READERS COME FIRST

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It's not a difficult rule to understand. In magazine publishing, the reader comes first. Editors create an editorial environment to pull in, they hope, the right readership. That, in turn, will pull in advertisers who want to reach those readers.

The ads go in the space allotted to them; the editorial space is sacrosanct, so the reader-who comes first-knows what's editorial and what's advertising.

There have been violators, of course. And if you believe a magazine's most important page is its cover, then Elle's controversial cover may be considered a worst case scenario. The fashion book, in its March issue, split its cover right down the middle, to allow for a French-door opening onto a prize-position ad for Elizabeth Arden's new Sunflowers fragrance.

If publishers don't watch out, the next offer they can't refuse could mean swapping the back-cover ad for the front cover, and we'll have to start reading magazines backwards.

"It's an outrage that a magazine would do this to its cover-they destroyed a major editorial feature in order to favor one advertiser," said Steven Shepard, editor in chief of Business Week and president of the American Society of Magazine Editors. We tend to agree, but can't buy into Elle's being a worst case scenario.

The idea, again: The reader comes first. And the reader at all times should be able to easily distinguish between objective editorial and biased sales message.

Granted, Elle readers might think the cover split caters to one particular advertiser, but they won't see the ad's "outside" positioning as anything more than that. It's far worse when the reader must puzzle over confusing layouts inside the book.

What's editorial? What's advertising?

The reader should never have to decide those finer points.

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