The Great Wall of China
You could sense the frustration in Keith Pray's e-mail. "We are on the same team. I have always respected your wishes and will continue to do so," he had written me. At the request of a possible advertiser, Stereophile's publisher had asked me a question about something appearing in the issue of Stereophile we were preparing. I had responded that not only would I not give him an answer, I felt it inappropriate for him to ask.
I wouldn't usually mention an internal and inconsequential matter like this if it weren't for the fact that the day Keith and I had our altercation, the news broke about another magazine editor, who doesn't appear to share my reticence about crossing the "Chinese Wall" between a magazine's editorial and advertising sides. In fact, according to an August 6, 2006 report in the Orange Country Register, the longtime editor of Fanfare, Joel Flegler, doesn't just cross the wall, he leaps over it.
In a July 19 blog, the OCR's classical music reporter, Tim Mangan, had reprinted a letter Flegler had sent to an independent record company that was inquiring about review coverage in Fanfare. Flegler had proposed a quid pro quo: that while his magazine might review the CD in any case, a way to guarantee publication would be for the company to buy advertising space. Flegler's letter included a list of what ads of various sizes would cost and suggested that the more money the record company spent on advertising in Fanfare, the more editorial about them could be publishedsuch as an interview with one of their artists.
It is important to note that Flegler had not promised the record company positive coverage, something confirmed by a couple of Fanfare reviewers in the blog discussion. But without the company buying advertising in Fanfare, Flegler would not give reviewing the CD "top priority" in the publication queue. And, as Mangan said, "So what? An editorial decision had already been made, before the review."
I agree with Mangan that such a direct connection between editorial coverage and the purchase of advertising renders a magazine's content "worthless." I am ashamed that Flegler and I both put "magazine editor" down on our job descriptions.
I wouldn't usually write about a matter such as this. I feel that magazines should not take public potshots at one another. But I have received questions from Stereophile readers asking about this practice, suggesting that if Fanfare's editor has no qualms about trading review coverage for advertising, then how can they be sure I don't? Such accusations are hardly new. In a Manufacturers' Comments" letter published in our December 1989 issue, responding to a 1989 review (recently posted in our free online archives), Waveform's JohnÖtvös had whined that the negative comments we had made about the sound of his speaker and the measured problems I had found owed more to the fact that Waveform wasn't an advertiser than to anything real. Which was as much BS then as it would be now (footnote 1).
I have written many times in Stereophile about the separation between our editorial decisions and the presence or absence of advertising. (See, for example, my March 1996 essay, "The Great Wall of China.") I assure you that that separation has survived many management changes at Stereophile. "We are on the same team," Keith had reminded me in his e-mail, and in a wider sense he is correct. But I play primarily for the editorial team, which is, I believe, why on October 2 I am about to celebrate 24 years, without a break, of successfully editing audio magazines. [This was written seven years ago at the time of reposting to www.stereophile.com; on October 2, 2013, I will be celebrating the the start of my 32nd year at the editorial helm of an audio magazine.JA]
But don't take my word for that separation. Look at the evidence. If I gave Flegler's "top priority" to reviews of products made or distributed by advertisers, that would be readily evident from an analysis of our coverage. Here is such an analysis:
I added up how many products had received more than a nominal mention in Stereophile ie, products that had been written about in a formal equipment report, a Follow-Up report, or in a column by Sam Tellig, Mikey Fremer, Art Dudley, Kal Rubinson, or John Marksbetween October 2005 and April 2006. I split the list into current advertisers in Stereophile and non-advertisers.
The results: 42 products reviewed were from advertisers, 48 from non-advertisers. So if anything, we favor non-advertisers when choosing what to write about.
However, if there are very many more non-advertisers than advertisers, and if we chose a representative selection of audio products from both groups, this means that reviews of products from advertisers should be much fewer in number than reviews of products from non-advertisers, instead of only slightly fewer. How do these statistics look when examined in that light?
We are in the processing of compiling our 2007 Buyer's Guide, due to be published in November 2006, which excludes by intention audio products intended for home theater and architectural use that we don't cover in the monthly magazine. The database we have compiled over the past four years of companies that manufacture products eligible for review in Stereophile lists 363 separate brands. Inevitably but regrettably, some brands get omitted. So let's say that the set of brands eligible for review in Stereophile is 370 at maximum, but probably less, given that we list brands in the Buyer's Guide that don't have the necessary five dealers to qualify for a review.
I don't track advertising in Stereophile, so I asked Keith Pray for a list of active advertisers; ie, brands that had been advertised in Stereophile in the past 18 months. That total is 120, not including brands that had advertised only once, which would require rather a deeper dip into the database than he had time for. Let's assume that including those onetime advertisers would increase the total number of brands currently advertising in Stereophile to 150.
Number of advertisers as proportion of eligible brands: 40%
Proportion of advertised brands featured in Stereophile reviews: 47%
Number of non-advertisers as proportion of eligible brands: 60%
Proportion of non-advertised brands featured in Stereophile reviews: 53%
So, in the worst case, there is a slight bias in favor of advertisers, in that instead of 40% of the products we choose for review coming from advertisers, the proportion is actually 47%. But you don't have to accuse me of "pulling a Flegler" to explain the 7% disparity. There are many other factors involved. The set of companies that advertise in Stereophile has high correlations with: the set of companies that have a high profile in the marketplace; the set of companies that have been in existence for 10 or more years; and the set of companies whose products have been favorably reviewed previously, not just in Stereophile but in all audio magazines, and are thus more successful in the long term. Such companies also exhibit more regularly at Consumer Electronics Shows and have a higher profile at dealers, and are thus more likely to have their products auditioned by Stereophile's reviewers when they are trying to decide what to write about in future issues.
The effects of these factors are impossible to predict, but I believe it is fair to point out that they will diminish the slight correlation noted above. Which, again, arose from looking at the raw data in the worst possible light for Stereophile.
Normal service can now resume, now that I have shown that "The Great Wall of China" is in a state of good repair at this magazine.
Footnote 1: This false meme is as alive in 2013 as it was in 1989as I was preparing this essay for republication, I was contacted by a manufacturer concerned that as he was no longer an advertiser, we would be dropping his products from "Recommended Components." I assured him that whether or not we recommended his products had no connection with whether or not he advertised.John Atkinson