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Saturday, 10 May 2008

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Beautifully put.

I'm currently drafting a post about why I'm not about to take paid or click-through advertising on my blog, for pretty much the same reasons. But are the issues the same? Possibly they're not the same for you, but I'm not at all comfortable to promote the likes of B&N and Amazon because of their reputation with my readership.

I know your adverts here do look and smell like adverts, and that you always make it clear in reviews whether or not you've an interest in a camera or whatever you're writing about, but it is an issue worth talking about.

Well said. IMHO, it makes most of the high circulation photo mags almost unbearable.

I'd much rather have an ad-heavy magazine with real articles and content than a magazine with fewer ads and more advertorial product gushing if I had to choose the lesser of two evils.

Very good point Mike.

Some advertorials are so cunning (e.g. in choice of typeface, or by _not_ having a heading that says 'advertising feature') that you do get fooled, partly perhaps because when you're reading one of your favourite magazines, you're in a relaxed state and off your guard. So your state of relaxation is being taken advantage of, which produces a sense of betrayal - like you've been betrayed by an old friend. The magazine editors should realise that this is how you _lose_ old friends.

Ah ha! So THAT's why Pop stayed in business and Mod was folded! Now I know.

"Advertorial" Ain't it the truth. There is popular USA magazine that features pretty decent landscapes on their cover. It's advertorial stated the shot was taken on film' medium format if I remember correctly using a ND grad filter. The editor went on to explain that if the shot was taken today the photographer would shoot a digital of course and then blend multiple exposures in Photoshop to achieve the desired results.
So I won't put my rather pricey 2 stop grad filter on my camera be it film or digital and would rather spend an hour or more in PS screwing around with it? What a Luddite I am.

Excellent post Mike. Let's hope it's seen by the new editor at Black & White Photography magazine.

This is one instance I wish a photo magazines would take a cue from the action sports industry. There has been a recent influx of low ad content magazines (somewhat in the vein of Surfer's Journal). Sometimes issues only contain six full page ads, at premium prices. And in most cases the stories flow from page to page without having to jump to page 136 to read the final paragraph amidst the Adorama and B&H ads. Admittedly, they cost a bit more (about $10-$14 per issue) but then I imagine that Black & White Photography's niche could carry it quite well.

Why should a periodical exist? I wonder about this quite a bit. I come from the same generation as MikeJ (b.1954) and my father worked as a professional photographer in the 60's and 70's. We took the Amateur Photographer and BJP (British journal of photography). The reason for this was to stay abreast of new technology and techniques, and to a certain extent photo theory.

Nowadays keeping up with the latest camera and technical info is well served by the internet. I think the only way a periodical can survive is to provide something physical that betters the pure-info nature of the internet. I'll quote a couple of examples. I subscribe to the London Review of Books. This provides thoughtful, sometimes controversial reviews and opinions about books, art and politics in a well laid out format that is a joy to handle and read. All the info is available on the internet for subscribers but I invariably print it out if I don't have the original magazine. So, it succeeds for me because of presentation and the benefits of reading printed matter as opposed to onscreen.

Secondly, I subscribe, or did, to Lenswork, which many people will be familiar with. The anticipation of getting this through the letterbox was similar to the LRB, but made especially so because of the quality of the production, and the pleasure of looking at the photographic reproductions.

So - print lives, but has to deliver something other than just info these days.

Mike,
I applaud your guts. I hope this can of worms is not so radioactive or so nuanced that we don't get the usual lively discussion and debate.

IMO brendadada is looking at the same issue, but as an (I assume) amateur blogger, as opposed to a professional for-profit enterprise, her approach is different and quite personal. Another facet.

Alan Rew,
I assume you are talking about paid advertising that mimics editorial content, but I think Mike was writing about actual editorial content designed to help advertisers sell their stuff. Or are you deliberately conflating the two?

There is nothing in what you wrote, Mike, that would not apply to newspapers or the TV or radio news as well. Advertorials undermine the credibility of the publication or the news broadcast--which lies at the core of what they offer to the reader/viewer/listener. A week ago, a colleague who studies the local TV news reported that a North Carolina local station offered a new manufacturing plant a news story on its startup for $5,000. The viability of the media depend upon our willingness to trust what they have to tell us. When they violate that trust, they should not be surprised when their audience disappears.

What happened to Lee Frost's column? I thought that was the kind of contribution that really set B&W magazine apart from its peers!

I believe, your views on this subject need wider recognition. Similar arguments also apply to TV channels, I think. People, me included, easily feel that we are being manipulated. I stop buying the magazine or the newspaper when this bothers me and I switch the TV channel as soon as I notice that they try to manipulate me. Unfortunately, "long term" gains does not seem to interest the bosses or the shareholders. This is the century of speed; they want it "now", if not yesterday!

Mike,
I've subscribed to B&W since the first issue and liked it as it was when edited by Ailsa, but things always do change so I don't know which way she would have wanted to go if she had been staying. I did get a feeling which I couldn't quite pin down that the last few issues were a bit more like mainstream photo mags; thank you for clarifying that. Obviously mainstream monthly mags satisfy a demand, though I'm not sure I'm a potential subscriber for any of the ones on the UK bookstalls. Magazines which don't satisfy a demand go out of business so I'm just hoping B&W has enough customers who like it the way it has been. Keep writing for it! We all enjoy your articles!

"Advertorial": great term that reflects yet another example of poor journalistic standards in the media. Also, witness the effusive gear evaluations in many photo rags (whoops--I should say "mags". My bad.)

"Advertorial": Closely related to "infotainment" (political spin passing as informative news reports). Of the same genus as "viral marketing."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Well, actually I could have, but I commend the spirit of the post.

An example of a niche magazine that has done it "right" from the beginning, and in the process earned a group of hard-core loyal, enthusiasic, nay, almost fanatical readers is "Alpinist". Those of you who are climbers will know what I mean.

Beautiful, bold, and clean layout, tasteful full-page advertisements, breath-taking photographs (often b/w) printed on thick glossy paper, interesting, honest, and amusing letters to the editor, no fluff or dodgy section in the back filled with adds and crap, "Arthink" sustainable publishing. This magazine has done it all right, right from the start. And in doing so, it has earned the loyal readership of who's who in the climbing world, along with anyone else who appreciates quality. Bookstand price: $12.95 USD or $15.95 CAN, even though the Canadian dollar has been kicking butt the past year (this really annoys me as a Canadian).

Sure, there are other climbing mags out there and have been for a long time. A market survey might have said there was no room in a niche market for another climbing mag. I used to read those other magazines, but stopped my subscription when adds became more prevalent than photos and stories about climbing and the quality of the writing and magazines declined. Little better than fishwrap.

Yet Alipinist has changed all that. It broke into the market and earned a group of loyal readers by doing it right. The subject or the name does not matter. My jaw literally dropped when I opened up the first issue in the magazine section of Chapters and was confronted with breath-taking images of clean granite ridges rising above glaciers. My palms started to sweat.

I just wish someone would do the same in the b/w photography magazine business. Because I would bet if the product was good enough, the people will pay for it. I maintain that most books, magazines, movies, TV shows, etc. underestimate the intelligence of their audience and sink to the lowest common denominator.


Thanks, Mike. As the person who I believe first mentioned "advertorials" in the previous thread, I'm glad you've addressed this. I did wonder whether I was right to feel so aggrieved by the changes in BWP. After all, I wasn't the intended target, there was still a reasonable amount of content aimed at the old timers, and obviously any magazine wants to attract new readers to thrive. But as the months went on, I found the new features more and more annoying and harder to ignore - so patronising, so vacuous and ultimately so *dull*. Which is why I packed my sub in, but with the feeling that maybe it was I who couldn't adjust, rather than they who left me behind. Now I see that to some extent the compromises they made went too far. (Of course, none of this is to say that Liz Roberts won't face exactly the same pressures.)

Paul G: Me, too. _Alpinist_ is simply a stunning achievement. I've been known to miss important deadlines when an issue arrives on the wrong day.

Ref Robert E's comment above:

AS a professional photographer, my websites are an important part of my work. It's one way to publish, and it creates a community of interest around my work. That's the reason B&H and Adorama were wanting to advertise on my pages.

So no, not an amateur.

And I'm still wondering whether the issues are different if I were.

Brendadada,
You never mentioned why you're uncomfortable with B&N and Amazon.

Also, unfortunately, I haven't been able to get your website to load yet.

Mike J.

Over here, an "advertorial" is a textual ad, labeled as such. It gives the company in question an opportunity to present what they want in the light they want.

If a paper or a magazine tries to slip in an advertisement as an editorial material, it can be fined. Heavily. The fine can go up to 200,000 dollars, which is an even bigger amount of money in Croatia. And the editor is also liable personally, although the sum is quite smaller.

On the negative side, I'm really not aware of somebody being fined for such practice. OTOH, it very soon becomes obvious and it does lead to their readers losing confidence and the circulation going down.

Damn ! That's done it !

Just subscribed to "Alpinist." Been meaning to look into the matter for ages since one of our British climbing mags turned into a comic, and those posts have just pushed me over the edge...

Y

I take it we are talking Tamron and Gray Levett here. For anyone who hasn't seen it, the Levett article is by a shopkeeper who owns a upscale Nikon dealership in London - the article is entirely devoted to extolling the virtues of his shop. The Tamron spread is at least headed "Advertising feature"; the Levett puff-piece carries exactly the same strapline format and layout as a traditional article. It even has the I-forget-what-you-call-it-little-logo-thingummy at the end of the "article". I'm pretty sophisticated about this sort of thing as I've been a writer, editor, publisher and publishing consultant for the past 27 years, and it fooled me at first. It's when you read the byline "Words by Gray Levett" that alarm bells go off, and after that the text that follows isn't really surprising. To me, it verges on the unethical. It's possible that BWP didn't get paid for it of course, in which case it's gey strange editorial decision.

Like everyone else, I think much more of this kind of thing will backfire on what has been a good magazine. I also think it will backfire on Gray's, as it's one of the most unutterably smug, self-satisfied, name-dropping little things I've read in a long time (and as someone who specialises in smug, I know it when I see it). Somewhat typical of our Brit officer class at its worst.

The Tamron spread I think is more defensible - it's at least clear about what it is.

We are probably going to see a lot ,more of this kind of thing. My day-job includes quite a bit of training, development & consulting for the magazine industry, and it's pretty desperate (for small publishers especially) at the moment. I meet a lot of publishers and ad sales directors as well as editors, and the pressures coming down from senior management are huge. One publisher told me that her board had in deadly seriousness "mandated" a target of £1 million profit (profit, mind you, not even turnover!) from her online operations in the next financial year: currently, £75 thousand turnover. Beyond belief. As a result, the editorial/commercial conflict seems to me to have softened, and editors are becoming more commercial in outlook. There's also a trend to appoint editors who are more aligned with hardcore commercial objectives and to appoint cheap young staff writers without enough specialist knowledge: some of the big publishers tend to regard cars, computers, cameras and A-V equipment (would have been hi-fi in the past) as broadly interchangeable categories. The writers themselves are often more interested in "being a writer on a magazine" than in the subject. Far from universally true, of course, but a bit of a trend. One group editor told me recently that many of his staffers on his technology titles were in effect sweating out an apprenticeship in the hope they would get picked for what one of what were regarded as the two "goldstrike" jobs in the group: a car-test title, or a football title.

The continued existence of specialist photo titles like Source, Ag and Hotshoe suggests that there is a market willing to pay a premium as many other have suggested, and I think a dedicated B&W title along the lines of Ag in particular might well succeed. In the current climate, though, the difficulty is not finding a sustaining readership, but finding someone willing to invest the kind of money that a start-up title needs. The US B&W magazine is interesting from time to time, but too collector-focused for the text to be of much use to me as a photographer, although it's a good source of portfolios worthy of study and the production values in the copies I've seen have been good.

As a PS, The Levett puff is of a piece with the place itself. I do use Gray's from time to time, but only when I have to, as I've found them to be disengaged and somewhat inept (although the secondhand stock is broad and of good quality, I must admit). On the last occasion I hadn't got my camera or the part number with me, and they sold me the wrong thing. Kingsley's at the top of Tottenham Court Road and the somewhat eccentric Aperture near the British Museum are better London bets in my experience.

Mike,

You say "The editors typically fight against advertorial".

Point taken, and I apologise to any editors whom I may have offended. Just to clarify things, none of my comments were directed towards 'B&W Photography', which I do buy regularly, and, IMO, stands well above the uniform mediocrity that the magazine market is becoming. I hope it survives.

As a "customer" of photographic magazine products, rather than a producer, I should perhaps have said "the people responsible for deciding the content" instead of "the editor". But, as a customer buying that product, the negative feelings towards this practice remain, and it's academic who decided to use it, or what form it takes.

Kind Regards,

Alan

Great post Mike and as others have indicated, this is not an uncommon concept. We all are aware of who butters whose bread in certain circles, especially in Photography. Some circles are very much caught up in vicious loops of cross-promotion and self-promotion and it's starting to get a little tacky.

I also briefly tried the ad campaigns on my blog and realized after a few short months of adding promotional materials that my content was getting lost amongst the ads. That has since stopped. I do retain some very small links to my vendor preferences, but have not earned a single cent off those links anymore. (Oh darn, I lost out on $3 a week...)

Now, I feel my blog is clean-looking again, polished, and the content hopefully is immediately readable and enjoyed.

The final thought I have to share is a post I made a while back on my blog where I announced that I am taking my last 3 years of publications that I have been saving, and clipping out just the articles, sections, and materials that I think would be useful to keep around.

As I take my time flipping back through, then cutting things out and inserting in a binder, I find myself throwing more and more of each magazine out. When I get everything caught up, I'll stop back in and give the update of what the stack size was versus what it is now...fun stuff, eh? :)

hughlook - Actually, it's the Tamron-style pieces that bother me more than the Gray's one. The latter was at least anecdotally of interest, even if it was naked propaganda. (In the same vein, the Silverprint "ads" are often more interesting than some of the actual articles - a rare example of an advertiser using their space with distinction.) Whereas I know the "advertising features" will contain zero new or useful information, and I come away feeling somewhat insulted that I've paid to have it flung in my face.

Still, neither of these examples annoy as much as the new "photo critique" column, and that's supposed to be proper content! (Lee Frost, I thought you'd know better...)

I'm sorry to say that I don't think you understand publishing very well. The thing that makes advertorials so much worse than ads is when the editorial team allows them to be designed too much like editorial.
To assume that running advertorials is a sign of desperation is entirely incorrect as well.
I work for one of the world's largest, most profitable magazines and we run advertorials because they're well paid for - every mag needs to make a profit or we'd have no magazines to read - and, more importantly, because the companies concerned feel they reach more consumers using a halfway between adverts and editorial. As I've said, this breaks down when the editorial team doesn't hold firm and make sure the page is designed with an advertorial identity - readers should never be deceived into reading something they're not interested in.
Therefore an advertorial should essentially be an advert that's been tailored to the reader by the editorial team, not an advert posing as editorial. It's quite understandable to take umbrage at bad advertorials, but silly to resent their presence altogether.

Simon,
I understand only magazine publishing in the hobbyist (mainly photo) category, it's true--none of which are remotely close to "the world's largest, most profitable magazines."

But if it's silly to resent the presence of advertorials, then I think the majority of photo magazine readers would qualify as silly.

Mike J.

Thanks for the reply, Mike.
I understand that people don't like them, but, when they've been created properly, there's no reason to dislike them any more than any other advert - as I said, there entire purpose is actually to advertise in a more appealing way.
My point is merely that, assuming the distaste stems from any deceit that readers feel, the anger should be directed at editorial staff for not designing the advertorials respectfully, rather than being angry that advertorials exist in the first place.

The thing that strikes me about the comments in this and the previous post is the number of people who want a magazine about photography, not cameras or how to photograph a landscape as luridly as possible, and who are willing to pay a premium for it.

B&W photography, unfortunately leaves me, and I'm sure many others, unsatisfied as I'm mainly a colour photographer.

Sadly, since 'Photography' folded at the end or the 80's there hasn't been served at all in the UK. There is now a magazine called PhotoIcon that goes some way to addressing this, it's still not quite there but worth a try.

Simon,
Certainly a fair point. Our differing perspectives might come from different working environments. I once asked my cousin, who at the time worked for one of the large car magazines, how many full-time editorial staff they had. He said something like "Not many. Something like 48." Then he asked, "How many do you have at your magazine?" And I said, "You're looking at him." He was pretty shocked.

Anyway, I suspect at a big magazine the issues are quite different. When I fought my many battles over editorial integrity at the magazine I edited, I was the lone voice, and I was usually arguing directly (at least indirectly) with the guy who signed my paychecks.

Mike J.

Don't worry, Mike - the first three mags I worked on each had three editorial staff, and that includes the designer. The principles are the same, though - I'd still string up any editor who allowed advertorials to look like editorial.

Barry, have a look at Hotshoe, Ag and Source. Hard to find on newsstands (although larger branches of Borders sometimes have Hotshoe & Ag) but very reasonable to subscribe to. Less self-consciously "glam" and a bit more serious than Photoicon, which seems to me to be more of a style mag.

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