A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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I recently hired a magazine expert to analyze The Sun’s finances. After he’d spent several weeks poring over our books, we met to discuss his findings. His research was thorough; his advice about how to cut expenses and find new readers made sense. We had almost finished our meeting when he asked me to consider one more idea: carrying ads in The Sun. Finding advertisers would be a cinch, he declared, and ads would be a significant additional source of revenue. Think of advertising as “low-hanging fruit,” he said. What did I have to lose?
He didn’t know that The Sun used to carry advertising. When I started the magazine in 1974, with fifty dollars borrowed from a friend, my dream was to publish an ad-free, reader-supported journal that honored our common humanity. But I was broke and needed ads from local merchants to keep the magazine afloat. I’d sit in my office — a dormer room just big enough for a desk and a chair — and stare out the window, daydreaming about someday being brave enough, or foolish enough, to drop advertising altogether. In 1990 I finally took the leap — not from the dormer window — and I’ve never regretted it. There are magazines in which advertising has a place. But how wonderful it is to put together each issue of The Sun knowing that the delicate mood created by a writer won’t be ruined by an ad for a sexy little yoga outfit or a hybrid SUV.
Still, it didn’t seem appropriate to dismiss the consultant’s suggestion out of hand, since I could remember other times I’d been dubious about advice that turned out to be of great benefit to The Sun. I’d been publishing the magazine only a few years when a friend approached me with an idea: a section in the magazine devoted to readers’ stories about their own lives. I was skeptical; the only challenge bigger than paying the bills each month was finding enough writers to fill The Sun’s pages. But I decided to give her idea a try. I asked everyone I knew — my sister, my neighbors, my hippie car mechanic — to submit something. Their stories trickled in, often scribbled on pages torn from notebooks. Now, thirty years later, we receive hundreds of Readers Write submissions each month. Time and again, readers tell me it’s the part of The Sun they turn to first.
So I listened respectfully. Our consultant was, after all, well aware of the challenges facing The Sun in this era of media consolidation: postal-rate hikes that favor large, glossy publications; chain bookstores that won’t carry The Sun; locally owned bookstores that become harder to find each year. He knew, too, that virtually all magazines depend on advertising revenue to meet their expenses. I suspect that The Sun’s no-advertising policy struck him as a little quaint, like my round, wire-rimmed glasses, or my commitment to old-fashioned editorial standards, or my practice of writing a personal note of thanks to every writer whose work we publish. But he, too, was respectful. He let his numbers do the talking.
I studied the numbers. I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. I’m a practical man. Every month there are bills to be paid, and I was sure the consultant was right: our seventy thousand subscribers would be an appealing “target demographic” for advertisers. But numbers never tell the whole story, do they? Surely the real wealth of a culture, or of an individual, can’t be measured just in terms of money or more and more possessions. As the planet staggers from catastrophe to catastrophe, do we really need yet another magazine filled with the kind of ads that romanticize the destruction of the natural world, deny moral complexity, and perpetuate the status quo? Greg Brown sings darkly of a day when “there’ll be one corporation selling one little box. / It’ll do what you want and tell you what you want and cost whatever you got.” I don’t know when that little box will arrive in the big-box stores. I do know this: you won’t see an ad for it in The Sun.
I’m not against all advertising. Theoretically, it’s possible to advertise a useful product in an informative, responsible way. Companies that exercise such restraint, however, are rare. Besides, there are moments in our lives — when we’ve just held a newborn child for the first time, or said goodbye to a loved one for the last time — when we just don’t want to be interrupted. Neither do we want to be disturbed when we’re reading about such moments. No, we don’t want someone tapping us on the shoulder then, not even to tell us about the most wholesome, environmentally friendly product in the world.
As our meeting ended, I thanked the consultant for his hard work. And I smiled to myself about the “low-hanging fruit,” because I really like fruit; I eat fruit every day. But if I’d listened to all the advice I’ve received over the years, I’d be publishing a magazine filled with short, perky pieces that don’t demand too much of a reader; unambiguously upbeat photographs; poems that always rhyme. A publication in which the range and depth of human experience has been sanded and lacquered to a smooth, even finish. A forum for the kind of positive thinking that gives thinking a bad name.
Without advertising or corporate support, The Sun is sustained by those to whom it matters most: our readers. That’s why I’m writing to ask your help as a Friend Of The Sun. Your tax-deductible donation would make a tangible difference in the life of the magazine, enabling us to pay more to writers and photographers; to continue to give away hundreds of complimentary subscriptions each year to libraries, prisons, and homeless shelters; and to make sure, of course, that The Sun remains ad-free.
I value what I’ve learned from experts. But my own experience of running The Sun has taught me something even more valuable: that if we relate to our readers not as a “market segment” but as individuals worthy of our respect, our readers, in turn, will respect us. Such readers understand that saying no to advertising is our way of saying yes to the light that blazes in each of us, brighter than the windows in a thousand shopping malls.
Editor, The Sun
P.S. You may send your check to The Sun, 107 North Roberson Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. You can also donate online at thesunmagazine.org/donate. Your donation is tax-deductible, and we’ll send a receipt for your records.
If you’re a subscriber, you may already have seen this letter in your mailbox. We publish it in the magazine for the benefit of our newsstand readers.