The true cost of advertising: a free press

Sitting in my inbox at this moment is a copy of a confidential email from the company Web Windows, promoting an advertising deal in the Guardian’s Weekend magazine. As you might expect, the company is keen to emphasise the high-spending profile of the Guardian readership: in an “uber cheap deal for an ad in the national press”, offering “incredible value for money”, the company promises to grant advertisers access to the magazine’s “1.4 million readers averaging extremely high household incomes”. “No longer the bearded lefties!” we are assured. “Guardian readers are an extremely desirable group of high spending consumers …”

Does it matter that a national newspaper should be trying to help fill its coffers by attracting some of this kind of audience for its advertisers? It does. Firstly, because newspapers are utterly dependent on this source of revenue. According to its most recent Annual Report, for instance, advertising revenue accounts for 59% of the Guardian Media Group’s total annual turnover. Without it, the group and outlets like it would lose revenue every time they sold a newspaper. As Nick Taylor of the Guardian wrote in an email to the pressure group Media Lens in 2004:

“Ever worked on a magazine launch? The first and only real questions are: who will advertise with in product / Will it be read by people whom advertisers want to reach?

“Readers/viewers/listeners are the most important thing to any publisher or broadcaster. But, from an economic point of view, primarily because high numbers of readers means high ad revenue. And media survive only through ads. I and all writers/editors/ broadcasters would love it to be different but there is no option – the basic cost of producing the Guardian every day is (of course) more than the cover price. No matter how many readers bought it, we would lose money, in fact an increasing amount of money, without ad revenue – unless we put the cover price up to what it really costs us to make the paper, which is somewhere north of £5 a copy.”

Taylor might have added that for the same reason high readership matters to papers, high quality readership is at least as important. Advertisers want to reach a certain type of people: predominantly affluent, consumer-oriented audiences with high disposable incomes. According to US media scholar Eileen R. Meehan:

“Advertisers’ demand for such high-quality consumers means that highly rated programs that attract a broad range of consumers … may earn lower revenues or be cancelled while lower-rated programs that deliver the most valued demographic earn higher revenues and get renewed.”

The necessity of capturing a share of the demographics advertisers most want to reach introduces a significant structural bias into the ultimate form the press takes – not mechanically dictating content (as Edward Said once aptly characterized it) but setting limits and maintaining pressures. As Sharon Beder notes in her book Global Spin, in Britain a paper like the Financial Times which reaches a relatively small readership of very valuable, high-end consumers (just look at its obscene “How To Spend It” supplement) can survive comfortably, while the Daily Herald – a very popular paper of the left, highly valued by its growing working class readership – was forced to fold. This is one of the major reasons why the British press appears to have “long been more right-wing than the public it is supposed to represent”, in the words of British media historian James Curran. Indeed, some recent research by political analysts Chris Lightfoot and Tom Steinberg found that the readership of the Guardian is somewhat to the right of the general population in its views on economic affairs (which is, after all, what we really mean by the terms “left” and “right”). Furthermore, the need to attract these demographics is manifested not only in which papers survive or perish, but in strong pressures within the newsroom. As the Guardian’s Nick Davies attests, “marketing experts have rewritten news values so that it is now commonplace for news editors to demand a particular story in order to appeal to some new target group in the marketplace.”

The impact this is likely to have on environmental coverage is not difficult to foresee. Should we really expect papers dependent on securing an audience of “extremely desirable … high spending consumers” for advertisers to have free rein in covering the severe environmental problems caused by systematic over-consumption? In fact, we do not have to guess how this has affected coverage of climate change: the evidence is already out there. In a 2007 review of media coverage of climate change for the United Nations Development Programme, researchers Max Boykoff and J. Timmons Roberts of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute came to some stark conclusions:

“One could summarize … that the media has at times kept the issue of climate change alive, but has also limited the extent to which real change in the organization of society [has] been called for. To put it plainly, the press has been quite reformist in its portrayal of the needed action on climate change, when the scientific projections suggest the issue may call for truly revolutionary changes. The difficult position of the media in capitalist society is that commercial news outlets require huge amounts of advertising to pay their salaries and other expenses, and the greatest advertisers are for automobiles, real estate, airlines, fast food, and home furnishings. To create demand for real mitigation of climate change emissions would require the media to repeatedly and insistently call for truly revolutionary changes in society, precisely away from consumption of the products of their advertisers.

Nor do we need to look far for manifestations of this effect; they saturate the mainstream press. The conversion of environmentalism into a set of individualized consumer choices; the use of “green” imagery to market and sell ever-increasing quantities of consumer goods; the marginalization of economic growth on the agenda of items worthy of debate and discussion; the conversion of capitalism into a barely expressible “C-word”, even amongst the most critical mainstream commentators; the prominence of “techno-fixes” in place of debate on fundamental economic reforms – all of these effects are grounded in the political economy of the press, and its reliance on an ad-based funding model.

Papers are not in a stable position at the moment, however. The continued decline in newspaper readerships, the drying up of advertising revenue in the wake of the credit crunch and the difficulty in finding a viable online business model (witness James Murdoch’s tantrum against the BBC’s inconvenient habit of providing the public with free online content, shortly before the announcement that all News Corporation titles would begin charging for theirs) have brought mainstream journalism’s conventional funding model to a crisis point. Moreover, this has merely exacerbated the pre-existing crisis brought upon the profession by the intensification of profit-driven management pressures. Newspapers have been hard hit across the board, locals particularly so, with budgets and workforces downsized, and a great many titles forced to close.

In the short term, this is likely to produce a number of largely negative outcomes: increasing resource pressures on newsrooms will likely lead to more cost-cutting and heavier workloads for journalists, which in turn means more cutting of corners, less investigative journalism – which is resource-intensive, and potentially brings unwelcome legal costs – and greater reliance on PR handouts. At the same time, with papers fighting increasingly hard for a slice of their revenues, advertisers’ power relative to outlets has increased: as one prominent Guardian writer has told me, this threatens to make it increasingly hard for journalists to say anything that might offend them. We can expect to see more celebrity and entertainment content of largely tangential relevance to public affairs – which is not only relatively “safe” material, but nets both relatively large, advertiser-friendly audiences; and less of the “controversial” material advertisers dislike.

As far as longer-term effects are concerned, however, there may – at least in theory – be some grounds for optimism. As has been forcefully argued by Robert McChesney – a leading US media scholar and co-founder of media reform group Free Press – this crisis could prove to be one major component of a “critical juncture” resulting in a wholesale transformation of the media landscape. With sufficient popular pressure, he and John Nichols suggest in a recent article in the Washington Post, the failure of the ad-based, corporate media model may ultimately lead to “citizens … using their government to subsidize and spawn independent media” via the kind of neutrally-allocated public “subsidy to journalism … found in Scandinavian nations, which are among the freest and most democratic in the world.” As McChesney and Nichols argue, we must “begin debating ways for enlightened public subsidies to provide a competitive and independent digital news media”; “greatly expand funding for public and community media”; and “establish policies that help convert dying daily newspapers into post-corporate low-profit news operations that realize the potential of the Internet.” McChesney has (rather unsurprisingly) been subject to some crude McCarthyite attacks from the worst elements of the US corporate media for even having the temerity to suggest such an idea; but his case is hard to fault. Not only is such a groundbreaking shift likely to be the only way to save journalism: it is also, among other things, the best way to secure a press free from a reliance on advertiser-friendly readerships – with all the disfiguring influences that entails. In other words, it is our best shot at creating a meaningfully free press – and one that stands a chance of tackling the climate crisis in a serious way.


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