Rodale's Prevention magazine recently announced that it will stop taking print ads and increase its cover price by a dollar to make up for lost ad revenue. This is a bold, exciting (and some might say crazy) move from a pioneer in the healthy-living space. It comes at time where higher levels of media integrity and independence are desperately needed.
Readers want more authenticity and transparency. They need credible, objective information that actually helps them get healthier (vs. just selling them stuff and entertaining them with fluffy listicles), and they rightly suspect that the increasingly blurred relationship between editorial and advertising could be undermining that.
Discerning audiences are no longer satisfied with pat “church and state” explanations for why the messages in ads and editorial sometimes clash. And, unfortunately, that clash is too often a best-case scenario. Far worse is when the editorial coverage is morphed to agree with — or at least not directly oppose — the ads.
That’s not supposed to happen, of course, but subtly or not so subtly, at many publications, it does. Whenever magazines rely more on ad revenue than subscriber revenue, the pressures and temptations to compromise are just too strong.
Quietly, behind closed doors, important editorial messages get diluted, diverted, deleted, delayed — either because advertisers overtly object to statements that might hurt their sales and reputation, or because publishers and editors simply feel they can’t take the risk alienating their best customers (whom they increasingly see as advertisers, not readers).
That’s how you get articles about managing type-2 diabetes that never mention sugar or flour. Or articles that suggest almost anything can be “part of a healthy breakfast.” It’s why mass-media stories on the dangers of certain commonly used ingredients like hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup emerge years or even decades later than they should.
It's why many magazines won't touch stories about worrisome chemicals or GMOs (much less climate change, perhaps the biggest human health issue of all time) with a ten-foot pole.
And perhaps it’s why there are still so few articles explaining how chronic health conditions can be reliably reversed — not merely managed — using effective lifestyle interventions rather than medications.
The reliance that leading health magazines now have on ads for pharmaceuticals, processed foods, soft drinks, diet aids, and plastic surgeries is disconcerting. Trends toward “native advertising” further complicate the situation, and chip away at an already fragile reader trust.
It’s not hard to imagine that many readers would much rather pay a dollar or two more for an ad-free magazine they can enjoy with greater confidence (and less schizophrenic BS). It will be fascinating to see how this new approach plays out financially for Prevention, and how it spills over to affect advertiser and reader relationships at other magazines, both at Rodale and other major publishing houses.
In order for writers and editors to feel free to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth — for them to report, without fear or interference, on the emerging science around food, medicine, the environment and more — publishers are going to have to demonstrate new levels of courage and freedom from advertiser influence. I'm excited to see Prevention taking the lead, and I hope we’ll see more magazines going this way.
FYI: The healthy-living magazine Experience Life, of which I am founding editor, accepts advertising, but does not take ads for pharmaceuticals, soft drinks, diet aids or plastic surgery. The majority of its revenue comes from reader subscriptions. For more on what renders Experience Life unusual, check out this essay I wrote way back when: 20 Things That Make Experience Life Different (including No. 18: "We won't ever sell out.")