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The Influence of Publishers and Advertisers
on Agri-Business Magazines
Stephen A. Banning
Manship School of Mass Communication
Louisiana State University
James F. Evans
University of Illinois
Contact author: Co-author:
Stephen A. Banning James F. Evans
221 Journalism Building 1074 County Road 1500E
Louisiana State University Philo, IL 61864
Baton Rouge, LA 70803 Email: [log in to unmask]
Email: [log in to unmask] Phone: 217.684.2354
Office phone: 225.757.2098
Home phone: 225.757.1808
The Influence of Publishers and Advertisers
on Agri-Business Magazines
This study focuses upon the health, vigor and credibility of a
complex information system in which the U.S. food enterprise and
society in general have an important stake. Authors employed a
contractualist model in which power requires mutual agreement by all
parties. Through qualitative research methods, the study reported
here examined related views among a sample of agricultural publishers
and advertisers. Both groups expressed most concern about
consolidation that is taking place among producers, marketers and
publishers, but they focused on different sectors. All three kinds
of consolidation have the effect of giving the advertiser more power
within the triad. Publishers and advertisers emphasized the need to
maintain editorial credibility of commercial farm periodicals,
acknowledged advertiser-related pressures, but shared a feeling that
such pressures can be controlled and should not influence the
independent stance of editorial content. They differed somewhat,
however, in views on managing the editorial-advertising "wall."
Publishers also identified ways in which they are adapting, through
diversification, to changing strategies of advertisers in an era of
consolidation and new information technologies. By revealing
perspectives of all partners in the triad, findings provide a useful
staging point for interactions and understandings.
The Influence of Publishers and Advertisers
on Agri-Business Magazines
Business aspects of agricultural publishing lie at the heart of
concerns about editorial independence of commercial farm publications
in serving the vital food and agriculture sector of society. This
perspective is not unique to agricultural publishing, of course, nor is it new.
"…the tendency of the times is to less independence than formerly,"
George Whitaker of New England Farmer observed in 1902. "The changed
conditions under which newspapers are published now tend to make the
counting room the controlling center of the paper. Advertising must
be secured if possible, large advertisers must not be offended."
While concerns about editorial independence are not new, current
dimensions of them seem pivotal for U.S. commercial farm periodicals
(considered here as those directed to producers and supported
financially by subscription income from readers and/or sale of
advertising space). The issue is important because the hundreds of
such periodicals provide a combined circulation of more than
18,600,000 per issue. They are widely recognized as valued sources
of information for producers (e.g., Custer, 2003; Gallup, 2000;
Banning & Evans, 2001).
Pressures on several fronts are intensifying concerns about not
only the editorial independence of the commercial farm press, but
also the financial health and well being of it.
Concentration in agribusiness. Extensive shifts are occurring in
industries on which commercial farm periodicals depend for most or
all of their income. For example, the agricultural equipment sector
is now dominated by a small number of transnational firms (Blandford,
2002). Concentration in the agricultural biotechnology industry has
dramatically reshaped the seed and agricultural chemical
sectors. More than 1,500 mergers, acquisitions, licenses and other
alliances took place in the agricultural biotechnology supply
industry from 1981 to 1996 (Goldsmith, 2001). Between 1995 and 1998,
six large multinational corporations acquired or entered into joint
ventures with approximately 68 seed companies. By 1998 the four
largest seed corn firms controlled 67% share of market, the four
largest seed soybean firms 49% and the four largest seed cotton firms
87% (King, 2001).
Concentration in food production and marketing. The size of the
reader base for farm periodicals has declined. Numbers of farms in
the U.S. have dropped from 3,157,857 in 1964 to 2,128,982 in 2002
(U.S. Census of Agriculture, 1999 and 2004). Remaining farms and
ranches have become larger and more specialized (MacDonald & Denbaly,
2000). For example, in 2001 the four largest pork-producing
operations managed 46% of the nation's sow herd (Hendrickson &
Heffernan, 2002). About one-fourth of U.S. farms and ranches account
for 90% of total farm production (Collins, 2000). In such a
setting, firms that sell products and services to producers are using
more personalized strategies. Approaches such as relationship
marketing, online communications strategies and direct mail challenge
farm periodical advertising.
The markets into which farmers and ranchers sell their produce have
also concentrated rapidly. In 2002, the four largest beef packers
controlled 81% share of market, the four largest pork processors 59%,
the four largest broiler processors 50% and the four largest soybean
crushing firms 80% (Hendrickson & Heffernan, 2002). The five largest
grocery retailers in the U.S. held an estimated 54% share of market
in 2003, up from 24% in 1997 (Hendrickson, 2003).
These persistent trends toward concentration "from gene to
supermarket shelf" have intensified concerns about an array of
negative effects on farm families and structures, rural communities,
food supplies, the environment and societies at large (e.g.,
Heffernan, 1999; Sexton, 2000; Kinsey, 2001; Harl, 2003; Berry, 1984;
MacDonald & Denbaly, 2000).
Such trends also raise questions about how concentration within the
new food economy leads to monopolized information and inadequate,
inequitable access to information that producers need. (Kinsey,
2001; Bonnen, 1975; Evans, 1992; Hepp & Olson, 1980).
Concentration in commercial farm publishing. Consolidation in this
sector is not expressed in numbers of periodicals. The number of U.S.
commercial farm periodicals published in 2004 (390) is about the same
as in 1970 (386) (Hedblad, 2004; Evans & Salcedo, 1974). Such
findings might seem surprising in light of reduced numbers of
farms. However, a 90-year analysis revealed that the number of farms
has not been a major predictor of numbers of such periodicals (Evans
& Salcedo, 1974).
Instead, concentration in agricultural publishing seems to be
revealing itself most clearly in ownership structures. The U.S.
magazine publishing industry generally shows relatively low levels of
ownership concentration. A 13-14% share of magazines published by
multi-title publishers in 1997 was about the same as in 1978
(Compaine & Gomery, 2000). However, within agricultural publishing,
the 2004 Marketing Services Guide identified 20 "U.S. Print
Units." Each published up to 20 commercial farm
periodicals. Together, they represented 142 periodicals, or 36% of
the 390 U.S. total (AgriMarketing, 2004). A multi-national publisher
owned the largest unit.
Increasing concentration in ownership structures, intermingled with
other kinds of concentration mentioned above, is generating varied
concerns about agricultural publishing. Among them: survivability of
periodicals; advertisers' uses of market power; and effects of
editorial staff cutbacks and consolidations of periodicals on
editorial vigor, editorial independence, localized coverage,
credibility and value to readers (e.g., Roth, 2002; Lehnert, 1991;
Wall, 2003; Guebert, 2003; Hays & Reisner, 1990).
This study is the third in a series to examine power relationships
among agricultural periodicals, readers and advertisers. The series
builds upon the assumption that U.S. agriculture and society in
general have an important stake in maintaining the vigor, health and
credibility of the commercial farm press. The series explores
perceptions and relationships within the triad, with particular focus
on the levels, kinds and effects of advertiser influence on editorial content.
The triad approach involves a contractualist model in which "power
requires mutual agreement by all parties – like players in a game,
everyone must agree on the rules." (Cunningham, 1999) Within the
framework of social contract theory, this triad concept features
power relationships based on mutual consent, pursuit of mutual
benefits and mutual options for departure. It places importance on
all partners in the triad and, we believe, offers more promise than
finger-pointing approaches this topic easily generates.
The first study in the series examined 10-year trends in views held
by agricultural journalists (Banning & Evans, 2001). Findings
suggested that agricultural journalists felt substantial and
increasing pressures in their efforts to maintain editorial
integrity. The 10-year comparison suggested that advertisers are
becoming more aggressive in requesting editorial space and that
journalists see agricultural publications catering more and more to
The second study, among U.S. farmers and ranchers, revealed that the
majority (59%) observed problems of advertiser influence on stories
appearing in the farm periodicals they read. Also, a majority
expressed concern about how this influence affects the information
they receive (Banning & Evans, in press).
This third study, closest to the publishing counting-room, examines
perceptions of agricultural publishers and advertisers in the
triad. Literature about this subject would lead us to expect that
publishers, like the journalists on their staffs, will be keenly
aware of the dilemma between advertiser interests and editorial
independence. They may tend to see more problems associated with the
actions of other publications than of their own. Some may place
strong emphasis on maintaining the "wall" between editorial and
advertising while others may suggest that editors become involved
with the advertising departments of their publications (e.g.,
Johnston, 2004; Autry, 1978; Chandler, 1904; Farm, Stock and Home, 1915).
Advertisers also might be expected to recognize the dilemma between
advertiser interests and editorial independence. In this view of long
tradition, perhaps most advertisers will see editors' loyalty
directed toward readers (Todd, 1920; Harrison, 1989). However, some
advertisers, emphasizing mutual dependence and well being, may
encourage active cooperation.
Following are the research questions addressed in this study:
RQ1: What are the major concerns of agricultural publishers and advertisers?
RQ2: How credible are agricultural periodicals today in the eyes of
publishers and advertisers, and what trends or concerns may be involved?
RQ3: To what extent, if any, do publishers and advertisers believe
agricultural periodicals have special obligations to maintain
RQ4: To what extent, if any, do publishers and advertisers believe
advertisers are attempting to influence editorial content?
RQ5: To what extent, if any, do publishers and advertisers believe
readers are concerned about advertiser influence on editorial content?
While earlier studies in this series used survey methodologies,
qualitative research can reveal information that researchers might
not think to ask. Qualitative interviews, therefore, were used to
unearth a deeper level of information. Publishing and advertising
executives were also considered more responsive to personal
interviews than to surveys.
A protocol of mostly open-ended questions was designed, based on a
bank of questions used in earlier surveys (Hays & Reisner, 1990;
Banning & Evans, 2001; Banning & Evans, in press). These had evolved
from previous research about journalistic credibility (Mills, 1983).
The seven publishers interviewed represented commercial farm
periodicals of varied circulation, geographic coverage and subject
emphases. Some publishers were responsible for individual titles,
some for groups of titles. The interviewed publishers are, or have
been, prominent in national organizations representing agricultural
publishing. The three advertisers interviewed represented marketing
firms of varied size, enterprise and market focus, from regional to
Interviews were conducted in person and by telephone. In the
interest of consistency, one researcher conducted all interviews,
which lasted 20 to 90 minutes each. In keeping with traditional
methods of qualitative research, the interviews were tape recorded
and later transcribed. The transcriptions were scrutinized for
trends and themes among interviews, then findings organized within
the framework of research questions. In the results that follow,
quotes are used to illustrate the constructs and patterns. All names
of publishers and advertisers are pseudonyms and do not represent
ethnicity or gender of persons interviewed.
Views of publishers. All publisher respondents cited industry
consolidation as their top concern. For example, Adam, publisher of a
broad-scoped subscription magazine considered one of the nation's top
agricultural periodicals, noted: "[The major concern] is
consolidation of farmers, advertisers and publishers. When two
advertisers merge you would think their advertising spending would be
one plus one equals two. In reality the advertising spending is one
plus one equals point seven."
Publisher Bradford, who leads a company that publishes more than six
major agricultural producer journals with international distribution,
echoed this sentiment: "To me, looking at a more broad context, one
[concern] is the consolidating advertising base…" Bradford went on to
express a further concern about the consolidation of readers.
Carl noted: "It affects the publishing industry because the primary
revenue source for most farm magazines is advertising. So as your
reader base goes down, you have fewer readers on which to predicate
your advertising. The other major concern is there are a growing
number of ways to communicate with a potential buyer or
farmer. You've got the Internet and you've got a variety of ways
other than print advertising and few publications and very few start-ups."
One serendipitous finding was that some agricultural publishers are
adding services to protect themselves from recessions within one
area. Four publishers volunteered a view that diversification is the
answer to consolidation. Carl observed: "They [publishers] have to
diversify their revenue streams. I think the total budget that
advertisers are spending is as large or larger now than it's ever
been. It's just that they don't have to use print as much as they
used to, because they're diverting money to all of these other
methods and even custom publishing…and there seems to be a crying
need for selectivity." The means of serving advertisers could run
the gamut "from display advertising, from the trade show business,
the seminar business, the electronic newsletter business, [and]
search engine words [that] an advertiser wants to buy a word from a
search engine to come up with leads to sell his product. Publishers
are going to need to buy every single avenue of delivery to the readers."
Bradford also saw diversification as vital to survival, noting:
"…they are shifting a lot more dollars over to the direct or customer
relationship." Publisher Kevin suggested: "We have to be very
targeted" and "offer multiple ways to reach those audiences by
publication and by Internet site and by direct marketing
opportunities." No publishers emphasized strategies such as
increased subscription revenue from readers or broadened circulation
demographics, perhaps because such strategies fail to fit
advertisers' interest in focused, specified reader profiles.
Dependence on fewer agricultural advertisers means greater pressure
on publishers, a matter related to the research question about
editorial credibility of farm periodicals.
The publishers generally considered credibility to be high. Some
felt it is high and will stay high, while others felt it is high, but
not quite as high as in past years. Daryl, who heads a company that
publishes several agricultural magazines, noted: "We're not seeing
any indication that the credibility of farm publications has fallen.
It's always been top of the charts. The most preferred medium the
farmers use. And I think the credibility of that goes along with the
preference. They wouldn't prefer it if it wasn't credible…"
One publisher suggested credibility for subscription based
publications is higher than for publications supported entirely by
advertising, noting: "I think if they [the readers] get a free
magazine they think, 'I'm going to get a snow job here. If I'm
paying for a magazine, I expect it to be a little more critical, [to
get an] unbiased viewpoint.'"
Carl, a publisher primarily of free circulation journals, felt
credibility of agricultural journals in general has gone up, noting:
"I would say it's increasing. I think any publisher that is in
business today has to do constant research to see what the readers
need to read about. You have to continue to develop editorial
content…[and] it appears the value of the print advertising is still
very high among readers." Adam agreed: "Farm publications have as
high credibility as ever, studies show."
Jack was less optimistic: "I actually see it decreasing. They
[readers] are so much more sophisticated. I don't see the reader
getting what it needs out of the publication. Some of the
publications that are out there, they need to be…they need to provide
guidance. And they can do that by telling what the situation really
is, and not what they think they [readers] want them to hear. I
think that strengthens the bond between the reader and the publication."
Publishers agreed that producers feel agricultural publications are
extremely important. Several suggested that readers find
agricultural publications more important now than in the past because
new agricultural technology demands continual education. Adam
suggested: "There is more reliance on industry information. There is
less information coming from university extension and the industry
has credibility. There's a need for technical information and
industry is one place that has it. The readers want technical
information now more than ever."
Echoing this sentiment about the commercial farm periodical, Bradford
observed: "It stimulates thoughts. It stimulates ideas, new ideas,
some new perspectives, and it still is a very convenient, comfortable
and familiar medium of context to deal with. I say it is at least
equal to what it has ever been and potentially in light of the
competitive market place for information [that is on] all of the
Internet and so forth. I think, relatively, one can say that it is
stronger than it's ever been, because even in a base of those
challenges, the producer, the farmer, still looks at the print medium
as still his most reliable source."
The emotions publishers expressed about the importance of credibility
ranged from firm to adamant. Some publishers not only saw it as
vital to their businesses, but also held it as a personal value,
indicating their magazines' credibility was important to their self-image.
Bradford noted: "I think there are a lot of publishers that have been
slow to recognize and understand their audience and market. The
audience is the market. The advertisers are out there and that's who
pays the bills, but the fact of the matter is, the reader is our
audience and our market. If we don't serve them very effectively, we
have no platform."
Regardless of how credible publishers saw the farm periodicals
industry, they universally saw their readers as shrewd and cynical of
publications in general. One publisher, Adam, said readers
constantly scrutinize the periodicals for conflicts of interest and
often write to complain of alleged abuses, often when none
exists. Several publishers spontaneously laughed when this subject
came up, finding humor in the idea readers might be duped by
conflicts of interest.
Adam noted: "The readers know if a publisher is trying to sell them
something. The publisher might as well put it in red letters and say
it's an ad because they're not going to get it past the
reader." Daryl also felt readers are cynical, observing: "But aren't
we all? We've all been subjected to virtually every possible message
and advertising idea out there."
Jack noted: "Farmers are getting smarter when they can read between
the lines and say, 'Well, that's just an advertisement for that
company.' I don't think you can pull one over on them like
that." Kevin agreed: "I think they can [tell when editorial matter
is influenced]. I think they do, and I think they speak out
when…they perceive that's occurring."
Publishers universally acknowledged pressures from advertisers. Adam
noted: "There are pressures from advertisers. However, they're no
worse than before. There have always been pressures. The reporter
who's been working five years may think it's terrible, but if you're
like me and have been working 40 years you know it's always been like this."
Daryl agreed: "Yes. We do have some of that. You get some input
from advertisers. Those not very sophisticated, those not very
knowledgeable, those new to the industry. You get some of that
influence. Some of those questions from people not very good at what
they do…But you know, it's not a lot. But you do get someone who
does try to throw you an offer-you-can't-refuse type of thing. But
you have to be strong enough to say if this idea's really newsworthy,
fine. We'll do the story regardless of what advertising they do with us."
Carl's view was similar: "There's always [advertiser] pressure. The
question is how you deal with it [he laughs]…We have people who come
to us and say 'If you write on this particular product we'll run an
ad.' We say, 'We can't do that.' On the other hand, if there is a
plant that we can do a plant article on and your equipment is part of
the plant, it's part of the photograph."
Jack explained: "Oh yeah [laughs], I think that's been going on for a
long time. And it's up to the publication to toe the line. I think
there are publications that come up with special projects for
advertisers. They [advertisers] want to be in a certain kind of
content, say animal identification, so some publications may come up
with content such as that. But that doesn't necessarily mean the
editorial is written by or influenced by the advertisers."
Evan saw advertiser pressure as natural: "I think it's only natural
that someone who has something they're trying to get in the
marketplace to have it presented in its best light."
However, publishers said they draw a line between feeling the
pressure and giving in to it. Bradford explained: "If you don't feel
like saying 'No' to somebody, if you don't have some confidence, you
probably don't want to get into…trade publishing... You need to go
some place else. Because it's not necessarily a business for
lightweights. It's not an easy business." Adam summarized it
simply: "Of course, there are big advertisers who carry a big
club. But most of them don't take the short view... There will
always be pressures."
While publishers said maintaining proper editorial distance in
content is important, most endorsed contact between advertisers and
their editorial staff. Jack said: "I do think that there's an active
role that editorial people can play in the process and that doesn't
mean selling out or pleasing advertisers…We have editorial people
that go out with sales people on a call. We're not crossing that
line, and advertisers recognize that. They appreciate that they can
have a little face time with the editor. I think there should be
some of that going on."
Evan made a similar case: "Our editors are encouraged to have strong
relationships with our advertisers, to know what they're
doing…advances in technology…to take that to our readers, and that
helps the readers." Evan explained: "I think we see our mission is
to help serve the readers, [but] serving the reader and serving the
advertiser are not mutually exclusive. I think a creative publisher
can find ways to do both."
From their perspective, they can control how they respond to
editorial pressures from advertisers. To them, advertiser
consolidation appears less controllable and more ominous.
Views of advertisers. Advertisers expressed concerns similar to
those of publishers, yet with very different focus. All respondents
cited consolidation as their major concern. However, interestingly,
none expressed concern about effects of the consolidation of
advertisers. Advertiser Fred cited concern about consolidation in
numbers of readers, noting: "We have a smaller group of people to
talk to and every year it gets smaller and smaller." Fred also
expressed concerns about the number of farm periodicals, but not
about their survival. "We have too many publications," he noted.
"…There are just so many of them that say the same stuff. So, which
magazines and newspapers, which ones you go into to hit the right
people at the right time? And what will be they be reading?"
Advertiser Gary also saw the consolidation of publications, a
thinning of the herd, as positive, explaining: "There is less media,
less publication in the industry, though I think who are there are a
little more focused." Advertiser Harold noted that the trend to
fewer pages in publications had influenced how his company deals with
publications. He said: "We are more cautious. We are more selective."
This does not conflict with the publishers' views, just their
concerns. Publishers are well aware that there is more competition,
as Publisher Carl noted: "I do think the ag industry as such will
probably continue to diminish in terms of readers, probably
advertisers and probably in magazines. There will probably be fewer
ag magazines ten years from now than there are now, but if you start
to look at any given market…at any niche market, if it's a four-book
[magazine] field…the odds are that the…number four book is going to
be under pressure to compete with number one and number two. So the
rule of thumb is in any particular market you really need to be in
the number one or two positions in market share in order to
survive…[for] the economics of it you just have to be good at what
All of the advertisers saw editorial credibility as
important. However, one advertiser felt readers are unaware when
advertising influence is inserted into editorial matter and,
therefore, such influence is a justifiable means of getting the
advertiser's message out.
Advertisers uniformly felt editors should not shy away from contact
with advertisers. Some advertisers interpreted refusal of contact as
a sign of undesirable loftiness among editors. Such advertisers
would like to go beyond just placing the advertisement, instead
moving toward a concept of partnership between publications and
advertisers. They said they were more likely to work with
periodicals that partner with them in joint efforts such as seminars
However, different advertisers drew the line at different
places. Another, Gary, said his company had paid for editorials in
the past, in certain situations. Advertiser Harold said publishers
have gotten closer to advertisers in the last few years: "They're
offering more value added services rather than just trying to solicit
advertising, [offering] frequency and those kinds of things…things
like future terms…and in talking to their customers when they do
editorials and sharing those types of ideas with us." Some
advertisers said they consider additional services from publishers as
the most important trend of the future. They cited services such as
supplying mailing lists and consulting.
Publishers and advertisers in this study identified consolidation as
a major concern, but focused on different sectors. Publishers
uniformly expressed concerns about consolidation among readers,
advertisers and publications. Advertiser consolidation, in
particular, appears to leave publishers feeling uncertain about
future directions and financial impacts. They reported trying to
adjust through diversification of services to readers and
advertisers. Advertisers emphasized concerns about reduced numbers of
producer readers, but not about consolidation among advertisers or
farm periodicals. In fact, they expressed support for a reduction in
the number of farm periodicals. All three kinds of consolidation have
the effect of putting the advertiser in a more powerful position
within the reader-publication-advertiser triad.
Publishers in this study seemed in tune with recent research
indicating that farm readers feel editorial credibility is extremely
important. The publishers viewed it as a bottom line item. To a
person, they saw editorial credibility as a moneymaker for their
publications, and lack of it a potential source of financial ruin.
Advertisers also expressed support for maintaining high credibility
in farm periodicals, based on editorial independence.
Both the publishers and advertisers acknowledged advertising-related
pressures of various kinds to influence editorial content. However,
these interviews revealed interactions beyond those involving
editorial content. Some publishers and advertisers said they see
additional services and interactions as the most important trend of
the future. They cited shared mailing lists, joint seminars and
tours, and other kinds of collaborations. Only two publishers
expressed concern that closer relationships might affect reader
credibility; these publishers represented magazines financed by
subscription income as well as advertising income.
Publishers and advertisers shared a feeling that advertising-related
pressures should not influence the independent stance and credibility
of editorial material. Publishers, in particular, emphasized the
difference between feeling advertiser-related pressure and giving in
to it. They generally expressed confidence that they hold control
over how they respond to such pressure, through their editorial
policies. Within that context, they seemed open to endorsing contact
between advertisers and their editorial staffs. Advertisers said
they desire more contact.
Most of the publishers and advertisers in this study viewed readers
as generally aware of advertiser pressure on editorial content and
shrewd enough to factor it into what they read.
Findings of this study help reveal the kinds and origins of forces
exerting pressures on all partners in the triad, so provide a useful
staging point for interactions and understandings among the
partners. Results identify editorial credibility as a promising
centerpiece for discussions and decision-making. All partners said
they value it highly. It provides the foundation on which publishers
can help their staff members deal with increasing advertising-related
pressures, through clear, firm policies on editorial integrity. As
well, it provides a shared base upon which publishers and advertisers
can and should articulate their relationships more clearly to readers.
Findings of this study also identify some ways in which publishers
and advertisers are using new information technologies and
diversification methods during a period of great change.
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