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Magazines Feel Increased Pressure From Advertisers

Publishing: As more firms threaten to cancel ads if they dislike story content, fear of self-censorship by editors grows.

March 31, 1998|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three years ago, Ford Motor Co. canceled its advertising in the New Yorker for six months after the magazine quoted sexually graphic rock lyrics in a column published next to an advertisement for Mercury.

Last year, IBM pulled all its advertising from Fortune--and refused to talk to any Fortune reporters--after the magazine published a not altogether flattering cover story on Louis Gerstner Jr., IBM's chairman and CEO.

The threat--and the reality--of canceled advertising has always been a risk of doing business for magazines and newspapers. But magazines have long been more vulnerable than newspapers to the consequences of their advertisers' unhappiness, and that vulnerability makes censorship--and self-censorship--more likely.

"Censorship deprives readers of information they should have and want to have," says Frank Lalli, senior executive editor of Time Inc. and president of the American Society of Magazine Editors. "The public doesn't want censorship. But there is more business-side pressure on editors now than ever before."

A New Concern

Magazine editors have to worry about revenue--about advertisers--in a way they didn't concern themselves with a decade or two ago.

With the exception of national newspapers--the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the New York Times--newspapers rely primarily on local advertising, and despite the recent growth of other media, most large local businesses still feel they have to advertise in their major local newspaper, even when disgruntled over something that appeared in that paper. But many magazines depend on national advertising, and there are so many national magazines--not to mention the four national TV networks and the three national newspapers--that it's a buyer's market; an aggrieved advertiser can withdraw from virtually any magazine and put ads elsewhere without risking the loss of a significant number of customers.

Moreover, there are many news stories that newspapers must cover, often on deadline, no matter who might be offended; magazines--with fewer "must" stories and longer lead times--are more susceptible to pressure from advertisers. Magazine editors have "more leeway to be good or bad," as Kurt Andersen, former editor of New York magazine and now a columnist for the New Yorker, puts it.

Andersen was fired by New York magazine in 1996 when its owner, K-III Communications Corp., expressed dissatisfaction with its editorial tone and slow circulation growth. But Andersen and others at the magazine said he was let go at least in part because he had published several stories that upset Henry Kravis, general partner in Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., which controls K-III. (K-III executives said Kravis had no role in Andersen's dismissal.)

Andersen says that he was a victim of one of many new pressures on magazine editors--ownership by conglomerates that have little or no media experience and thus don't understand "the correct boundaries of commerce and art. . . . The people over me had never had anything to do with magazines . . . until the last few years except to read them."

Magazines are also more susceptible than newspapers to a growing number of other pressures. They rely heavily on newsstand sales for profits and visibility, and in a culture increasingly dominated by the cult of personality, the celebrity cover story is generally the single biggest newsstand draw; celebrities exploit this need by demanding greater and greater concessions from magazine editors, routinely refusing to grant magazine interviews unless they are promised that their picture will be on the cover--often taken by a photographer of their choice. Many also demand approval of the writer as well. No reputable newspaper would consider acceding to such conditions, but magazines--competing vigorously with one another for many of the same stories and stars--increasingly comply.

Thus, magazine editors are much more accustomed than their newspaper counterparts to taking business considerations into account on editorial matters.

In women's magazines, the line between news and business has long been especially fuzzy. Many advertisers routinely insist on "complementary" editorial copy to accompany their ads, and editorial features on beauty, makeup and fashion routinely include brand-name mentions of advertisers' products. In a 1990 article in Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem, a founding editor of the magazine, provided several examples of businesses refusing to advertise unless a magazine provided not only "complementary" but also "compatible" material. Sometimes advertisers insisted that such material be placed next to their ads.

Until relatively recently, many magazines--men's magazines, women's magazines and general magazines alike--also omitted one kind of story certain to offend major advertisers: stories on the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer.

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