and magazines and newspapers.

        There were requirements that pieces of evidence be corroborated by several sources.

        Some publications still try to be rigorous. When I see some of the tiny corrections that, say, The NY Times will put out about an article they published, it implies the rest of their ‘fact’ are considered accurate. But after seeing their reporting on topics in self-publishing I know to be otherwise, I don’t believe the NYT in particular, and other sources with an agenda in general. Advertisers are hard to find in these days, and if you anger them, they may take their money elsewhere. So there is a slant toward traditional publishing, and a habit of manipulating ‘bestseller’ lists (which are called that, but are produced and adjusted by a mystery process).

      • jwebster2 September 13, 2016 at 6:28 am

        the impact of advertisers is probably more powerful than the advertisers realise. I know one editor and owner of a industry analysis magazine who will not take advertising, he has subscribers who pay so many pounds a year and get their magazine posted to them. That way he feels he is totally independent.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 13, 2016 at 6:31 am

        When your revenue is dropping, you are going to be reluctant to antagonize your biggest advertisers. It IS a conflict of interest in many cases.

        If your readers will support you without ads, then they will be paying more.

      • jwebster2 September 13, 2016 at 6:42 am

        exactly. and the publisher has to pander to the whims of those who’re paying for it.

  2. Mick Canning September 12, 2016 at 4:37 pm Reply

    i would call you a miserable old cynic, Jim, if it wasn’t for the fact that I know you’re right.

    • jwebster2 September 12, 2016 at 4:40 pm Reply

      even a stopped watch is right twice a day 🙂

      • Mick Canning September 12, 2016 at 4:41 pm

        …and a working one is right all of the time!

  3. ashokbhatia September 12, 2016 at 5:51 pm Reply

    We appear to be living in times when the packaging and the promotion is more important than the product or the service itself!

    • jwebster2 September 12, 2016 at 5:54 pm Reply

      well people aren’t willing to pay, and the internet has been encouraging them to expect it ‘free’.

  4. M T McGuire September 14, 2016 at 12:09 pm Reply

    That’s a very astute article. Cynical but astute, I’d say. We have to relearn that things cost money, or we have to change or economic system.

    • jwebster2 September 14, 2016 at 12:37 pm Reply

      Absolutely, if people expect to get something for nothing, others will learn to give them things that are worthless

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