Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It’s been five years since we’ve increased the price of The Sun. Regrettably, rising costs demand we do so again. We’re introducing a modest increase: from $2.75 to $3 for a single issue and from $28 to $30 for a year’s subscription. I hope readers will agree it’s money well spent.
I hope, too, they’ll see the wisdom of another decision, one it’s taken me sixteen years to make. Beginning with this issue, there will be no more ads in The Sun.
Sixteen years is a long time to struggle with uncertainty, even for a worrier like me. When I started The Sun in 1974, I was faced with a dilemma. Most ads seemed manipulative and cynical. Still, nearly every magazine depends on advertising to survive. I didn’t want to compromise The Sun, but I didn’t want to jeopardize it by being a purist.
The Sun would accept advertising, I decided, as long as it wasn’t misleading or morally objectionable. That might mean fewer ads, but I wasn’t interested in getting rich. My dream was to publish a magazine that spoke the truth: not the comfortable truths of advertising — the proven “facts” about some product — but the less manageable facts of our existence, the truths we struggle to live by.
Most of the ads we printed were from local merchants who believed in the magazine and wanted to support it. As our readership grew, we solicited ads nationally with a low-key approach that felt consistent with our beliefs. But we were never very successful. Our circulation was too modest, our editorial policy unobliging. We didn’t publish the kind of trendy, upbeat writing many advertisers favor, or promote their products in “articles” and reviews. Nor did we promote ourselves with much flair; for example, I was unwilling to ask readers for the kind of demographic information advertisers find useful — such as how much money they earned, and how earnestly they spent it.
Occasionally, we’d turn down an ad. I was especially scornful of those that promised instant enlightenment, cheapening life with cheap answers. There were, in retrospect, a few more I wish I had turned down. But, for the most part, the ads we ran were modest and offended no one; some readers said they wanted to see more of them. Their presence was unsettling mainly to me.
For no matter how tasteful the ad, no matter how valuable the product, the intent was the same: to get the reader to buy something. I know. . . . Advertising is supposed to be persuasive. The whole idea is to convince us we need something we don’t already have. In a capitalist economy, perhaps it’s necessary to stir the pot this way, in order to stimulate spending and ensure growth. Perhaps advertising seduces us only as much as we’re willing to be seduced; perhaps a beautiful spring day seduces us no less.
But I wanted to create in The Sun a mood that wasn’t seductive. I wanted someone reading the magazine to be able to experience another person’s words, another life, without distractions. If I were trying to do this in a room, where people could talk quietly and seriously with one another, I wouldn’t turn on the television or the radio; I wouldn’t eclipse a tender moment with a sales pitch. “We are all of us calling and calling,” David Grayson writes, “across the incalculable gulfs which separate us.” To create a moment of genuine thoughtfulness, of real presence and intimacy, is hard enough without the siren song of advertising, without the exhortation to look better, feel better, improve the mind.
A couple of years ago, The Sun’s readership increased dramatically to more than ten thousand subscribers; in the realm of “little” magazines, this meant we had arrived. With our larger circulation, I knew we would have no trouble selling more ads; then, we could increase salaries, send writers bigger checks. If the feel of The Sun changed — if it seemed a little less intimate, less spacious — would anybody care? It wasn’t a room I was creating, after all, but a magazine. Wasn’t my ambivalence about advertising a little quaint? The readers could decide for themselves whether to look at the ads or ignore them. I’d gain nothing, I scolded myself, by holding the magazine back.
I had rid myself, I thought, of some of my worst prejudices. No longer disdainful of worldly success, I’d accepted that I, too, was a businessman — as well as a rebel and a dreamer — and that these roles weren’t mutually exclusive, as I’d previously believed. I’d seen how flimsy was my conceit that success was corrupting; certainly, The Sun wasn’t compromised by having a few dollars in the bank, nor was I any the less devoted for being able to pay the bills.
Yet amazingly, as the months went by, we found ourselves selling fewer ads. Or perhaps it wasn’t so amazing, given the way our beliefs shape reality. Perhaps we were sending a mixed message to advertisers — getting exactly what we asked for, imagining we were asking for something else.
This didn’t become clear to me until recently. I’d ordered some tapes of a workshop called “The Heart Of Business” from a mail-order catalog. The panel of socially-conscious business leaders had been brought together to explore the relationship “between creating material success and pursuing the path of the heart.” Every day, for more than a week, I listened to the tapes on my way to and from work, hoping to be inspired. Every day, I sulked: it was business as usual; it was old hamburger from the Chamber of Commerce, with a sprig of parsley and a fancy price. (Indeed, I’d paid a lot for the tapes; the full-color ad for them was so appealing.) Then, early one morning, as I pulled into The Sun’s parking lot — still annoyed with the panelists and, since no one was forcing me to listen, even more annoyed with myself — I turned off the tape, switched off the engine, and sat in my car.
In the pre-dawn darkness, I forced myself to listen: to my harsh judgments, to myself. I’d finally realized how foolish I was being. I was expecting some kind of revelation, which was blinding me to the obvious — that these were ordinary men and women, trying to be of help. They didn’t have answers complex enough to satisfy me, but neither did I. To blame them for the cant of corporate America, for the facile visions of the new age and the facile cynicism of the old, was silly. In their own way, they were bringing a little more awareness into the world; if I could forgive them for being human, so might I.
And if I forgave their humanness, I reflected, I could forgive their dilemma: their wish to serve and to succeed. I could forgive the allure, the honeyed promises of the ads they run, and the little ache of longing they leave. I mean, we all mug for the camera. We straighten the tie, edit the sentence. Condemning advertising for being seductive, I realized, was like condemning children for laughing, or a beggar for tugging at my sleeve.
Later that day, talking with Carolynn Schwartz, The Sun’s office manager, I realized how profoundly the insight had affected me. As we discussed, yet again, the pros and cons of advertising, I no longer felt my familiar ambivalence. Instead, I considered all the businesses I admired and whose existence I was thankful for — companies trying to do some good in the world. Of course, I told Carolynn, there was a place for them in The Sun.
Yet, at the moment I said this, I realized I didn’t want the ads — not because there was anything wrong with them, but because there was something I wanted more. To shine a clearer light, to publish a magazine that was wholly reader-supported: this was my heart’s desire. And this I could have. In forgiving advertising for being what it was, in acknowledging the essential dignity of other businessmen, I had somehow freed myself; for the first time I really had a choice, unmediated by uncertainty and blame.
My decision may not seem practical. Yet I’m a practical man, just as concerned now as I was sixteen years ago with The Sun’s survival. Perhaps my understanding of what it means to be practical has deepened. More than ever, I want The Sun to make a statement — not against advertising, not against anything, but for something basic and sacred. I want every page to express a kind of attention, a kind of clarity, that with or without advertising is hard to achieve.
I just read your editorial explaining your decision to drop all advertising. My soul is quietly applauding, or at least nodding approval. A magazine that refuses to seduce is such a rare pleasure. As a reader, I feel honored and respected by your decision.
I support your decision to leave advertising out of The Sun. Your “Editor’s Note” [Issue 175] was very inspiring and struck a responsive chord in my wife and me: we have for the past fifteen years endeavored to live our lives as a prayer to something other than the gods of commercial necessity. It started in San Francisco when we felt the need to provide quality photographic services to people who couldn’t afford our standard fees. In examining the situation closely, we realized that we could afford to do what we wanted. It was the fear of stepping outside society’s parameters that had kept us from being who and what we desired to be. We’ve kept this philosophy through our counseling of the handicapped and the work we do with abused children. It has kept us sane in an increasingly strange world.