E.B. White on Sponsorship: poisoning the media well?

The press in our free country is reliable and useful not because of its good character but because of its great diversity. As long as there are many owners, each pursuing his own brand of truth, we the people have the opportunity to arrive at the truth and to dwell in the light. The multiplicity of ownership is crucial. It’s only when there are a few owners, or, as in a government-controlled press, one owner, that the truth becomes elusive and the light fails. For a citizen in our free society, it is an enormous privilege and a wonderful protection to have access to hundreds of periodicals, each peddling its own belief. There is safety in numbers: the papers expose each other’s follies and peccadillos, correct each other’s mistakes, and cancel out each other’s biases. The reader is free to range around in the whole editorial bouillabaisse and explore it for the one clam that matters—the truth.

— E.B. White, letter to W.B. Jones, director of communications at Xerox, 1/30/76

The Letters of Note blog has a wonderful three-letter piece up today featuring E.B. White’s criticism of “sponsored content” in the magazine business and other print media (in response to a Xerox-sponsored feature in Esquire magazine) — including a sort of elegy for a free, independent press that serves the public.

As someone who does a fair amount of work on business models for media companies — and specifically works with publishers who are looking for non-advertising revenue opportunities — I loved reading this. White’s very eloquent about his qualms: “If I felt a shock at the news of the Salisbury-Xerox-Esquire arrangement, it was because the sponsorship principle seemed to challenge and threaten everything I believe in: that the press must not only be free, it must be fiercely independent—to survive and to serve.”

How, exactly, we support media without a complete reliance on advertiser and sponsor dollars, is, well, what I spend a lot of time thinking about. There are a lot of different approaches to using corporate dollars to fund journalistic enterprises, and I’m not sure I agree with White that sponsorship is always a first sign of evil for an independent publisher, but blurring the lines between editorial and advertising, which sponsored content often does, is a dangerous game.

I have encouraged projects at various employers and client publishers that were only able to go ahead with the support of a sponsor, but I admit that I have reservations about the effects of sponsorship on publishers and media in general. I do think there’s a certain amount of creativity-killing that happens when publishers continuously turn to sponsors for revenue, and I think White’s right that, no matter how subtly it happens, it does transform the writer’s relationship to the topic at hand.

Publishers need new models, particularly in an era in which readers are unwilling — or at least no longer being asked effectively — to help support the costs of producing content. Obviously, there are a lot of smart folks thinking about this today, but so far there are only some glimmers of success, a lot of failures, and no knock-out successes. I’m often disappointed by the number of these “emerging” models that are just attempts to bring advertisers into more efficient communication with readers (e.g., this week’s failure of the Village Soup). A big part of what I liked about our work at GigaOM Pro was that we were (and the team still is) genuinely trying to find ways to connect readers with useful content using cost-efficient production models* and, y’know, marketing content and information services that people actually wanted/needed enough to spend some of their own money on it.

…This isn’t actually a complete thought, but mostly I just wanted to share the Letters of Note piece, so I’ll leave it there and hit Publish.

* – On a related note, I enjoyed reading this piece (h/t Anand), which called into question the reasons why producing content is so damn expensive. I don’t think this model can work for all things — journals publish research papers written by authors who keep themselves fed and sheltered with income from other academic and professional jobs. But I do think it’s important to unpack what, exactly, costs so much about producing content in any publishing environment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: