Friday, February 21, 2014

Trade magazines are the whores of journalism

When I was a kid, I loved electronics. I went to Lehigh University to major in electrical engineering. I quickly realized that it was a mistake and for my second semester I switched to journalism. During summers, I worked in retailing.

The combination of electronics, writing and retailing made me the perfect candidate for my first post-college job, Assistant Editor of High Fidelity Trade News. It was  a magazine that served hi-fi dealers.

My starting salary (in 1970) was just $115 per week, but I had an impressive title. And unlike some of my classmates, I was working on a slick magazine in Manhattan, not a weekly newspaper in Duluth.

One thing I had not learned in life or at Lehigh, however, was how "trade journalism" works.

Publications that provide free subscriptions to hi-fi dealers (or gas station operators, dentists or practitioners of any occupation) are dependent on advertising revenue.
Because of this dependency, there was none of the "church-and-state" separation of the editorial and advertising staffs that I had been taught was normal in journalism.

At The New Yorker, a Lehigh professor told me, editors and ad salesmen were not even allowed to be in an elevator together. Upper management feared that an ad guy would try to get an editor to provide positive coverage for an actual or potential advertiser even if nothing newsworthy was  happening.

Trade journalism is completely different.

At my first job, any news, no matter how insignificant, was treated as BIG NEWS, if it would help win or keep an advertising contract.

The magazine's boss was not really the editor, but Ken, the advertising manager. He planned our editorial coverage, i.e., ass-kissing.

At one press conference where a manufacturer was showing new products, we had two real editorial people, plus the production manager making believe he was a reporter, and an ad salesman making believe he was a photographer.

He flashed his strobe light at dramatic moments, but there was no film in his camera. (Back then, cameras used film.)

We were not the only ones. Some other magazines were even worse whores than we were.

I remember an industry event where Stanley, an over-eager ad man, was introduced to the boss of a hi-fi equipment manufacturer. The second sentence out of Stan's mouth was, "We're thinking of putting your new product on the cover."

I've been away from trade journalism for over 40 years and hadn't thought much about it until recently.

Publishers Weekly is an important magazine and I read nearly every issue to keep up with book business trends and news. One issue of the usually respectable magazine took me back to the bad old days. I felt like puking.

Although PW does charge for subscriptions (for its paper edition) it needs advertising revenue, and appears to be willing to get into bed with the sleaziest of the sleazy if the relationship might bring in a few bucks.

On March 29, 2010, PW referred to behemoth Author Solutions as a "vanity publishing company" -- which probably really pissed off Author Solutions. The company prefers to be known as "the world leader in indie book publishing." 

In a dramatic reversal (I know that's a hackneyed phrase, but it's appropriate here), on May 3, 2013 PW called Author Solutions as "One of the largest self-publishing service providers in the country." The PW management apparently realized that most of the ad money of the growing self-publishing business has been spent in Writers Digest and for online ads -- and PW wants a piece of the action.

The mag ran a puffy quote that portrays new boss Andrew Phillips
as a semi-god: "Andrew's impressive range of talents and experience equip him perfectly to extend the international development of Author Solutions, to build on our network of publishing partnerships, and to strengthen the ties with Penguin companies around the world,”

Apparently, PW badly needs advertising revenue from Author Solutions and its parent Penguin Random House.


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