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An editor's constraints

(Based on a lecture by Ross Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University)

We've noted that everything an editor does as a publication's gatekeeper relates to his or her publication's view of reality. Editors respond to a wide variety of influences which determine what they choose to publish, and how they choose to present. We've talked about the view of reality. But editors must take into consideration other limits to their choices. I call them constraints.

Probably the most common constraint of all editors, and usually the biggest constraint of those who edit large-circulation publications, who receive many more stories than they can use. (Theoretically not a problem for on-line editors, but the web is still comparatively young. We're not sure yet how "space" will be determined for publications not also offering a paper version. And people don't like to read long stories on the web.) Usually an editor suffers from too little space, but it's also possible to have too much. And what really gets challenging is that on most commercially produced publications, the editor has little say in determining the amount of space available. It's a business decision based on advertising. Most of us realize our subscription actually pays a fraction of the cost of publishing a newspaper or magazine. Advertising makes up the difference. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot (check out the brides' magazines). We realize the number one goal of most publishers is to make money--without a profit, or a rich benefactor, a publication can't exist. But that doesn't translate into the obvious next assumption: success is as many paid advertisements on as few pages as possible. Publishers realize they have to give something beyond the ads. But how much?

Most publications determine the size of editions based on a formula, called an advertising ratio. The ratio is simply the amount of advertising in any edition expressed as a percentage compared with editorial content. For instance, a 50 percent ad ratio means 50 percent of that publication's space is filled by advertising or other paid content. A 40 percent ratio means 40 percent of that publication is advertising.

The advertising ratio needed to make a profit is carefully calculated, and determines the number of pages editors have to work with. On daily newspapers one edition may include more copy than the ad ratio would allow, but that will likely be balanced by more advertising on another day. So in general the ratio is preserved.

Many newspapers aim for a 50 percent ad ratio--up from a few years ago, when it generally was about 40 percent. Magazines may be more or less, depending on how much money it takes to produce the product. A large, full-color magazine like Vanity Fair, for instance, costs many dollars per issue. Page after page of ads guarantee you can still subscribe for only a few dollars a year.

Newspapers which reach an ad ratio of 70 to 80 percent will be perceived by an audience as a "shopper"--no matter how seriously the staff covers real news. Sure publishers (and advertisers, probably) would like you to read ads and nothing else, but we balk at too much of that, serious editors sneering that such a publication "doesn't have much meat on the bones."

So who preserves the ad ratio? Seldom is it the editor. Normally advertising departments put together dummy pages with advertisements already laid in, then sends those pages to editors. Editors may fill whatever is left over with editorial copy. So what if ad sales were a little light this week? The ad ratio must be maintained, so editors have less space to work with. What if the ad staff went berserk and sold ads by the giga-basket? The editors have a lot more space to work with. It doesn't generally matter if an editor is sitting with a lot of good stories the day the ads come back thin. He or she is just going to have to spike (throw away) stories than on a better day would have made it. Similarly, if it's a light day for news but a heavy day for ads, editors may have to scramble to fill all that space, and you'll see more stories and photos than you would have on a normal day.

Yes, if the president comes to town, the ad staff will probably give the editor a few extra pages. But they'll get them back later; the ad ratio must be maintained.

We've talked about the view of reality, the overarching philosophy of what a publication will be, and how editors work to reflect that view. On a day-to-day or month-to-month basis, this translates into an idea of "news mix," particularly in newspapers. Normally a news mix is set up by a publication based on some pretty sophisticated market research to decide what its audience wants. If surveys show readers are looking for sports, then expect sports to be emphasized. If it's how-to features, you'll see a lot of that. The percentage of political news, international news, sports, feature, editorials, comics, hobby columns, etc., is a push and pull between marketing surveys, the view of the publisher and top editors, and just what a publication is traditionally supposed to be. A "newspaper," for instance, generally has to be tabloid or broadsheet in size, has to include stories on the front, has to have a variety of unrelated stories, and so on, or we might mistake it for a magazine. A magazine has to include a photo on the cover, has to be smaller in size, etc.

Newspaper editors do have some flexibility unavailable to other editors or news directors, of course, because people expect them to offer a variety of unrelated material in a news mix. For instance, say a marketing survey shows few people read a daily bridge column. Should you drop the bridge column? Well, most newspapers don't because although the audience may not be large, it's vocal, and will complain about losing a bridge column. In fact, a newspaper can offer something for everyone. If you buy a newspaper only for the bridge column, so what? A publisher doesn't care why you buy, only that you buy. More specialized magazines also try to offer something for everyone, within their view of reality. For instance, my canoeing magazine includes features for wilderness paddlers, sports canoeists, kayakers, adventure paddlers, families, etc.

Note the news director of a television broadcast faces a more difficult challenge. Instead of "something for everyone," a broadcaster must offer "everything for everyone." A magazine reader can just turn pages and ignore what doesn't interest him. A television viewer must watch what's there or turn the channel--and that's the last thing a broadcaster wants you to do. So news directors try to appeal to the lowest denominator in hopes of securing the largest audience share possible, translating into the largest profit. This helps to explain the sometimes dramatically different content of television news versus your local newspaper.

Most people not familiar with the mass media business jump to the conclusion that all editors and publishers are mere lackeys under the thumb of their advertisers. A former newspaper editor related the story of one of her publication's major advertisers. Whenever the person hoped to have a news story published, he would send a press release along with clippings of his recent advertising. Such an effort is unlikely to persuade most editors. Generally advertisers do not enjoy direct influence over editorial judgment. However, this does not mean advertising exacts no constraints at all on editors. It depends on the publication.

Generally editors of larger publications feel fewer constraints from their advertisers. These publications enjoy many sources of ad income--offending one or two won't make much difference. In fact, most advertisers need the publication as much as the publication needs the advertising. This symbiosis keeps advertisers out of editors' in-boxes. However, even a large publication will hesitate before publishing something likely to offend a good cross-section of advertisers. A number of years ago a newspaper I worked on published a column critical of automobile dealers, people who spend mega-dollars on advertising. The dealers' association responded by pulling their ads for some months. They finally realized they needed the newspaper, but the publication weathered some pretty lean times during the boycott. And you can imagine that never again did an article critical of auto dealers appear on its pages.

Smaller community newspapers live closer to the wolf behind the door. Usually their entire advertising base runs to a handful of merchants. Losing even one of those merchants could drive a newspaper to mercy of its creditors. I once worked for a small-town newspaper that appeared twice a week. Part of my regular duties included meeting with advertisers who called for coverage of "news events" at their business places. These events included a new crane to move scrap metal, a bicycle given away in a supermarket promotion, and a recent shipment of television sets. Were they part of this editor's news mix? You bet.

Magazines often maintain a relationship to their advertisers considerably more cozy than that of their news-mongering cousins. "Free speech" doesn't mean as much to non-news publications which don't really see themselves upholding a mission in a democracy that drives many newspaper editors. Some large magazines are proud of their independence. Many are more nuanced. Magazines commonly publish features as a vehicle to persuade advertisers to buy space. Newspapers do this also, but usually set it up separately from the regular paper, the so-called "bridal tab," or "home-improvement supplement." Some smaller publications take it a step further. Have you ever called a local city magazine hoping they'll do a feature on your group or industry? An editor will sometimes suggest that they'll consider such a story--if you also buy an ad. In fact, if you buy a full-page ad, they'll let you write the story yourself. It really is no coincidence that many local magazines are written primarily by advertisers. After all, this editorial copy costs a publisher nothing, makes advertisers happy, makes it possible to publish at a profit, gives business to the local print shop, makes free distribution possible, and generally spreads good stuff all around. Unless you're a reader looking for fair and honest journalism.

Media publications trot out new issues at regular intervals--daily, weekly, monthly. This relentless pressure to produce something new on deadline would leave one to think that newspapers and magazines embrace change, chase the new, think fresh, experiment. Usually that's only the case if they're losing money. Successful publications tend to cling to traditions, even when there's no good reason for them. Newspapers, in particular, those graying reminders of long-gone mass media revolutions, cling often to outdated ideals. If a publication has traditionally not published bankruptcies, or always published square dance news, or never published mugshots--it's a policy, sometimes unwritten, that influences an editor. Never mind if the tradition is out-dated or stupid. Cues come from the publisher, or senior editors. For instance, if a publisher makes it known that he hates photos of dogs, well, you aren't going to see many photos of dogs, if the editor wants raises and promotions. New editors pick up a publication's traditions by ingesting the content of their publications, sometimes not even consciously picking up "the way things are done around here." That's why publications tend to take a familiar form even when the actual people producing them change. It's particularly obvious on publications relying on rapidly changing staffs. University newspapers see completely new staffs every four years--but generally look the same semester after semester.

Personal predisposition of an editor herself limits gatekeeping choices. This is the bias from within, and often it's insidious. Many of us are only dimly aware of our own prejudices. For instance, if an editor is prejudiced against, say, Hispanics, that may well affect his placement and editing of articles on that topic. At its most obvious, pro-Hispanic community articles are downplayed, while those putting Hispanics in a bad light are displayed on the cover. Most editors realize they need to at least acknowledge the biases we all have, and either try to compensate by overplaying the other side, or by handing the story to another editor. Yet reading most local publications seems to indicate many editors aren't so scrupulous. Then again, readers too have biases, and will accuse editors of bias only when that bias doesn't coincide with their own. Confusing, isn't it?