Case History: Was This a Good Time to Rethink the Separation of Church and State?

No ads on page one but peel-off stickers and wraparound ads have to be removed before you can read the paper.

Early every morning the dog and I pick up the Washington Post in the front yard and I then read it while sitting on a backyard porch and drinking a first cup of coffee. A nice way to start the day.

But before reading the Post I often have to peel an advertising sticker off page one and remove the wraparound ad that covers half the front page, then toss the sticker and wraparound in the direction of a wastebasket. It’s worth it because the Post is such a good newspaper.

Earlier this year I had to deal with another page one ad problem, this time at a magazine. I was judging a general excellence category of the annual City and Regional Magazine Association editorial contest. Five judges, communicating by email, picking five finalists and then the winner out of 19 entries.

First we ranked the 19 entries and combined our rankings to help us decide on the five finalists. Then it was time to pick the winner.

I had Memphis magazine ranked number one. But one judge said there was a problem with Memphis. One issue—March 2016—had a cover line “The Faces and Places Issue.” Inside the magazine the Places were editorial but the Faces were a series of ad sections featuring the Face of Cosmetic Dentistry, the Face of Men’s Clothing, etc. All were labeled advertising.

Several of the judges felt strongly that the word Faces on the cover—in effect promoting ad sections—disqualified Memphis. After some debate, that was the decision: Memphis was out.

In the 1980s and 90s I helped judge the National Magazine Awards, the annual contest run by the American Society of Magazine Editors. We were hardliners on cover purity—no mention of any kind of anything to do with advertising or promotion. No debate.

It’s a different time now—many ad categories have disappeared from print and lots of magazines have cut their subscription rates to under $15 a year, a growing number to under $10 a year. Facebook has been full of ads selling Bon Appetit for $6 a year.

The New Yorker still tries to get big dollars but it’s a puzzle to go to its website and try to figure out how much a year’s subscription costs. I’ve figured out how to get the New Yorker for $69 a year but you have to pose as a new subscriber and you get constant renewal notices trying to get a $99 a year renewal. Their subscription strategy is pretty close to a carnival game.

So given all the chaos and change in print journalism, should Memphis have been tossed from the city magazine contest? Should Memphis have put The Faces and Places Issue on a sticker you could peel off the way the Washington Post does with its page one? That would have preserved the purity of its cover.

In real life, I’d rather have the Post run an ad across the bottom of page one, as it does on its sports front page, and not do all those page one stickers and wraparounds. And in retrospect I wish I had fought harder to keep Memphis in that city magazine competition.

In the late 1990s, three executives from AOL came to the Washingtonian to buy the rights to use some of our dining coverage on its digital site. As we talked about how they would use our editorial, I said something about how we thought the Washingtonian stories should be used. I must have mentioned church and state because I remember one of the AOL executives responding, “There is no church and state at AOL.”

As digital journalism, with its there’s-no-church-and-state-here code of ethics, continues to drain revenues and jobs from print, is it worth letting “The Faces and Places” approach be acceptable?

I’ve seen a lot of good journalists laid off at magazines and newspapers. If a Faces and Places cover line at a magazine I edited would keep one more journalist doing great stories, I now wouldn’t lose much sleep over doing it.

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