Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Hostage to Ads
distributed 7/24/09 - ©2009

I find it frightening that many essential services in our society are funded by advertising. Is this really the way we think things should work?

At first glance, those ads provide us with lots of free or low-cost services. We don't have to pay for TV shows, Internet search engines, or email services like Gmail. Newspapers and magazines are fairly cheap because they have so many ads.

Explicitly or implicitly, we've made a collective decision that we're willing to put up with the annoyance of ever-present ads for the sake of the benefits we get. But when we look more deeply, we can see that we've become very dependent on a system that is ecologically damaging, and that takes away our control over content.

My awareness has been cranked up because of issues around newspapers and junk mail.

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I have an ongoing rant about the amount of advertising that comes along with the Sunday newspaper. When I weighed a Denver Post one weekend, the whole bundle was four and a half pounds of newsprint and glossy inserts -- about the same weight as the phone book for a mid-size city. Just a small fraction of that publication was news and commentary. The vast majority of the "newspaper" was advertising content. Tens of thousands of bulging newspapers are delivered each weekend, and most of those ads are immediately tossed in the trash or recycling without ever being read. What a waste of paper.

I hate all those ads! But recent events made me take a fresh look at the situation. Six months ago, one of Denver's two big newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News, shut down operation after 150 years in business because of declining ad revenue. I have to admit that subscriptions don't pay for most of a newspaper's budget -- the ads do.

The economics of newspapers isn't a factor in Denver alone. Across the country, income from advertising is way down -- fat and highly profitable sections of classified ads have disappeared, supplanted by websites like "craigslist" -- so we're getting less reporting and lower-quality content. Newspapers are cutting staff. Editorial cartoons, reporters at state capitols, and solid investigative reporting have been trimmed back.

An informed citizenry is essential for effective democracy. But we are in a position where the scope and quality of the news we receive -- on TV and radio, as well as in print -- depends on where advertisers invest their budgets. We're hostages to advertising. We must be complicit in the mechanisms of consumerism -- and in the enormous waste of paper that comes along with it -- if we want our communities to be well informed. When newspapers are sustained by advertising, then we have to hope that the industry sells lots of ads, so that the editorial part of the newspaper can be produced.

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There are similar issues about junk mail and first class mail delivery. The US has a longstanding commitment to universal and daily mail service. Put a relatively inexpensive stamp on a letter or postcard, and it goes anywhere in the country. It is an amazing and essential service, one that we often take for granted.

In recent decades, package carriers (UPS and FedEx) have taken away a large and profitable part of the postal service's business. Now, the shift to email is substantially reducing the volume -- and income -- of first class mail. Financially, magazines and junk mail are keeping the USPS going. In 2008, that "standard mail" was over half of the volume of mail. The Postal Service has strong incentives to increase the amount of junk mail, and they have fought efforts to have "do not mail" lists.

In the US, the average person receives about 350 pieces of junk mail per person per year. 97% of it is ignored and unread. The US EPA estimates that 4 million tons of junk mail goes to landfills unopened. Junk mail consumes 100 million trees a year, and much less than half of it is recycled.

We get dependable and relatively cheap first class mail service because of the enormous quantities of catalogues, fliers and fundraising letters. Most lists of "things you can do to save the planet" tell us to get off junk mail -- but if we all did that it would destabilizes the finances of the entire postal service.

By law, the USPS must operate like a for-profit business, and that is only possible if lots of ads are mailed. Any wide-spread action to reduce the volume of junk mail -- by establishing do not mail lists, or by increasing postage rates for bulk mail -- will require changes in how we fund this service. First class stamps would have to be so expensive that nobody would use them, or mail service would again have to be subsidized directly by the government.

The current arrangement is not sensible for sustainability. Vast quantities of advertising can't be the foundation of a responsible postal system. But that subsidy from ads is at the heart of how the system now works.

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We get the impression that important services are free or low cost. But there are substantial costs, subsidized by advertisers, which are spread out in ways that are almost impossible to track. And the decision about what services are available to us are made by the companies that buy advertising.

My bloated Sunday paper is subsidized by home builders, auto dealers, grocers, furniture and clothing retailers. I don't have to pay much for local reporting, editorials and comics, but I end up paying more for groceries and clothes, cars and housing. In the long run, we're all paying for news indirectly, but because we're not making the payments, we get very little say in how the newspaper works.

There are different options for how newspapers can operate. Some newspapers are considering restructuring themselves as non-profit (and tax-exempt) organizations, providing a public service. Advocates of that plan point to the model of National Public Radio as a respected non-profit news source.

Many newspapers are looking at a reduction in the free content being provided on their web sites. On-line payment options or subscriptions would be needed to see the stories that interest you, or perhaps you would pay extra to see sections of the website without ads. There would be a direct payment for news, instead of relying on advertisers to provide it for us.

When advertising subsidizes important services, we all pay high costs in the enormous waste of printed material, and in the time we spend watching ads. We subject ourselves to the relentless messages of consumer society, and we lose control over what services are provided. It is a crazy, distorted, and inefficient system, and it is all around us.

As we look toward a more sustainable society, one where citizens are in control, we'll need to give hard thought to how pay for essential services. Paying directly, and providing more government subsidies, may be much better options than being hostage to ads.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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