How magazines stay in business nowadays is a mystery. Some manage it by sheer excellence. I subscribe to three: The New Yorker, The Economist, and Consumer Reports.
The rest must resort to other stratagems....
I was in the barber shop on Schermer Road a week ago Saturday, waiting for Leo to finish up with a customer. I turned my attention to a pile of magazines—are there enough barber shops and doctor's waiting rooms to keep the profession afloat?— and fished the July Gentleman's Quarterly out of the pile on a low table. Not my usual fare, but I figured, why not? See what the hip metrosexuals are up to. Nothing really registered until I got to this advertisement for Klondike ice cream bars.
It seemed very familiar, even though I was sure I'd never seen the ad before. Nor have I ever eaten a Klondike bar, to my memory. Nor would I want to, even after seeing this ad. Especially not after seeing this ad. I paused, and began flipping backward through the magazine, until I came to this:
The same stack of Klondike bars—the photo from the ad, under the serious sounding heading, "@GQREPORTS," which suggested information dug up by the hardworking hipsters on the GQ staff. I squinted hard and saw the word "promotions." Ah, paid content.
Here is how they described the wonders of the aforementioned Klondike bars:
Is that not the lamest block of copy you've ever read in your life? It's one thing to sell out and pretend that the average reading of GQ is having trouble deciding what kind of frozen comestible to ask his mom to pick up at Jewel. But "a little spice to their lives" doesn't even mesh with the idea of ice cream. Nobody wants spicy ice cream. It's repulsive.
I don't want to make too much of this. The actual, non-paid, produced-by-journalists-of- some-sort editorial content of GQ was never exactly hard-hitting reportage: more how to wax your pubes and an interview with whatever passing 20ish celebrity was enjoying his spasm of fame at the moment. The cover story of the July issue, "The Most Stylish Men Alive" is not only banal, but uses the cliched, tired, unfortunate "Blah Blah Blabbity Blah Alive!" structure pioneered by People magazine that leads one to suspect, grotesquely, that a future GQ might turn its attention to nattily-dressed corpses.
So hardly better than a stack of Klondike bars. And if you pressed a gun to my temple and demanded I declare the name of an endeavor that Ryan Gosling was involved with, I'd be a dead man. Movies, based on his looks.
But still. All a magazine, all any publication has, is its credibility, its voice. And while that voice will be stilled if it goes out of business, it can also be so strangled by commercial considerations that it loses all meaning.
Yes, there's a lot of that going around lately. Sponsored content is not the Kiss of Death. The Tribune has its Blue Sky Innovation and, from what I've seen of it, manages to pull the somersault off. The Sun-Times has a fat wad of USA Today living inside it, which I comfort myself by observing, "It's better than nothing." The key is to have stories that are actually interesting, in themselves, despite being sponsored or appropriated from elsewhere. It can be done.
I haven't tried it yet, but I've considered nodding at my advertiser. Like a diver bouncing at the end of a high dive, summoning his courage, trying not to look down. This blog is just ending its third season being sponsored by Eli's Cheesecake, a financial arrangement that gives me a sense of validation, plus spending money. And though I am vastly grateful to Marc Schulman for buying ads on my blog, and though I have Eli's cheesecake right now in my freezer, there by demand of my oldest boy, who loves the stuff, I have yet to figure out how to create some editorial content here without seeming like a complete sell-out and a fraud, or even if I should make the attempt. I mean, what about those readers who don't notice that nice new Valentine ad in the upper right hand corner, who are wondering, "If only there was some rich and satisfying desert substance I could send to the significant person in my life at Valentine's Day to show just how much I care?"
Not that Eli's has ever requested it. But I do want to encourage them to return next year. And it seems almost a creative challenge, to put my head in the lion's mouth and pull it out. Why not write about cheesecake? I write about every other flippin' thing, every goddamn day. Cheesecake can be interesting too.
Is avoiding that topic courage or cowardice? The Tribune seems able to manage it., and they're a respected mainstream publication. Plugging "GQ sells out to Klondike bars" into Google reveals no outrage on the Internet, which can build up a mob of criticism over a 6-year-old's drawing for his mother. Maybe this is how we do it nowadays. Maybe caring at all about this kind of thing is an antique concern, like worrying about accuracy on Facebook. Thoughts?