Kamikaze magazines: don’t be duped by ‘paid for’ editorial offers

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THERE’S a worrying trend that’s been creeping into magazine publishing over the past few years, and it seems to be getting worse.

We tigers are sick to the back teeth of being asked to pay for advertising space in order for magazines to run news stories. It goes against every law in journalism, it’s wholly unfair to the business associated with the press release and it breaches some pretty important publishing guidelines. What’s more, as far as we’re concerned, it’s a sure fire way to stop us EVER wanting to place spend with said publication and we’d probably advise our clients to do the same.

The thing is, everyone at Turquoise Tiger is a trained journalist. We’ve worked our way from the lowly ranks of junior reporter, all the way up to editors and publishing directors; we know what makes a good story and we know how journalism’s supposed to work.

Here’s a simple checklist all editors worth their salt should follow:

  1. Is there a real news angle?
  2. Does it fit with our readership in terms of circulation and topic?
  3. Is there space? Is it strong enough to push something else off the page if not? Is it too time sensitive to hold over until the next edition?

If all appropriate boxes are ticked, the piece will run. Never – NEVER – should advertising spend have any bearing on whether a genuine news or feature story should run.

How times change!

In my dim and not-too-distant past, I was involved with revamping a number of flagging business to business titles. In every case, I had to stand my ground with advertising sales staff who didn’t quite understand why we shouldn’t just bolster the coffers by running ad-heavy copy in the news section, as a way of encouraging companies to advertise. Every time, I explained why this was a short-term solution that, ultimately, would result in the death of the publication. Every time I explained why, said sales person completely understood and stopped trying to push the issue.

Here’s why promising ‘ed for ad’ doesn’t work long-term:

  1. By and large, people like to read good quality content. That’s why they’re called NEWSpapers, not ADpapers.
  2. If we scrap editorial integrity in favour of ad spend, the quality gradually begins to slide. Once this happens, we start to see ‘news’ stories with no real angle and feature pieces that are very obviously advertising puffs.
  3. Over time, readers will notice the change in editorial content and feel fed up with being duped into reading advertisements in place of quality articles. Eventually, they’ll stop reading altogether.
  4. When people stop reading, the very advertisers who pushed for product plugs in the news pages will stop giving said magazine their spend. What’s the point of advertising in a publication nobody reads?
  5. The magazine is dead in the water.

Honestly, it’s not rocket science. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

I don’t know whether the current trend is down to desperation because of a tough economic climate, or if it’s down to too many sales people having overall control of editorial teams (yet another no-no in our book!), but whatever the reason, the fact is they’re heading towards a situation where NOBODY will see the ad you’ve paid for OR the editorial you’ve forked out to have placed.

Here are a few points to think about:

  1. Next time one of these problem magazines approaches you for advertising copy, try turning the tables on them. Explain that you place your spend with magazines who support you with genuine editorial opportunities, and that you’ll be happy to consider advertising with them if you’re given due consideration when editorial opportunities arise.
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask about readership. There’s a massive difference between circulation and readership and, although readership figures are notoriously difficult to ascertain, any magazine worth working with should be able to give some steer on reader demograph and, ideally, reading habits (ie, which sections are most popular, whether magazines are kept or thrown away, etc, etc).
  3. Regardless of how impressive the circulation might seem (and do they have ABC figures to back up their claims?), put yourself in your customers’ shoes. Have you seen the magazine yourself? Do you bother to pick it up and read it? If not, why not? Is it because it’s stuffed with ad features posing as news stories? If so, you have your answer right away.
  4. If they insist they’ll only run editorial if you advertise, or if they try to entice you to spend more by promising an extended editorial, you might want to mention they’re in breach of PPA (Periodical Publishers Association) guidelines. They state that any paid-for editorial MUST be clearly marked as an advertising feature and that readers must not be misled into believing that paid for copy forms part of the editorial section. You can read more about this here.

To be clear, not every business-to-business or local magazine is guilty – there are still plenty of really great editors out there who still pride themselves on editorial integrity, and there are plenty of fine salespeople out there who understand that stories should be placed on editorial merit, which is totally divorced from ad spend. By and large, these will be the publications respected within their fields, the ones people genuinely want to support, and the ones who clearly mark any paid-for editorial as ‘advertising feature’.

So there you have it; nobody’s business coffers are bottomless these days, so be careful when placing your ad spend and, now you know the rules, don’t get burnt!

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3 Responses to Kamikaze magazines: don’t be duped by ‘paid for’ editorial offers

  1. Well said!
    I used to edit and do ad sales for my own small local magazine and I always made sure that the ads did not overrun the content. As you say, a boring publication does nobody any good!
    I did offer some of our advertisers first dibs on writing columns for us from time to time for but only under strict guidelines! For example we had a great landscape gardener that advertised with us so we invited her to write a feature on how-to create your own wildflower garden. The article gave lots of great info and in no way made our readers feel they ‘needed’ to hire the gardener but it did mention her business in the author box. It was a winning situation for everyone involved.
    Some newspapers and magazines are struggling, and if they don’t offer real value they may not survive, so this is advice worth taking note of.

    • Taz says:

      Thanks Gemma. I don’t see any problem with offering a genuine editorial opportunity to someone who happens to advertise – so long as it’s good, generic copy. The problem is when the reverse happens – when advertisers are given endless free plugs, with little editorial value. I’d always expect blatant ad messages to be charged for & branded as advertising, but genuine, good quality editorial should stand up on its own & should not be charged for.

  2. Well said indeed! My concern is that some popular blogs seem to get into the same route. Can you see that too? Clever you to advice turning the table around. I like that and will definitively try it.

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