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Survival of the Ad-less

By Marsha Casselman

“Publishing, I think, has lost its soul,” says Kalle Lasn, publisher and editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine.

He perceives a loss of journalistic integrity with each “insidious deal” a magazine makes with an advertiser – censuring content in an attempt to please the funding source. He is deeply disconcerted by the lack of fairness he sees, where an advertising contract with a deep-pocketed corporation will keep a magazine afloat and making profits for a couple years, regardless of whether its content fails to please readers.

Lasn and others are trying to set things straight by creating ad-free magazines, promoting discussion and spreading their message without what they see as the influence of corporate agendas. They judge success by the number of readers enjoying the content, not by the amount of profit made. But without a business mentality and accompanying ad revenue, just getting by is a struggle.

Consider Geez, a new magazine for spiritual activists. Running on pure volunteerism and generous donations from family and friends, it squeezed out its first issue last December: 96 pages with zero advertising.

Geez thinks of itself as an affront to current “hip culture,” a culture marketing and selling useless goods, according to Aiden Enns, publisher of Geez and former managing editor of Adbusters. So product ads are not an option. Advocacy ads may not be considered either, as he sees inherent problems with paying to get ideas published.

Geez “…recognizes the problems in a fee-for-speech media environment. It’s problematic in that those who don’t have money, whose voices need to be heard, are silenced,” Enns says.

Keeping with the ethos of the magazine means even certain types of donations may not be accepted. Enns has reservations about accepting money from philanthropists who benefit from what he considers an inherently exploitative economic system.

Without large donations or ad revenue, Geez relies on subscribers and support from friends, not to mention hours of unpaid work. But, Enns realizes this can’t last forever. “It just can’t be as substantial as I want it to be if we’re all volunteers,” he says. Later he may consider applying for foundation grants, government funding, and perhaps advertising from organizations to pay staff.

Staffers are paid at Adbusters, however. The anti-consumer-culture magazine found itself in debt $500,000 after its first seven years, but has managed to survive since 1989 with minimal advertising revenue.

Lasn says although they do not at this time publish many ads, their policy does not exclude all advertising. In the past they ran product ads for books and media literacy kits, “Ads for those products that we feel are benign, products that we can believe in,” he says.

They also had a policy from their inception to accept advocacy ads from any person or organization, regardless of their ideology, promoting what he calls “a free marketplace of ideas.” Yet he admits there is a common perception that Adbusters is hostile towards all advertising, and therefore ads are hard come by. So after 15 years, the magazine is almost entirely ad-free.

Most years, Adbusters subsists with subscription and newsstand sales only. With a circulation of 120,000 they’ve built up the subscription revenue by expanding readership to foreign markets such as the U.S., the U.K., and Australia.

“When you don’t have advertisers you’re basically at the mercy of how well your magazine is selling in the marketplace,” says Lasn. He estimates 95 per cent of their revenue is subscription/newsstand sales,  and the other five per cent comes from donors interested in their social marketing campaigns, like Buy-Nothing Day.

Despite strong circulation, Lasn confesses that certain years are a struggle.

“2005 was a year when we barely kept even, and we had to use up some of the profits we made in 2004 . . . So it’s a constant struggle, especially if you don’t have ads,” he says.

Adbusters  has applied for charitable status – which would allow it to receive tax- deductible donations – but was rejected on the grounds that it is too political, according to Lasn. Other non-consumer political magazines like Briarpatch and Canadian Dimension have run into the same problem. “We don’t qualify for charitable status even though there are lots of other organizations, right-wing organizations like the Fraser Institute, that are charities and they are overtly political,” says Lasn.

They also applied for government assistance, but were again rejected. The largest chunk of the Canadian Magazine Fund (CMF) – the fund for editorial content – is allotted only for magazines with substantial ad revenue.

A magazine with large circulation like Adbusters needs at least 10 per cent of its revenue to be ad-revenue in order to qualify. “CMF and the way that charitable status is working in Canada, it is a very skewed, biased game which is stacked against people like us at Adbusters, people who are driven by passion and have something very important to say ecologically and politically, and people like us are increasingly marginalized.”

Both Adbusters and Geez may learn something from Briarpatch, an anti-globalization magazine that has survived over 30 years with the help of unconventional advertising, according to publisher Chelsea Looysen.

Briarpatch sets stringent conditions on product ads. Although they do accept ads for  products and companies they deem ethical, the majority are advocacy ads from unions and like-minded organizations which account for one third of its revenue.

Looysen says there is a limit to the amount of these ads they will seek out. Due to postal costs, they can only make the magazine so big. “Even if we did have the opportunity to sell more advertising . . . we wouldn’t run ads at the expense of cutting material, ” says Looysen.

This kind of ad revenue is hard to come by, so they compensate through donations and holding fundraising events, as well as making use of volunteers. They can afford to pay their publisher and the editor full-time, but depend on volunteer writers and a volunteer board of directors. Working long hours without pay, scheduling fundraising events, and begging readers for small donations is just part the daily grind at Briarpatch.

According to Lasn, the struggle is worth it just to exist, to “draw a clear line in the sand,” in an effort to separate the ideals of those who fund the magazine from the ideals of those who actually create it. 

 

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