Commercialism and Journalism Part 1

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Commercialism and Journalism.

by Hamilton Holt.


This series will contain essays by representative scholars and men of affairs dealing with the various phases of the moral law in its bearing on business life under the new economic order, first delivered at the University of California on the Weinstock foundation.


In the United States of America, public opinion prevails. It is an axiom of the old political economy, as well as of the new sociology, that no man, or set of men, may with impunity defy public opinion; no law can be enforced contrary to its behests; and even life itself is scarcely worth living without its approbation. Public opinion is the ultimate force that controls the destiny of our democracy.

By common consent we editors are called the "moulders of public opinion." Writing in our easy chairs or making suave speeches over the walnuts and wine, we take scrupulous care to expatiate on this phase of our function. But the real question is: who "moulds" us? for a.s.suredly the hand that moulds the editor moulds the world.

I propose to discuss this evening the ultimate power in control of our journals. And this as you will see implies such vital questions as: Are we editors free to say what we believe? Do we believe what we say? Do we fool all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time, or only ourselves? Is advertising or circulation--profits or popularity--our secret solicitude? Or do we follow faithfully the stern daughter of the voice of G.o.d? In short, is journalism a profession or a business?

There are almost as many answers to these questions as there are people to ask them. There are those of us who jubilantly burst into poetry, singing:--

"Here shall the press the people's rights maintain, Unawed by influence and unbribed by gain."

On the other hand there are some of us quite ready to corroborate from our own experience the confessions of one New York journalist who wrote:--

There is no such thing in America as an independent press. I am paid for keeping honest opinions out of the paper I am connected with. If I should allow honest opinions to be printed in one issue of my paper, before twenty-four hours my occupation, like Oth.e.l.lo's, would be gone. The business of a New York journalist is to distort the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the foot of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. We are the tools or va.s.sals of the rich men behind the scenes. Our time, our talents, our lives, our possibilities, are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prost.i.tutes.

I come to California, therefore, to tell you with all sincerity and candor the real conditions under which we editors do our work, and the forces that help and hinder us in the discharge of our duties to society and to the journals that we control or that control us.

And, first, let me give you succinctly some idea of the magnitude of the industry that we are to discuss. The Census, in its latest bulletin on "Printing and Publishing in the United States," truly and tritely remarks that "Printing occupies a unique position among industries, and in certain aspects excels all others in interest, since the printed page has done more to advance civilization than any other human agency."

But not only does the printing industry excel all other industries in human interest, it excels them in the relative progress it is making.

The latest available figures, published in 1905 by the Government, show that the capital invested in the publishing business had doubled in the preceding half decade, despite the fact that publishing is almost unique among industries in the diffusion of its establishments, and in the tenacity with which it still clings to compet.i.tion in an age of combination. Since 1850 the whole industry has increased over thirty-fold, while all other industries have increased only fifteen-fold. The number of publications in the country, as given, is 21,394. These are capitalized at $239,505,949; they employ 48,781 salaried officers, and 96,857 wage-earners. Their aggregate circulation per issue is 139,939,229; and their aggregate number of copies issued during the year is 10,325,143,188. They consume 2,730,000 tons of paper, manufactured from 100,000 acres of timber. These 21,394 periodicals receive $145,517,591, or 47 per cent of their receipts, from advertising, and $111,298,691, or 36 per cent of the receipts from sales and subscriptions. They are divided into 2452 dailies, of which about one third are issued in the morning and two thirds in the evening; 15,046 weeklies; 2500 monthlies, and a few bi-weeklies, semi-weeklies, quarterlies, etc.

The number of these periodicals has doubled in the last twenty-five years, but at the present moment the monthlies are increasing the fastest, next, the weeklies, and last, the dailies. The dailies issue enough copies to supply every inhabitant of the United States with one every fourth issue, the weeklies with one every other issue, and the monthlies with one copy of each issue for nine months of the year. One third of all these papers are devoted to trade and special interests.

The remaining two thirds are devoted to news, politics, and family reading.

Undoubtedly there are many contributing causes which have made the periodical industry grow faster than all other industries of the country. I shall mention only six.

First. The cheapening of the postal, telephone, and telegraph rates, and the introduction of such conveniences as the rural free delivery, so that news and general information can be collected and distributed cheaply and with dispatch.

Second. The introduction of the linotype machines, rapid and multiple presses, and other mechanical devices, which vastly increase the output of every shop that adopts them.

Third. The photo-process of ill.u.s.trating, which threatens to make wood- and steel-engraving a lost art, and which, on account of its cheapness and attractiveness, has made possible literally thousands of pictured publications that never could have existed before.

Fourth. The growing diffusion of education throughout the country. Our high schools, to say nothing of our colleges and universities, alone graduate 125,000 pupils a year,--all of them fit objects of solicitude to the newsdealer and subscription-agent.

Fifth. The use of wood pulp in the manufacture of paper, by which the largest item in the cost of production has been greatly diminished.

Sixth. The phenomenal growth of advertising.

I shall not attempt to amplify the first five of these causes responsible for the unparalleled growth of periodical literature. But the sixth I shall discuss at some length, for advertising is by all odds the greatest factor in the case.

In olden times the dailies carried only a very little advertising--a few legal notices, an appeal for the return of a strayed cow, or a house for sale. It is only within the past fifty years that advertising as a means of bringing together the producer and consumer began. And, curiously enough, the men who first began to appreciate the immense selling-power that lay in the printed advertis.e.m.e.nt were "makers" or "fakirs," of patent medicines. The beginning of modern advertising is in fact synchronous with the beginnings of the patent-medicine business.

Even magazine advertising, which is now the most profitable and efficacious of all kinds, did not originate until February, 1860, when "The Atlantic Monthly" printed its first "ad." "Harper's" was founded simply as a medium for selling the books issued from the Franklin Square House, and all advertis.e.m.e.nts from outsiders were declined.

George P. Rowell, the dean of advertising agents, in his amusing autobiography, tells how Harper & Brothers in the early seventies refused an offer of $18,000 from the Howe Sewing Machine Company for a year's use of the last page of the magazine; and Mr. Rowell adds that he had this information from a member of the firm, of whose veracity he had no doubt, though at the same sitting he heard Mr. Harper tell another man about the peculiarities of that section of Long Island where the Harpers originated, a.s.suring him the ague prevailed there to such an extent that all his ancestors had quinine put into their graves to keep the corpses from shaking the sand off.

Before the Civil War it is said that the largest advertis.e.m.e.nt that ever appeared in a newspaper was given by the E. & T. Fairbanks Company, and published in the New York "Tribune," which charged $3000 for it. Now the twenty large department stores alone of New York City spend, so it is estimated, $4,000,000 a year for advertising, while one Chicago house is said to appropriate $500,000 a year for publicity in order to sell $15,000,000 worth of goods. Those products which are believed to be advertised to the extent of $750,000 or more a year include the Uneeda Biscuits, Royal Baking Powder, Grape Nuts, Force, Fairy Soap and Gold Dust, Swift's Hams and Bacon, the Ralston Mills food-products, Sapolio, Ivory Soap, and Armour's Extract of Beef. The railroads are also very large general advertisers. In 1903 they spent over a million and a quarter dollars in publicity, though this did not include free pa.s.ses for editors, who, I may parenthetically remark, thanks to the recent Hepburn Act, are now forced to pay their way across the continent just like ordinary American citizens.

It is computed that there are about 20,000 general advertisers in the country and about a million local advertisers. Between the two, $145,517,591 was spent in 1905 to get their products before the public.

The Census gives only the totals and does not cla.s.sify the advertising that appears in the dailies, weeklies, and monthlies. The Rev. Cyrus Townsend Brady, however, has made a very illuminating study[1] of the advertising and circulation conditions of 39 of the leading monthly magazines published in the United States. The first thing that struck his attention was the fact that candid and courteous replies to his requests for information were vouchsafed by all the publishers--quite a contrast to what would have happened from a similar inquiry a generation ago. He next discovered that these 39 magazines, which had an aggregate circulation of over 10,000,000 copies per month, could put a full-page advertis.e.m.e.nt into the hands of 600,000,000 readers, or seven times the population of the United States, for the astonishingly insignificant sum of $12,000, or for two thousandths of a cent for each reader.

[1] _The Critic_, August, 1905.

The amount paid by the purchasers of these 39 magazines was $15,000,000, for which they received 36,000 pages of text and pictures, and 25,000 pages of advertis.e.m.e.nts. Magazine advertis.e.m.e.nts are better written and better ill.u.s.trated than the reading matter. This is because they are of no use to the man who pays for their insertion if they do not attract attention, whereas the contributor's interest in his article after its acceptance is mostly nominal. That is, the advertiser must win several thousand readers; the contributor has to win but one editor.

These 39 magazines were found to receive $18,000,000 a year from their advertis.e.m.e.nts and $15,000,000 from their sales and subscriptions. This shows that in monthly magazines the receipts from advertising and subscriptions are about the same. In weeklies the receipts from advertising are often four times as much as the receipts from sales and subscriptions, while in the dailies the proportion is even greater. The owner of one of the leading evening papers in New York told me that 90 per cent of its total receipts came from advertising. From whatever standpoint you approach the subject, it is the advertis.e.m.e.nts that are becoming the most important factor in publishing. Indeed, some students in Yale University carried this out to its logical conclusion last autumn by launching a college daily supported wholly by the revenues from advertis.e.m.e.nts. They put a free copy every morning on the door-mat before each student's room. If it were not for the postal prohibition many dailies and other periodicals would make money by being given away.

Thus you see that if there were no advertis.e.m.e.nts and the publishers had to rely on their sales and subscriptions for their receipts, the monthlies would have to double their price, and the weeklies and dailies multiply theirs from four to ten times. This advantage to the reading public must certainly be put to the credit of advertising.

The preponderance of advertising over subscription receipts, however, is of comparatively recent occurrence. Thirty years ago the receipts from subscriptions and sales of all the American periodicals exceeded those from advertising by $11,000,000; twenty years ago they were about equal; and to-day the advertising exceeds the subscriptions and sales by $35,000,000.

In 1880 the total amount of advertising was equivalent to the expenditure of 78 cents for every inhabitant in the United States; in 1905 it was $1.79. On the other hand, the per capita value of subscriptions has increased hardly at all. The reason of this is the fall of the price of subscriptions. We take more papers but pay less--a cent a copy. Comparatively few buy the New York "Evening Post" for three cents. This is all the more remarkable, because advertising is the most sensitive feature of a most sensitive business and is sure to suffer first in any industrial crisis or depression.

No wonder that the man who realizes the significance of all these figures and the trend disclosed by them is coming to look upon the editorial department of the newspaper as merely a necessary means of giving a literary tone to the publication, thus helping business men get their wares before the proper people. Mr. Trueman A. DeWeese, in his recent significant volume, "Practical Publicity," thinks that this is about what Mr. Curtis, the proprietor of "The Ladies' Home Journal,"

would say if he ventured to say what he really thought:--

It is not my primary purpose to edify, entertain, or instruct a million women with poems, stories, and fashion-hints. Mr. Bok may think it is. He is merely the innocent victim of a harmless delusion, and he draws a salary for being deluded. To be frank and confidential with you, "The Ladies' Home Journal" is published expressly for the advertisers. The reason I can put something in the magazines that will catch the artistic eye and make glad the soul of the reader is because a good advertiser finds that it pays to give me $4000 a page, or $6 an agate line, for advertising s.p.a.ce.

Yes, the tremendous power of advertising is the most significant thing about modern journalism. It is advertising that has enabled the press to outdistance its old rivals, the pulpit and the platform, and thus become the chief ally of public opinion. It has also economized business by bringing the producer and consumer into more direct contact, and in many cases has actually abolished the middle man and drummer.

As an example of the pa.s.sing of the salesman, due to advertising, "The Sat.u.r.day Evening Post" of Philadelphia, in its interesting series of articles on modern advertising exploits, recently told the story of how the N. H. Fairbanks Co. made a test of the relative value of advertising and salesmen. A belt of counties in Illinois were set aside for the experiment, in which the company was selling a certain brand of soap by salesmen and making a fair profit. It was proposed that the identical soap be put up under another brand and advertised in a conservative way in this particular section, and at the same time the salesmen should continue their efforts with the old soap. Within six months the advertised brand was outselling its rival at the rate of $8000 a year.

The Douglas Shoe is another product that is sold entirely by general advertising. So successful has the business become that the company has established retail stores all over the country, in which only men's shoes are sold at $3.50 a pair. Now other shoe-manufacturers have adopted this plan, and in most of our large cities there are several chains of rival retail shoe stores.

But all the advertising is not in the advertising columns. A United States Senator said last winter that, when a bill he introduced in the Senate was up for discussion, the publicity given it through an article he wrote for "The Independent" had more to do with its pa.s.sage than anything he said in its behalf on the floor of the upper house;--that is, his article was a paying advertis.e.m.e.nt of the bill. And in mentioning the incident to you, I give "The Independent" a good advertis.e.m.e.nt.

Universities advertise themselves in many and devious ways--sometimes by the remarkable utterances of their professors, as at Chicago; sometimes by the victories of their athletes, as at Yale; and sometimes by the treatment of their women students, as at Wesleyan. But perhaps the most extraordinary case of university advertising that has come to my attention was when, not so very long ago, a certain state inst.i.tution of the Middle West bought editorials in the country press at advertising rates for the sole purpose of influencing the state legislature to make them a larger appropriation. In other words the University authorities took money forced from a reluctant legislature to make the legislature give them still more money.

The charitable organizations are now beginning to advertise in the public press for donations, and even churches are falling into line.

The Rev. Charles Stelzle, one of the most conspicuous leaders of the Presbyterian Church, has just published a book ent.i.tled "Principles of Successful Church Advertising," in which he says:--

From all parts of the world there come stories of losses in [church] membership, either comparative or actual. In the face of this, dare the Church sit back and leave untried a single method which may win men to Christ, provided that this method be legitimate?... The Church should advertise because of the greatness of its commission, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature." To fulfill this command does not mean that Christian men are to confine themselves to the methods of those who first heard the commission.

The question whether advertising pays will never be known in the individual case, for, like marriage, you can't tell till you try it.

But in the aggregate, also like marriage, there is no doubt of its value. The tremendous power of persistent advertising to carry an idea of almost any kind into the minds of the people and stamp it there, is amazing. How many "Sunny Jims," for instance, are there in this audience? If there are none, it is singular; for learned judges have referred to him in their decisions, sermons have been preached, and volumes written about him, though it took a million dollars and two years of persistent work to introduce this modern "Mark Tapley" to the public. Have you a little fairy in your home? Do you live in Spotless Town? Do you use any of the 57 varieties? "There's a reason." "That's all." Formerly a speaker used a quotation from the Bible or Shakespeare when he wanted to strike a common chord. Nowadays he works in an allusion to some advertising phrase, and is sure of instant and universal recognition.

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