Tuesday, January 15, 2008

'Esquire's' Not-So-Secret Shame

'Esquire's' Not-So-Secret Shame
by Jeff Bercovici
There's something unseemly about the lingerie spread in the February issue of Esquire, and it has nothing to do with all the skin on display.

Four Victoria's Secret models adorn the cover in an homage to a classic Esquire photo of Angie Dickinson. Inside is a nine-page photo feature in which the models pose in various undergarments and offer "expert buying advice" for the discriminating male lingerie shopper. Their advice, of course, is to buy Victoria's Secret underwear; it's the only brand shown.

I don't know for certain that the magazine made an explicit deal to showcase only Victoria's Secret products in exchange for access to the models -- I haven't heard back yet from editor in chief David Granger -- but it seems fairly obvious that it did.

If so, so what? Lifestyle magazine cover stories are promotional almost by definition. Every time an actor or actress appears on a cover, it's because he or she has a movie, album or other project to hawk. And if that movie, album or other project didn't get mentioned in the profile, that magazine could count on an earful from the star's publicist.

And yet...this feels different, in a bad way. Partly it's because Esquire has a prouder journalistic pedigree than most other lifestyle rags (as it will be constantly reminding us in this, its 75th anniversary year). While Esquire grubs in the celebrity-access marketplace like everybody else, it frequently seems to hold its nose while doing so; its efforts to avoid being just another studio publicity tool have produced some truly tortured journalism. In lowering itself, then, Esquire has farther to fall than most.

But even more than that, it's the nakedness of this particular quid pro quo. These women were invited here to sell magazines, and they came to sell underwear. For the space of nine pages, Esquire stops being Esquire and becomes a piece of Victoria's Secret's marketing strategy, indistinguishable from the catalogs and commercials these same models appear in, wearing the very same lace demi push-up bras and come-hither expressions.

The whole thing is reminiscent of what happened in 2003, when Harper's Bazaar put Madonna, who was at that time modeling for the Gap, on the cover. Not only was she wearing Gap clothes, but the image used was an outtake from a Gap advertising shoot. Bazaar, like Esquire, is owned by Hearst Magazines; read into that what you will (and, yes, bear in mind that I work for Conde Nast, Hearst's main competitor).

I don't want to inflate the importance of the principles at stake here, or give the impression that I'm opposed to depicting hot women in their skivvies (especially in light of this). No doubt the average men's magazine reader would rather have racy pictures of Adriana Lima than honest product coverage. But why shouldn't they get both?


The Ethics of the 'SI' Swimsuit Issue

Did Sports Illustrated cut costs on its annual swimsuit issue with a journalistically shady deal? That's the implication of an item in yesterday's Cindy Adams column -- but the magazine says it's not true.

Adams claims SI got a sweetheart deal from the Israeli tourism bureau, which paid half the airfare to fly a crew of 17 to the Holy Land for a photo shoot with hot sabra Bar Rafaeli. It wouldn't be the first time the Israeli government reached out to an American magazine to promote travel; Maxim featured a "Women of the Israeli Defense Forces" spread in its July issue.

From a purist standpoint, letting a third party pick up part of the tab for a photo shoot is definitely a no-no. In its ethics guidelines, the Society of Professional Journalist warns members to "refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment...if they compromise journalistic integrity."

Of course, whether a photographer shooting swimsuit models is involved in a journalistic enterprise in any sense is an open question. "The whole swimsuit issue is such a shameless departure from the type of journalism SI does each week, it defies explanation and I wouldn't treat anything in the issue seriously," says Andy Schotz, chairman of SPJ's ethics committee.

"My own feeling is that it's primarily entertainment and doesn't even attempt to display integrity," says Fred Brown, vice chairman of the committee. "Other stuff, perhaps, but not integrity."

But Bob Steele, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, says letting a tourism bureau underwrite a swimsuit issue shoot could be the start of a "slippery slope."

"What if, instead, it had to do with the Olympic venues in China?" he asks. "What if it was a photo shoot on a college campus having to do with a new athletic arena? You can imagine the 'what ifs' that take it from something seemingly as innocuous as a swimsuit issue into a controversial sports venue where the stakes are much greater and the journalism element much clearer."

The whole issue is moot, however, according to an SI spokesman, who says Adams mischaracterized the arrangement behind the shoot. "Because it was a large group, our travel party used a corporate media rate that's standard practice for all media companies," he says. Neither the Israeli tourism office nor anyone else chipped in, he adds.

WSJ.com free? Should we?

WSJ.com free? Should we?
By Marie Griffin
Is there a future for paid-subscription business news Web sites? This familiar question is being raised again as The Wall Street Journal Online, lauded as the most successful paid business media site, may be shifting soon to a completely ad-supported model.

On Dec. 13, the day News Corp. finalized its acquisition of WSJ.com parent Dow Jones & Co., Rupert Murdoch, News Corp. chairman-CEO, told Fox News Channel's Neil Cavuto: "At the moment, we sell [subscriptions to WSJ.com] to about 1 million people at a theoretical $50 a year. . . . Of that $50 million, $15 million [goes into] just getting subscribers and looking after them." By removing the subscription firewall, he said, worldwide viewership would rocket to 20 million, providing "more than enough advertising to make up the difference."

The online paid-subscription model is as uncommon in b-to-b media as it is among general business media, but Media Business reached out to three executives who oversee paid sites for their views on the paid-versus-free debate.

Prescott Shibles, VP of Penton Media's New Media Group, called WSJ.com's likely elimination of paid subscriptions "a completely horrible strategy. It's foolish to throw away subscription money, which is more or less an annuity, in favor of 100% advertising, which has huge up and down swings."

Although most of Penton's sites are advertising-based, the company has a few successful paid-subscription models. Trusts & Estates, for example, charges one subscription fee that covers 12 print issues and online access, with no free online content.

WardsAuto.com offers articles from related print publications for free and a paid subscriber-only section with extensive industry data and advanced vertical search capabilities. Supermarket News subscribers must pay for the print publication. Online, they can opt to view only free content, pay to access premium online content without the print edition or subscribe to a bundle including premium online content and the magazine.

"The hybrid model allows you to take advantage of search engine optimization and drive as much traffic as possible to the site, but you also can hold some content back for premium people," Shibles said. To give up subscription revenue, he said, is "a short-term grab as opposed to a long-term growth strategy. We want to grow our business on all fronts."

ALM publishes more than a dozen law newspapers, including The National Law Journal and regional dailies and weeklies. Print editions and their corresponding Web sites require paid subscriptions.

Alex Kamm, ALM's VP-digital strategy and business development, said, "We definitely believe strongly in subscription-based sites. We can get payment for our subscriptions online for the same reason we can in print, because we provide must-have content for a specific audience."

Although WSJ.com has an opportunity to grow its audience 10-to-20-fold by going free, "we don't have huge CPMs," Kamm said. "We reach small, targeted audiences that are important to advertisers. We want to increase our advertising revenue but not because we're trying to replace subscription revenue."

Like Kamm, Bill Scott, VP-group publisher of Jobson's Retail Optical Group, said that must-have information is crucial to the paid-subscription model.

Retail optical industry news is rarely covered by the general media, so the news provided in twice-weekly VMail Extra e-newsletters is essential. "Because VMail is viewed as need-to-have by our industry, they are willing to pay for it," Scott said.

VMail subscribers, who pay about $80 a year, also get full, unlimited access to visionmonday.com. Although there's no separate subscription for the Web site, nonsubscribers have their access limited to content from the current print issue, the multimedia section and the OptiStock financial section.

So far, price resistance hasn't been an issue, Scott said. "Two years ago we doubled the subscription price and we ended the year with about 10% more subscribers than we started with," he said. Based on that, Scott doesn't expect much change in the subscription base with the 10% price hike he's implementing this year.