Did you read the ads?

Those extra pages serve more than a utilitarian function

Issue: "A vacation from PC," June 3, 2000

Six letters across my desk last week all had to do with the ads you see in WORLD magazine. One was grumpy, four were thoughtfully constructive, and one was ecstatic about how a recent classified ad had helped a school find just the right teacher.

All of which reminded me that about once a year, it seems appropriate in this space to confer with you, dear reader, about an issue that I've discovered produces a love-hate response from many periodical subscribers. Let me list nine observations about advertising that might be intriguing to you:

(1) Ads lower costs for subscribers. You already knew that, of course-but do you know exactly how much ads typically lower your subscription costs? Neither do I-and neither does anybody else. Here's why.

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(2) It is not unusual for 80 to 90 percent of the cost of publishing a daily newspaper to be subsidized by revenue from advertising. For most general circulation magazines, the portion of costs underwritten by ad revenue is typically somewhat lower-perhaps in the 50 to 60 percent range. But during WORLD magazine's first 10 years of publication (from 1986 through 1996), less than 10 percent of the magazine's costs were covered by ad revenue. With that sort of disparity in practice, there are obviously a lot of variables at work. But one fact is clear: When only 10 percent of a magazine's revenue comes from ads, subscribers have to pay an inordinately high subscription rate.

(3) Not all subscribers mind that. A handful of you folks actually say to us from time to time: "Scrap the ads! Add another $15 or $20 to the subscription price, and just concentrate on the content." But suppose we did that, and in the process lost 15 percent or maybe 20 percent of our subscribers. Obviously, we'd then have the unhappy task of having to recoup that lost revenue-and our only option would be to add still another $10 or $15 to the subscription price. Such a spiral would quickly get out of control. And that's why I claim that nobody knows exactly how much ads lower costs for subscribers.

(4) The issue is not just economic. Every time we might go through a cycle like the one I just described, I would wince at the fact that several thousand fewer subscribers would now be benefiting from WORLD's coverage of current events, and the Christian perspective of our writers. Or, to turn the matter around, suppose theoretically that by taking enough ads, we might get the annual subscription price down to $19.95. In such a case, might we be able to take our message every week to 500,000 subscribers instead of just 100,000? Those are issues of mission, not just of dollars.

(5) But clearly, there's a limit on how many ads are acceptable. Just as you resent a series of six commercials in a row while you're watching the evening news, so you tend to resent a magazine that asks you to turn through 10 pages of ads to find a single page of editorial content. Such a glut of commercialism isn't usually beneficial even to the advertisers. So you'll be gratified to know that our usual standard at WORLD is a 60-40 ratio; for every six pages of editorial content, we'll typically budget four pages of ads. In unusual circumstances, we might go a bit beyond that-but not typically.

(6) On the other hand, some subscribers really love ads. I've watched on planes, trains, libraries, and other public places-and I can tell you there are people who love to leaf through a magazine looking only at the ads. That happens because good ads perform a useful service for many readers. Classified ads do that in a highly specific way. But display ads do it as well by bringing readers into contact with products and services they genuinely need. So ideally, neither you nor we should look at ads just as a way of plugging a financial gap. They are also legitimate in and of themselves.

(7) To enhance that legitimacy, ads need integrity. Part of that integrity rises from their own truthfulness and honesty. At WORLD, we have said we'll never include anything in our editorial pages unless we know it is true. And we'll never include anything in our ad pages that we know not to be true. We owe you that kind of carefulness. But another part of the integrity ads need is that they shouldn't be at fundamental odds with the philosophy of the magazine that carries them. There's room for minor disagreement, of course-but when an ad promotes a viewpoint that is opposed to our bedrock philosophies, we will typically ask the advertiser to find some other venue. Deciding what's "bedrock," of course, isn't always easy.


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