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Would you like magazines to be more honest?

I was reading a contributed article on the Stone Junction Blog the other day where a magazine publisher was attempting to defend the downright misleading concept of “colour separation charges” as a way to “endorse magazines and platforms which can offer you what you need”. As somebody who has been deriding the “colour separations” scam in public for nearly twenty years, I decided to have a (mild) rant in the comments section, but I thought it was worth repeating here.

Even if “colour separation charges” were ever legitimate, they quickly turned into a way for publishers to sell “editorial” without actually saying so. And I have no problem with “advertorial”, I just hate the way that it’s been hidden, by selling it with a description which has lost all meaning over the years (“colour separation charges”) and using that as an excuse not to label it as advertising on the page.

Let’s have a little history. I worked in the editorial department of several trade magazines in the late eighties, when most titles had substantial black-and-white sections. However, it wasn’t uncommon to be approached by companies who said: “if you’re running our new product story with a photo in a black-and-white section, we’d be happy to make a contribution to the cost of moving it to a colour section”. The only additional cost for the magazine to do this would be that in the colour section, the photo would have to be scanned and “separated” into four component colours for the four printing plates. Actually, it wasn’t an additional cost, because the article would only be swapped with one which had previously been earmarked for the colour section, but never mind. A publisher, somewhere, must have said: “Sure, we can do that, for …er… £60” (a 300% markup on the cost of the scan) and when met with a positive response, thought: “Bingo, new revenue stream”.

This incursion of money changing hands on the editorial pages was hardly something which editors welcomed, but if it eventually allowed more colour in editorial sections, there was at least a silver lining.

Fast forward a few years, and printing costs meant that black-and-white sections in trade magazines were a thing of the past. The idea of charging for colour separations didn’t make sense, because four films were being made for every page anyway. However, with all the usual bravado which has made advertising sales the home of the late 20th/early 21st century barrow-boy, many publishers continued to request “colour separation charges” from companies being featured in editorial, even though the idea made no sense any more. They’d turned their product news sections into advertorial, without labelling them as such, and they’d got away with it.

By the late nineties, things were even more ridiculous. With the advent of digital printing, films weren’t even being made any more, and it certainly cost no more to use a colour photo than a black and white one. By this time, the term “colour separation charges” no longer even made sense. It was just a meaningless phrase which was used as a substitute for “paid-for editorial”, something publishers still didn’t seem to be able to bring themselves to say out loud …or include as a label at the top of a page. The idea that “we were going to run your news story in our magazine anyway, but we’ll need some financial assistance to use the colour image” had also gone out of the window. “Colour separation charges” was by now code for “we’ve received your press release, and will shove it on a news page which few people will ever read, with a tiny picture, if you’re daft enough to give us £100”. It’s been allowed to stagger on into 2012, and trust me, publishers think you’re as daft to pay it now as they did in 1989.

To those people who argue: “But it’s the only way to get included in a magazine where we need to be seen”, I’d say: “Are you sure you want to be seen there? Do you have any evidence that anyone will see your story other than you and the publisher?” And if the publication is so good that you have evidence that its readers actually respond to the paid-for editorial, wouldn’t you be better off advertising properly?

13 thoughts on “Would you like magazines to be more honest?”

  1. Don’t get me going on this one it makes my blood boil. Wet behind the ears bits of kids phone me up to tell me they will print a press release but there is a ‘colour separation’ charge for the pleasure – usually about £100. Most of these kids were in their prams when true colour sep’s existed and if you go back to 1989 a trade scan was about £6. I guarantee not one of them understands what a colour separation is – a sad indictment of our industry that sales people use terminology that they don’t understand and is entirely inappropriate – be honest and tell me it will cost £100 to print my story. I like truth not BS. Rant over – that’s set me up for the day. Beware ad’/ed’ sales people you have been warned!

  2. I always find magazines very untrustworthy. Often I would see a section titled ‘Our favorite products this month’ only quickly to realize they probably all paid to be there. Often I skip to the article, which even then smells of bias. The same goes for websites.

  3. In my opinion the trade press is littered with publications that don’t deserve to exist, especially when they have built their business model around creating an ad mag which they promote to ill-informed sales managers and sales directors who then pressure those of us who know what we’re doing to waste precious budget on these comics. I would be quite happy to see a few forests saved and have only about 25% of trade publications survive. Proper editorial content, worthwhile articles, a clear direction and authenticated targeting. But having said that, I’d still probably spend my money online, so let’s hope they’ll print my editorial without any accompanying display ads….

  4. A contributing factor is there are too many press releases chasing diminishing editorial space to publish them in. I’ve always been uncomfortable with ‘separation charges’, but to be fair, some clients agree to it because they get reasonable responses at a lower cost per inquiry than from traditional display advertisements.

  5. There used to be a healthy symbiotic relationship between the trade press and its suppliers. Now it has become parasitic. Industry still needs an effective, high quality trade press. If the suppliers and their agents had a mind to, they could stamp out the practice of colour seps charges tomorrow and get rid of all those magazines at a stroke. So who is to blame for their continued existence?

  6. The answer is that if all industrial marketeers did the right thing, the poor quality magazines wouldn’t survive. What I don’t understand is that there IS/ARE extremely good alternative(s), and we are no longer servants to the mass industrial media.

  7. Courtney Maggs-Jones

    Good morning all, I am the honest one who wrote the Blog Entry for Stone Junction on Colour Separations from a Publisher’s View. I will start by saying that what Chris has written above is entirely true, and there is no dismissing that. So before I continue, please do bear in mind that I am a reasonable and sensible person, but I must say that the general tone of the blog entry, and the comments which follow, seems to be that of disgust for my profession and industry, and something which I hope I can, in voicing our perspective, and least rectify a little.

    Bob Bolton, you are absolutely right, I WAS in a pram in 1989 (you could either take the stance that I was an extremely slow developing grown man, or that I AM in fact just 24, and am prepared to be a little bit more honest, demonstrate my grasp of business acumen and talk from another perspective). Age aside, unlike A LOT of my peers, I’m far from wet behind the ears, I have a good understanding of my sector and industry (granted I will NEVER stop learning about them!) and I HATE the notion of cold calling people such as yourselves in business who are frankly too busy to be looking at things like this, and too wise to part with resources (by that I mean time AS WELL AS money) unless there is genuine substance to and benefit from it.

    There are some VERY untrustworthy magazines/publishers (and, notably, NEWSPAPERS!) out there – we are currently in legal proceedings with one of them following the purchase of a title not ‘doing what it said on the tin’ – thus we have to rectify that as there is reputation and A LOT of our new found clients’ resources at risk of being marred. I also agree with David Turner, that the trade press is littered with magazines that don’t deserve to exist. But there ARE some titles of merit out there, two of which I manage.

    Some of you won’t have read my blog entry, granted, but in a nutshell, I am the account manager on two magazines. One of which used to be considered ‘trade’, in a sector which no longer required its existence in the realms of trade. However, there were still departments in the numerous businesses that we reached who got benefit from the magazine. So, we relaunched it, offering it up as a retail magazine, reaching the store staff, sales assistants and retail buyers nationwide. Still B2B, just finely tuning the service being provided and preventing any wastage.

    The other two magazines in my sector practically promise that they will get ‘100,000 units stocked within a week, and they will all sell within 3 seconds of being there’. More fool those who buy into this. Frankly, I was under no illusion that the likes of yourselves have close relationships with your customers and clients – and the downfall of most trade publications is that they promise the earth in who they reach.
    We are realistic in our approach, as well as entirely transparent. My FIRST bit of advice to you gentlemen, is that, no matter whether you condone colour separations, PR, Marketing or advertising, only choose titles that are ABC Audited (thus legally proving where they reach), to an audience which suits your requirements. If the ‘barrow boy’ on the other end of the line can’t give you these figures or certificates, or the magazine itself doesn’t declare that it is audited, it LITERALLY isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. And, to answer someone’s comment that we could cut 25% of the magazines out – cut the dishonest ones who aren’t audited – they could literally be printing enough to send to the advertisers and to keep for themselves for prospective clients.

    So, we’ve solved one problem, in that the dishonest and unworthy magazines are no longer financially supported – perhaps those barrow boys can then go into something ghastly like recruitment or insurance sales. If you don’t want to use magazines (and the internet) at all, then perhaps once this idealistic process is complete, you can rethink your activity.

    It is important, at this point, to remember that magazines and sites are businesses in themselves too, run by professional businessmen/businesswomen who SHOULD be able to see a benefit in the service they provide. This differs from sector to sector, of course, but if they exist, then SOME paying clients and readers see the benefit.

    So, the next issue is, how are you going to use these magazines/sites?

    Let me firstly clarify that I am a big believer in free editorial – I know it’s a shock to you, but a sales person believing in something for free? How can this be? Well, it’s simple – you have a product or service which is beneficial to your industry. The industry need to hear about it. you can pay a PR agency the earth, but unless they have the vehicle with which to talk to the industry, or you have a call centre with 100 people contacting EVERYONE in the industry (on that note, would you rather an article on EDF Energy, or 2-3 calls a month from some non-descript foreign call centre?), they’re not going to hear about it. So, your beneficial product has a story to tell. So let’s tell the industry! Let’s write about it, let’s engage the reader, let’s produce something of substance. That SHOULDN’T be aid for. But in the trade sector, especially in our current economic climate and budget cuts and smaller spending, how can you sell enough subscriptions to the title/website to pay for it’s existence? And how can you morally ask some to pay a subscription, and send it out for free to others?

    So, how can you ensure the longevity of that communication vehicle, with no income? Thus, advertising is a financial supplement to ensure the longevity of a magazine, A MAGAZINE OF MERIT AND BENEFIT.

    My personal experience and stance is that colour separations, irrespective of origin, aren’t right. It should be display advertising and editorial. But, to go back to my scenario, the original magazine that I manage is in a sector where, somehow, the other two magazines still exist – all three were the same thing – selling the front cover and filling the magazine with display advertising and colour separations. So a compromise had to be made to stop the rot -we had to relaunch the title.


    The re-launch was conditional; that we would NOT sell the front cover, but retain our own brand identity and thus a consistent rapport and identity with the reader. We would also heavily favour editorial over advertising to ensure that the reader was engaged and that the magazine had substance as well as style. Thus, the ratio was 2:7 ads to eds.

    In an ideal world, I would rather not sell colour separations at all. So I suggested this to my MD. For the first few months, we tried simply selling display advertising as the sole source of income. (Note, we send the title out for free, thus subscriptions cannot be relied on in this case.)

    However, despite our move to not sell the front cover, the other two titles in the sector continued to do so, which caused us two problems. Firstly, that they maintained THE prime position for the major advertising players in the sector, so maintained those relationships a lot better. Secondly, that in bringing in over 30% of their monthly budgets on the one sale of the cover alone, they could drive down the price of the remainder of the advertising in each edition, making it hard to compete.

    As people who I am sure have all bought advertising before, you are aware that rate cards don’t mean anything, so we were selling at full capacity and still making a loss.

    Of course, you can come up with new and different initiatives to sell, but you need capital to do this. So, whilst a consumer magazine/newspaper can sell copies, and advertising, on substance alone, those industry and trade titles even with real merit, don’t seem to have the longevity to survive without selling their souls.

    And the sad thing is, that if the product and brand owners don’t endorse titles such as ours (whether through misinformation, or the assumption that the only good guys left out there are NPOs, or sheer unwillingness to invest in this sort of activity), we will unfortunately lose the real vehicles of calibre.

    So what’s the answer?

    – A simple solution is to raise the rate card cost. But try telling someone, during a recession, that they need to pay a higher price for something that can’t be measured.

    – An alternative would be to go back to selling the front cover, which would result in us losing all credibility.

    – Continue to write relevant features of genuine substance, with interesting quotes from industry experts (if it is interesting, it will get written about) providing as much benefit and information as we possibly can into the favorable handicap of space provided.

    But allow those industry experts, or those who endorse and embody their thoughts, to illustrate those associations, key benefits and selling points by selling colour separations to them. Thus, the colour separation may just be the thing that allows the magazine and company to survive and come up with new and innovative ways in which to maximise exposure for our clients on a number of different platforms. If ENOUGH clients advertised with us rather than our phoney rivals, we wouldn’t need to offer colour separations.

    – The final answer would be what I did with the launch of our latest magazine. In this case, the magazine is the upmarket, luxury version of the original, sister title. We epitomised what we were about and completely carved a niche in the market. We are the epitome of tangible luxury, and no one is doing what we are doing with this title.

    The new magazine is beautiful, informative, full of substance, and by being those things, it is profitable.

    But we DON’T sell colour separations in it, just display advertising.

    Starting out as perfection, and maintaining that standard is the only way of truly being able to demand a crucially required cost without too much negotiation. But if the magazine sets out as a commercial machine in an area of publishing solely focused on generating income, it is difficult to remove that notion and inject some substance without a bit of compromise. The colour separation is a compromise which provides positive, guaranteed coverage as a return. BUT ONLY PLACE THEM WITH THE RIGHT VEHICLE, IF AT ALL!

    Ours may be an isolated case, but I am sure we aren’t the only good guys out there, who need to have just a fractional amount of budget shared with us in order to operate. In purchasing colour separations, you are guaranteeing the longevity of a magazine which you support and endorse.

    My advice to those looking for coverage is to ensure that you do endorse magazines and platforms which can offer you what you need. But, make sure you are endorsing the right magazine, not the magazine using those profits to take you to the coolest brasserie to secure more business.

    My advice to those setting up in publishing is to completely nail the niche in the market, to the point where you can hold the value of the advertising as a permanent, but at the same time, provide as much substance and benefit and never lose the reader.

    Finally, my advice to anyone in my situation at present would be to meet their clients, listen to their clients, and make sure that what they are trying to achieve in terms of coverage can be a compromise of free coverage and paid for. Rather than making them wait for editorial following some advertising, don’t test them, simply fully utilise what you have in front of you to support any budget spend so that you can maximise exposure. You’ll find that those clients won’t forget the value you have added to their campaigns, and will support you in the long run.

    I would also like to add that I have huge respect for PR Agencies who have to put up with people trying to sell them colour separations. You haven’t got bottomless budgets, and you have clear strategies which can’t be influenced by a ‘barrow boy’ sale. But we, as vehicles to spread the word you are required to spread, need to survive too. Whether you have a good relationship with the RIGHT magazine or not, you need to find as to which one is right (by making your OWN findings rather than the glitziest Media Pack), but also not be reliant on everyone else to financially support the magazine and you be a passenger.

    Thus, I also agree that the term ‘colour separation’ is synonymous with all things bad in the world (famine, war, the Inland Revenue), so we all NEED to move away from it and start calling it advertorial. As corny as it may sound, we call our Colour Separations ‘Product Flashes’, but no matter the moniker, paid for activity is paid for activity and I notify ALL of my clients, and prospective clients, as to what the service entails and involved.

    I do hope that you can absorb this info and perspective, just as I have all of yours, and perhaps it can help to any extent to streamline your activities and in choosing the right vehicle.

  8. One magazine I edited charged (still charges?) for colour separations, but I always refused to pull a story just because the “colour separation” wasn’t paid.

  9. It’s astonishing that this debate is still raging, decades later. It’s also astonishing how many press releases actually offer up front to pay sep fees. When Laboratorytalk was at Centaur, I fought and lost the battle against the introduction of seps – one of many dodgy decisions that contributed to the demise of the former Pro-Talk portfolio. There will be no separation charges at my new site, LabHomepage, fullstop.

  10. Courtney Maggs-Jones

    Boris, I agree with your stance on this. If there is designated space for paid for activity (outside of the remit of display advertising), then it is a sales person’s role to fill it. If it unpaid for, it is at the editor’s and publisher’s discretion to let it run or not, and for the sake of engaging readers, it SHOULD run – essentially, publishers should find sales staff who are competent enough to sell the paid for space, rather than relying on other areas.

    Russ, you’re right on that, too. I sometimes get automatic ‘can I book’ rather than ‘here’s a press release’ a lot of the time – I’d rather the marketing team take out some beneficial ads and it be supported by editorial – but I think we can point the finger at the transparency of the information and activity between respective departments here. As a matter of interest, how well is your model on LabHomepage working? Very interested in other aspects on this and how well they work.

  11. Thank you Russ, Courtney, et al. Since posting my last comment, I think I should put it on record that I have since joined Stone Junction as editorial supervisor (last week February 1). I’m hoping that any press release I write will stand on its editorial merit.

  12. Hi,

    I work on a magazine which requires us to sell ‘colour separations’. Having done my research quickly I released it was a complete scam. However due to the current job market, my dreams of being a decent honest journalist have to wait.
    So instead of selling colour seps, I say it’s an inclusion fee for product promotion, as our magazine goes out to our subscribers for free. Which is true – well I think so anyway.
    I hate that publishers do this, as it just adds to the public losing faith in the print industry!
    This article needs to be made more available to everyone!

  13. This is still happening today! Industrial Process News! And when I said no I will not be contributing £99 he seemed shocked that I wouldnt pay it!
    Like you have all said, colour seperation charges dissapeared years ago, and for it still to be called this is quite shocking.

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