MAGAZINES: WHY INTEGRITY TASTES BETTER THAN A BELGIAN CHOCOLATE: OPINION: LEWIS LAPHAM RUMINATES ON WHAT WORKS AT 'HARPER'S

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Over the last three or four months, it's been hard to miss the news reports of magazine editors bowing before advertisers as if before the golden throne of Mammon.

The reporters writing the stories for both the trade and daily press delight in the choices of metaphor-magazine editors falling over like bowling pins or ducks, magazine editors kneeling on Persian rugs or crawling across marble floors to offer their warrants of editorial independence (framed in oak, signed by Mike Wallace) in return for a four-color illustration of a Belgian chocolate or an Italian suit.

HANDSOME NEW POSTERS

Some of the writers maybe have a point, but I expect that it is exaggerated, and I cannot prove it by my own experience. I've been the editor of Harper's for 19 years, and never once can I remember being asked to rearrange the editorial furniture in a way that matches the handsome new posters being sent over from a corporate printing office or a multimedia showroom.

The temptations probably come more easily to TV networks and magazines of mammoth circulation. The longer rows of numbers attract larger sums of money, whose presence tends to make people not only giddy with excitement but also fidgety and apprehensive, adjusting and re-adjusting the fit of their adjectives, smoothing the drape of their paragraphs.

INTEGRITY AS ADDED VALUE

My own encounters with advertising people take place in less nervous circumstances. The money isn't big enough to scare anybody, and none of the advertisers on either the agency or the client side of the table question the magazine's working arrangement among the several forms of paid and unpaid speech. The integrity of the latter adds to the value of the former.

A reader who trusts the editorial content, if not in all of its particulars at least in its intent, presumably will look upon the ads in a similarly open-minded way. Maybe not without a trace of envy or a pause of suspicion-but willing to read the message and listen to the argument.

What else has a magazine got to sell if not its attempt to tell a true story? Different magazines trade in different kinds of stories-about driving cars or cooking peas, about deft politicians or clumsy plastic surgeons-and they retain their most prized asset, what the advertisers like to call their "authenticity," only as long as they refuse to put a price on its head. The attempt to please the advertiser with articles indistinguishable from press releases insults the readers whom the advertisers wish to please-which pleases nobody and makes a mess of everybody's business.

CASTING DOUBTS

Sometimes Harper's schedules an article that contradicts, or at least casts doubt upon, an ad intended for the same issue-an investigation into the possibly criminal practices of an oil or insurance business, say, that might take something away from a simultaneous and more cheerful announcement, from Mobil Corp. or Travelers Group, about the glory of high-Gothic capitalism. As a matter of courtesy the magazine informs the advertiser of a possible embarrassment and asks whether he or she might wish to postpone the good news to another season or another month. No advertiser has ever asked to see a summary, much less a copy, of the article in question; most have waived the offer of delay.

AUDIENCE OR MARKET

Maybe things are different for publications identified with a constituency of specialty merchandise, but the advertisers likely to buy pages in Harper's recognize the distinction between an audience and a market. The consumer magazines search out a demographic that can be weighed and measured as surely as if it were a ton of figs. Harper's speaks to an audience that can't be made to fit the commercial specifications. Some of its readers drink a great deal of white wine; others prefer gin or cranberry juice; some have attended as many as seven universities, four of them in Germany; others belong to 12 golf clubs, five of them in Scotland.

SEEKING WORLD'S TRUTH

Whereas the big-circulation magazines must, of necessity, rely on the techniques of the social sciences, on the collecting of evidence supposedly impartial from sources allegedly authoritative, Harper's reverses the order of preference and relies on the techniques of the humanities, on the strategies of the novelist and the historian, and the unashamedly partial evidence implicit in the tone of a writer's voice.

The magazine offers its editorial space to writers who seek to know the world as it is, not as it is more or less immaculately conceived by the promoters of an infallible political doctrine or an eternal fountain of cosmetic youth. The intention is diagnostic, not therapeutic, a matter of bearing witness as opposed to the sowing of belief.

MISSING THE POINT

Given the magazine's purposes, I could no more afford to let an advertiser fool with what was being said or not being said by any of its writers than I could afford to tell an advertiser that I didn't like the color of the car.

In the short term the magazine might seem to prosper, glistening with four-color illustrations, ripe with the fragrance of new perfumes. The era of good feeling wouldn't last much longer than six months.

The magazine would lose its point and soon afterward its readers. The intelligent people in the advertising business, the only ones whom I've had occasion to know, understand the proposition better than I, which probably is why I've never had a chance at the chocolate or the suit.

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