Rodale's Prevention magazine recently announced that it will soon 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 improve their health and happiness (vs. just selling them new-and-improved stuff and entertaining them with fluffy listicles), and they rightly suspect that the increasingly blurred relationship between editorial and advertising could be undermining the quality of the information they are getting.
Discerning audiences are no longer satisfied with pat “church and state” explanations for why the messages in ads and editorial sometimes clash. (I know because over the years, I've had to offer a few such explanations to readers who just weren't having it.)
But here's the scary part that even many savvy readers don't understand: That clash is too often a best-case scenario. Far worse is when the editorial coverage is invisibly altered 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 cash-cows and customers (whom they increasingly see as advertisers, not readers).
That’s how you get articles about managing type-2 diabetes that somehow never mention sugar or flour (but promote exercise as a strategy for managing blood sugar instead).
It's why so few nutrition articles ever talk about the downside of "whole-grain" breakfast cereals (when there are many).
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 (most of which would involve eliminating processed foods) rather than medications.
The fiscal 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). But only time will tell.
Meanwhile, 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. In my view, it opens the door to some important and potentially uncomfortable conversations about media and media-literacy that are long overdue.
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 in a timely way, 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.
But the real success of this experiment is going to depend on the willingness of readers (who have now been trained to expect artificially cheap and free content) to start paying the true cost of good, objective reporting and editing.
I'm proud that Experience Life* has always been able to exercise a high level of editorial courage and independence (even when that created some frustration and anxiety for all involved). It's one of the primary reasons we've been able to get out ahead in our reporting of so many important health issues, from the dangers of commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs to the benefits whole foods offer over processed ones — and even on the beleaguered state of health media itself.
But it's not easy. If a magazine reports that whole, natural, full-fat foods are fine, that dietary cholesterol isn't really anything to worry about, and that low-fat, low-calorie diet foods aren't actually good for you, what happens to their relationship with advertisers who have a great deal invested in a very different message? I'll tell you: It gets awkward, quickly.
Now think about that same dynamic as it might play out with pharmaceuticals, agricultural and industrial chemicals, all the weird stuff that goes into beauty and bodycare products. Yeah, more awkwardness all around.
I, for one, am excited to see Prevention taking the lead here, and I hope we’ll see more magazines going this way. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for mega-publishers like Hearst or Conde Naste to follow suit.
* While Experience Life (the healthy-living magazine of which I am founding editor) does take advertising, it does not take ads for pharmaceuticals, soft drinks, diet aids or plastic surgery. It also enjoys an unusual level of editorial independence, thanks to its relationship with its parent company, Life Time Fitness, and the fact that the majority of its revenue comes from reader subscriptions. If you want to know more about what makes Experience Life different, here's an essay, Six Packs and Sex Lives, I wrote way back when. Or you can check out 20 Things That Make Experience Life Different (including No. 18: "We won't ever sell out.")