As they sink beneath the waves even faster than the rest of the economy, the nation’s print media are clinging to their remaining advertisers for dear life. In the past month, I’ve seen firsthand the fear that newspapers have of losing advertising income and the wariness with which advertisers view their own belt-tightening customers.
For six years, I have been writing for the Prairie Writers’ Circle, an op-ed syndication service sponsored by The Land Institute, where I work. PWC distributes opinion columns by writers ranging from mild-mannered environmentalists and agronomists to radical provocateurs. The columns go to more than 500 US newspapers, more or less monthly.
We have learned over the years that many papers are willing to print opinions that fall quite far outside the mainstream and that are sure to rile up substantial numbers of their readers. PWC pieces encouraging stepped-up immigration of Latino farmers into the US, urging the conversion of America’s High Plains into a vast “buffalo commons”, and even calling for an end to capitalism have been run by newspapers large and small across the country.
Based on that history, I would not have guessed that a column could be considered virtually unprintable simply for urging Americans not to go clothes shopping. But that seems to be what happened.
My op-ed to that effect, sent out the Monday before Thanksgiving this year, prompted the editor at a Nebraska paper (one that has often run our work) to write back immediately to say that he would not be using the piece. The reason: the paper’s top advertising customer, mega-retailer J.C. Penney, would not appreciate seeing such ideas in print during the week leading up to the biggest shopping day of the year.
The next day, an Iowa paper asked to be removed from the PWC list altogether, apparently in order to avoid all contact with such ideas.
The content of my op-ed column would not seem to be the stuff of controversy. I had documented the colossal and growing volume of clothing, almost all imported, that is bought by the US population each year, and how much is thrown away; I’d listed the human and environmental costs of apparel production; I’d pointed out that most households have stockpiled enough clothes to last for years and that polls typically find clothing to be the “most disappointing” Christmas present; and I had suggested that one good way for readers to economize during the tough year ahead would be to buy no new clothing.
But having been hit by a potent one-two punch – the general economic crisis and competition from free web content – newspaper publishers are desperate to halt the decline in their ad revenues. An op-ed extolling the virtues of organically grown cotton would have caused no worries on that score, but when my column urged readers not to buy any clothes at all, it crossed the line.
CounterPunch.org, of course, had no problem with running such a piece, and some other non-advertising-dependent web publications ran it as well. And it did, in the end, see print, in the Peoria Journal-Star (owned by Gatehouse Media, which is flirting with bankruptcy) and in a small-city paper in the Northeast at which several staff members, including the person whose decision it was to run my column, are slated to be laid off at year’s end and presumably would have few concerns about the paper’s holiday ad sales. But that was it. It didn’t even run in my hometown paper.
To say that editors find an anti-shopping op-ed more troubling than one calling for truly revolutionary change is not to say that changes in individual consumption are sufficient to right what’s wrong with the economy and the planet. That has to happen at the production end, where ownership and power are concentrated.
But the commercial media aren’t concerned with that bigger picture. A newspaper is simply more likely to run a piece that threatens its readers’ worldviews than one that threatens its own revenues. In these tight times for the print media, the debate over whether they have a liberal or conservative bias is less relevant than ever. It’s their profit bias that matters.
J.C. Penney executives, in turn, are not in any way worried that shoppers will actually stay out of their stores just because they read in an op-ed column that they should do so. But the retail industry should be plenty worried about the bigger conclusions to which such logic might lead.
It might lead readers to conclude, for instance, that the high-consumption apparel economy isn’t designed to create manufacturing jobs (American-made clothing having long been on the endangered species list) or to create satisfying, good-paying jobs in retail (also as rare as spotted owls), or to bring delight to the recipients of Christmas sweaters (Oh, crap, another sweater!?), but rather to generate profits for owners of retail firms.
And that could expose the absurdity of an economy that lives and dies with the monthly figures on consumer spending – one, that is, that allocates resources and fills people’s needs through roundabout, cobbled-together, inefficient, and grandly wasteful mechanism worthy of Rube Goldberg.
This holiday season, big business, including the big-newspaper business, is getting to feel at least a little bit of the economic stress that’s been closing in on working Americans for years. Maybe the realization that times have changed will hit some CEOs and tycoons when they open their gifts this December 25 only to find socks and sweaters.
STAN COX lives in Salina, Kansas and is author of Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine (Pluto Press, 2008). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org