The Great Wall of China

"A newspaper can flout an advertiser...but if it alienates the buying public, it loses the one indispensable asset of its existence."—Walter Lippmann, 1922, reprinted in Public Opinion, New York: Free Press, 1965.

I recently relaxed with a book that is essential reading for anyone involved in magazine publishing: Thomas Maier's biography of publishing magnate Si Newhouse (Newhouse, St Martin's Press, 1994). As well as Random House Books and a slew of cash-making local newspapers, the billionaire Newhouse family owns Condé Nast, which built its fortune with Vogue, its journalistic reputation with Vanity Fair, and its empire by acquiring Architectural Digest, The New Yorker, and a major shareholding in that demographic darling Wired. Mr. Maier goes into some detail on Newhouse's takeover of The New Yorker because of the clash between The New Yorker's set of values, where the strongest possible "Chinese Wall" existed between the magazine's advertising and editorial departments, and those of Vogue, where the editorial content is often hard to distinguish from the advertising.

All publications have to decide how insurmountable that wall should be. Stereophile bases itself on the old New Yorker in that its wall is as high as it can be: the magazine's two advertising representatives and even its Publisher, Larry Archibald, don't see the contents of an upcoming issue until after it has been sent to the printer.

So how, then, am I to explain the misperceptions to be found in the letters from Tom Larson and Justin Havemann in this month's "Letters" section (see Sidebar)? "You have ruined the magazine..." thunders Mr. Larson, adding that "the real business of Stereophile [is to] generate ad revenue....Gordon Holt's first priority was to his readers. Yours is not."

First, I don't believe that a lack of commercial success necessarily equates with a publication being honest. Surely it is possible for a magazine both to turn a profit and to serve its readers' best interests? Second, while it is true that most Stereophile reviews are positive—and Justin Havemann is correct when he states that most components we review show up in "Recommended Components"—this does not mean that we pander to our advertisers.

Even though Stereophile publishes more reviews of more components than any other US audio magazine, we can do no more than scratch the surface of what is available. The essential mechanism for winnowing down the list of potential review candidates is the enthusiasm of our writers. They seek out what excites them, the products that get their creative juices flowing. This automatically means that the products that get ink spilled on them tend to be the ones that hold the most promise of sounding good. Not surprisingly, most of them are recommended—though not always without reservation, as you can read.

Whether a company advertises or not in Stereophile is irrelevant when it comes to our choosing which products get reviewed. It is also irrelevant when the magazine's reviewers arrive at their value judgments. Stereophile gives good reviews to products whose manufacturers advertise. We also give positive reviews to companies that have never shown any sign of wanting to advertise in Stereophile. We give negative reviews to companies who don't advertise; Stereophile also gives bad reviews to companies that do. All that matters to our writers is the sound of the components they review. Stereophile's highest priority is to its readers.

My mentor, John Crabbe, the erstwhile editor of the UK magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review, explained it thusly: If you tell the truth about components you review, there will always be a small percentage of companies at any one time who are not advertising in your pages. But if you publish the truth, you will have a good magazine. And if you have a good magazine, you will have readers. And as long as you have readers, disgruntled advertisers will eventually return. But if you don't tell the truth, you won't have a good magazine. And if you don't have a good magazine, you won't have readers, at least not for long. And if you don't have readers, you won't have advertisers. In publishing, as in all things, honesty is the best policy.