March 28, 2009

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Some do. My long-time favorite magazine is The Sun. I bought one of the first issues Sy Safransky sold on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, in 1974, and found myself writing regularly for the magazine for several years after that, watching it improve with every issue.

Back near the turn of the 80s, Sy and his staff decided to improve the magazine by getting rid of advertising. They did that by becoming a non-profit; but that was secondary to the main purpose, which was to become an instrument for readers and writers, and not of one for advertisers. In other words, advertising was beside the magazine’s journalistic points. The Sun publishes for readers, and readers pay the magazine for good writing. Not surprisingly, The Sun’s subscribers are highly involved, contributing an abundance of letters, plus my favorite section: Readers Write (on a different topic every month).

My point is that it’s possible to have an excellent journal that lives on subscriptions, which are a value-for-value exachange. In the VRM community we propose another: PayChoice, which I wrote about in my last post. The idea here is for readers (or listeners, or viewers) to pay any amount for anything they like. The price is not under the seller’s control. Nor are other forms of signalling by the customer.

Direct support from readers (or listeners, or viewers) matters more and more for media where advertising contributes less and less. I’ve been thinking about this lately, as I contemplate a world with fewer (or no) newspapers and many fewer magazines.

Both newspapers and magazines have been supported in most cases primarily by advertising and secondarily by subscriptions. When print publications need to cut overhead, it’s the writers who get cut. Sometimes whole sections go away. The Boston Globe killed its Northwest section last week. Far as the Globe is concerned, where we live is now West. And how long will that last?

I pay the same for the Globe every week, but they deliver less and less, because their advertisers are buying less and less space. Yet I don’t read the Globe for the ads. I read it for the writing, the editorial content. Would I pay more, to take up the slack? Or would I look for the Globe to cut overhead other than just editorial? The latter, I would think. Still, either way, I’m a paying customer.

As a paying customer with an interest in seeing the Globe survive, I would like to know what the costs of producing the paper itself are. What are the costs of printing and distributing the paper? And what are the costs just of editorial? Never mind advertising for a minute, and what it buys. Just tell me what it costs to support the editorial staff, and to put the paper up online.

What would I have to pay if there were no advertising?

I’d ask the same of magazines.

Just fact-seeking here.

Where I’m going is toward where The Sun is today. I’d like to help publications survive by subscriptions and other forms of direct payment, rather than by advertising.

I’m not against advertising here. I’m just trying to pull the topics apart so they’re easier to discuss.

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