Industry Vet John Harrington: Ethical Journalism Is More Valuable Than Ever
Mr. Magazine’s ACT 7, held for publishers, channel partners, and students at Ole Miss, has been over for several weeks, but I’m still reflecting on all the things I heard and learned there. And one these reflections centers on the thoughts of another of our industry’s icons, John Harrington. Over many decades and many roles in the magazine publishing business, John was a vital part of all of our gatherings and events, and his reflections were always thought-provoking and weighty; and although he is now retired, it’s appropriate that he should still take the time to share his perceptions and conclusions with the rest of us.
John’s role for many years was as spokesperson for the magazine wholesale community, and as such he learned, with them, what was necessary for wholesalers to know in order to best serve their suppliers. From that position and his subsequent one as publisher of the industry newsletter "The New Single Copy," John was in a good position to observe, with the rest of us, the industry going to hell in a handbasket.
As we all know, the magazine environment has undergone a shocking transformation in the past decade. For newsstand, 2007 might be considered the “last good year”. Since then unit sales have cratered, down by an estimated 70%, with a dollar volume about half of what it was a decade ago. Sales efficiency has dropped from nearly 60% in the early days to closer to 20%, a figure amazing to all. As Harrington pointed out, “Customers used to steal that many copies! And maybe they still do.” Meanwhile subscriptions are often propped up by a combination of free and very cheap subscriptions. The number of audited titles has shrunk. For a while, publishers thought that digital replica sales (tablets, i.e. the iPad) would replace losses of print-on-paper sales. This did not happen.
Not only have newsstand numbers disappointed, Harrington pointed out, but also there is no consensus on how to categorize those numbers. Throw on top of this a steadily shrinking advertising segment, and the future of the traditional magazine business is perilous, if not desperate.
The former watchdogs of our industry changed their reporting in such a way that online responsiveness was added to a reckoning of magazine reach; perhaps this approach has some validity, but it doesn’t provide a very substantive structure. Harrington quoted Justin Smith of Bloomberg Media, who said that the years 1996 to 2020 would one day be remembered as “The fog period, when no one knew what was going on.”
Over the years, Harrington concluded, the newsstand brought great journalism to consumers. And whatever changes are happening now, whatever channel dissolution and shifts to digital, all the expanded magazine extensions will contain content, and hopefully that content will contain journalism.
And so, Harrington said, speaking directly to the students in the group, “as your careers unfold, whether you are in sales, in production, or in audience development, you will still be in journalism. In all of those roles, you should remain true to a core tenet from the Society of Professional Journalists: ‘Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair, and thorough.’”
That guideline, Harrington told the students, should be a standard for all who will be part of the machinery that produces that journalism and makes it available to the public. “In this age of native advertising, the blurring of the church/state division, spin, alternative facts, fake news, whatever imaginative descriptive phrase one chooses, the challenges are clearly enormous. The pressures and choices are not always clear, are often very subtle, and few of the veterans of this experience can say we were always pure.
“So let me now praise the ACT Experience, the Magazine Innovation Center, and the Meek School of Journalism, where these ethics are enshrined” Harrison concluded. “It has done much more than educate future generations of journalists: It has provided to this old veteran of the business, by exposing me to the creativity and energy of its students, a greater recognition of the significant role that our business plays in a free society, in our democracy, and our responsibility to be true to its values.”
Linda Ruth, as president of PSCS Consulting (www.PSCSConsulting.com), offers communication companies worldwide the keys to magazine launches, search engine optimization and audience development online and at retail. She is a pioneer in the fields of Online Audience Optimization (OAO) and gamification for content publishers. Her books, "Internet Marketing for Magazine Publishers" ; "How to Market your Newsstand Magazine"; and "Secrets of SEO for Publishers" can be found on Amazon. Find her online at Google Plus, Magazine Dojo, LinkedIn, and Twitter @Linda_Ruth.