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Calla Lilies Choking a Silt-shallowed Lake

By - September 19, 2006

Fortune 20060918

I used to love reading Fortune magazine, back when I was a magazine guy trying (and failing) to build a business magazine empire. But while I still get the paper edition on my doorstep every two weeks, I’ve found the thing increasingly irritating. Why? Today, for no particular reason, it struck me. The content is gone, or more specifically, it’s buried under a blizzard of ads, and most irritatingly, “advertising features.” If this is the future of magazines, the future is bleak. From my experience in the business, these “features” are never welcomed by editors, they are pushed by sales people who are worried about making quota. Furthermore, the net per page on them is well below what traditional ads yield – like calla lilies choking a silt-shallowed lake, they are a sign of a permanent change in the landscape.

Of the 256 pages in last week’s Fortune (including the cover, but not including the ad-driven mini insert “bonus section”, which I didn’t bother to count (or read)), 108 or so were “normal ads” – full, half, or spread ads. But another 47 or so were advertorials – editorial material I really could care less about, written not by influential editors, but by marketing departments. If you add the two together – 108 plus 47 – you get 155. That leaves 101 pages for actual editorial. In other words, Fortune’s ad/edit ratio is 155/100, or roughly 40% edit to 60% ads. Of course, the magazine doesn’t look that crowded with ads, because a third of them are masquerading as editorial.

This stuff is nearly 50 pages – half again the amount as the real editorial. For every two pages of edit, I’m getting a page of marketing edit. Who reads this stuff? Why do people pay to run it? I looked back at a few recent issues of Fortune, and the same is true – it’s crammed with bad editorial.

Could you imagine if every third post in a blog was written not by the blog’s author, but by a marketing department?

Given this, it’s not a surprise to read David Carr’s recent piece in the Times and IHT about Time Inc. reeling. I love magazines, and all they stand for, but the economic model of print is getting tougher and tougher to justify.

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6 thoughts on “Calla Lilies Choking a Silt-shallowed Lake

  1. JG says:

    I love magazines, and all they stand for, but the economic model of print is getting tougher and tougher to justify.

    So what makes you think that web advertising does not suffer from similar economic pressures? Look at Google, and their sponsored links above the organic results. There used to be zero links in that area. Then they started putting one link. Then two. Now three.

    In fact, when you look at the whole page, you can count 3 sponsored links above the serps, and 8 to the right, for a total of 11 sponsored links. And how many organic links are there, on the same page? 10. So we are talking about a ratio of 11/10, or 55% of Google’s first page, filled with ads.

    That really isn’t that far off of the 60% advertising figure you find in Fortune magazine, eh?

    In fact, I might even be understating the case somewhat. What I mean is that, at work, I have a nice 21″ monitor running at 1280×1024. When my web browser is maximized, even though there are 11 paid links, the total amount of real estate taken up by Google ads is more like 35-40%.

    However, when I am at home, on my aging 15″ monitor and 800×600 resolution, the layout optimization decisions Google has made make the ads take up almost 75% of my screen real estate.

    Let me say that again: 75%.

    Is this also not a blizzard of advertising? Whether you calculate the used real estate at 35%, 55%, or 75% (depending on whether your are counting links or pixels, and what resolution you are running at), those numbers all sound quite high.

    What makes this different from Fortune magazine?

  2. JG – you make a good point about the over “ad edit ratio,” but the thing I find most interesting is how a particular type of ad unit – the advertorial – is advancing across the pages of the magazine. That’s what sets me thinking something is amiss.

  3. ak says:

    I too am a Fortune subscriber and while I find the advertorials incredibly annoying and totally irrelevant, I still think Fortune has incredibly good writers and topics that are current, relevant, and of deep interest to people in business. The recent article about Clinton’s foundation was fascinating and I’m far from a non-profit expert but I think it was tremendously interesting.

    I’ll put up with the advertorials, it takes me about 3 seconds to skip through them and/or tear them out of the magazine so really I could care less.

  4. JG says:

    John, ah, I see what you are saying, about the advertorial. But lately there have been growing concerns about “made for Adsense” site cropping up in all corners of the internet. Junk pages and splogs are one thing (see this Motley Fool article), but even worse is the whole issue of journalistic or other text that is written so as not to offend Adsense, and thus not lose advertising dollars (see here for example).

    As the entire economic model of the web increasingly comes to rely on this sort of contextual advertising, I think there is an honest concern over what effect this is having on journalism. There are also now direct economic incentives to write the sort of “advertorial”-like articles that will bring in the most Adsense dollars.

    In short, while it might not yet be as overt on the web as it is in Fortune magazine, I definitely see the same economic pressures moving the web publishing business model in this same direction. However, I am very open to feedback from you and your readers: Are my fears overblown? Is there an argument against this, one that will assuage my concerns?

  5. Andy says:

    Your obversvations re. advertising & editorial are good. Alot of the glossy magazines I pick up and flick through (no point in buying them :) are filled to the brim with pics and advertising pieces.

    I think this is main reason that blogs etc have taken off in the last few years. People do not want to read something which has been sliced and diced by various people, they want to read real thoughts and opinions. I know this might seem obvious but I think it’s good to highlight.

    Re. the advertising on Googles SERPS. Yes there are alot of ads, but ads are the currency of Google. People aren’t going to spend long on the SERP page so they (G) need to try to maximise there opportunity on this page. With a magazine, people will normally take minutes to sit down and read the content so there should, in my opinion, be less adverts than on the SERPS as people *should* be reading interesting and entertaining articles, rather than being bombared with ads for the latest fragrance, having parted with some of their own cash.

    Just my thoughts…

  6. Andrew S says:

    The web is too competitive of an environment to be overrun with this level of obnoxious advertising. How many print competitors does fortune have? 3? 10? Their users have few places to flock, and those places are packed with ads as well.

    The web is a different environment. Users are a few clicks away from switching to a competitor. Fill your pages with junk, and you’ll lose eyeballs fast. Sites with obnoxious advertising will die off.

    Print advertising does have the advantage of being far easier and less painful to skip, of course.