Friday, May 20, 2011

A toxic but historic cocktail: Advertising and editorial

By Edgar Simpson

Since the advent of the industrial press in the 1830s, advertising has had a large and corrosive influence on journalism. Yet, advertising also has been the main driver of an independent press, at least partially free from the equally corrosive imprint of government.

The intent of the First Amendment, though mythologized and largely misunderstood in the public mind, demands journalism apart from government. As early as 1919, Walter Lippmann lamented that the reading public would not “pay for their news.” That means the costs of running the presses, paying the journalists, and keeping the cameras rolling must be shifted to those who want to reach an audience.

The size and make up of that audience largely determines how much money and – how much independence – any individual press outlet will command. Frank Gannett, considered by many to be the father of the modern newspaper chain, once said he liked to monopolize any given market because it allowed his newspapers to be free from the “influence of advertisers.” E.W. Scripps, the Penny Press Lord who preceded Gannett in building a news empire, likewise, once commanded his publishers to accept “no more than 10 percent” of available advertising space from a single advertiser. That would ensure no single local business could hold one of his properties hostage.

Of course, implicit in statements from both Gannett and Scripps is the idea that advertisers do have influence. The issue, they imply, is to limit that influence.

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