Why does Sojourners magazine have more advertising then content?

The other day I picked up the November issue of Sojourners, a magazine and an organization that I feel a lot of shared values with. I flipped to the cover story, “The Meaning of Life”. I started to read the article, but quickly became distracted by the advertising that took up the majority of every page.

I decided to do the math. Over 17 pages “The meaning of life” was over 71% advertising and only 29% photos and text.

Here’s the breakdown by page, with the percentage dedicate to advertisements and the advertisers:

p. 12 (100%) – Azusa Pacific
p. 13 (66%) – Baylor University and Friends Committe on National Legislation
p. 14 (100%) – IVP Books
p. 15 (66%) – Sierra Club Books
p. 16 (50%) – Eastern University
p. 17 (66%) – Beacon Press and Goodpreacher.com
p. 18 (66%) – Herald Press, Peace by David Cortright, Bread for the World
p. 19 (66%) – Trinity Wall Street, Church Divinity School of the Pacific
p. 20 (66%) – Luther Seminary, San Francisco Theological Seminary, New Society Publishers
p. 21 (66%) – Eardmans, Clergy Leadership Institute
p. 22 (66%) – Nazarene Theological Seminary, Self Help Credit Union
p. 23 (50%) – Church publishing
p. 24 (66%) Wesley Theological Seminary
p. 25 (100%) – Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
p. 26 (50%) – Auburn Theological Seminary
p. 27 (66%) – Westminster John Knox Press, Sojo Store
p. 28 (100%) – Bethel Seminary and University

Now I’m sure all of these are good organizations. It’s not like they’re advertising for Victoria Secret, Budweiser and McDonalds, but the problem with advertising isn’t just about what is being advertised, its about the way ads dominates our cultural imagination. I understand that advertising is a necessary part of journalism today, but a 70/30 ratio of advertising to content goes too far. If they have that many advertisers, shouldn’t they be increasing the amount of content to match?

In 1995, in a Sojourners article entitled When Advertising Is Obscene, Susan Monaco discussed the way advertising was beginning to dominate our culture:

Are we ready to get beyond the empty political discourse and attacks on select culprits to fight a real force in our culture–advertising itself?

Unfortunately, 13 years later, it seems like it is this “real force” that Sojourners has thorough allied itself with.

Comments (11)

  1. Glen Peterson

    Hi Tim, thoughtful post, kind of.

    You said you picked up a copy of the magazine. Did you buy it? I subscribe and I am glad I don’t have to pay full cost of the magazine. The advertising makes it affordable for me and for people with less money than me. I am glad Sojourners can get advertisers to help subsidize the cost.

    And, that article on obscene advertising–that was about undergarments and underage models. I don’t get the connection with the the advertisers you listed.

    OK, sorry for all this. I don’t even know you. I follow this blog on google reader and your post was at the top of the list tonight. Hope you are well. Have a good week. Come by and visit my blog any time.

    Have a hopeful and graceful Christmas.

  2. Pat McCullough

    It’s easy to criticize them when we don’t have to balance their budget.

  3. Danny

    This is why I think that open-source dialogue like blogs and online newspapers are dominating and subverting our traditional models of advertising. There are people who see this trend and are trying to find ways for people to put advertising in new ways on blogs in creative ways. I think we have to be careful even in this open-source environment to subvert the traditional models.

  4. Larisa

    Hi, my name is Larisa. I identify as a Mennonite and an Anabaptist and I am the Director of Advertising Sales at Sojourners.

    Sojourners magazine has been significantly influenced by Anabaptist values in its 30+ year life as a publication–including the values of living simply, reducing consumerism and materialism so that we can focus on the Gospel message and continuing the dialogue of how our faith and politics intersect. It is no secret that many nonprofits run on small shoe string budgets and while Sojourners has been blessed with growth in recent years, our margin remains very small indeed, and our commitment to articulate the biblical call to social justice is strong. We could simply print the magazine pages and rely on donations and fundraising (and sometimes manna from heaven) to fund our mission. But the truth of the matter remains, we wouldn’t be able to afford to keep the magazine in print without advertising.

    To round out your picture of advertising for the November, 2008 issue of Sojourners magazine, the total advertising percentage was only 46% because this was a special expanded issue with a focus on books. Most issues are between 20-30% advertising. We would actually love to increase our content, but that costs money and paying a living wage to our employees as well as responsibly paying our bills so that our vendors can also pay their employees a living wage is a value of ours too.

    Sojourners readers are special — they are active, committed people of faith who want to make the world a better place. Not only that, but they influence and advocate to those around them. We feel very blessed by the list of organizations you have kindly listed here–many seminaries and educational institutions, book publishers and other nonprofits committed to making a difference in this world. We consider them likeminded partners who are also positive change makers. They need to reach an audience like Sojourners readers. Through advertising, Sojourners can take another step toward financial sustainability and being good stewards of the resources we have been blessed with. Through advertising, we also join in partnership with other like minded organizations dedicated to positive change in this world.

  5. Tim Baer

    I like reading the advertisments. It’s like window shopping for people who don’t want to leave their house. Most of those ads are for schools. I like the idea of getting an education and seeing those ads helps me feel smart without actually doing anything.

  6. Sister Marie

    I’ve read the comments and I agree that the ads reduce the cost of the magazine to make it affordable. To me, the magazines that have those little tear-out ads is really irritating because they effectively act as bookmarks. So the first thing I do is to go through and tear them all out.

  7. TimN (Post author)

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. A number of you have pointed out the economic realities that make it necessary for Sojourners to advertise. It’s true. We are all to a greater or lesser extent part of a system that relies on this advertising culture.

    It would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge that some of my web design clients are only able pay me because of the revenue they receive from advertisers.

    Nonetheless, I think that it is possible and necessary to maintain a critical distance from the ocean that we swim in. What is the balance between economic sustainability and prophetic witness? I think that ever organization has to discern where that balance is in conversation with their community of stake holders.

    Larisa, thanks for taking the time to write a passionate and clear case for Sojourners approach to advertising. As I acknowledged in the blog post, it’s clear that Sojourner’s thoroughly vets its advertisers and I very much appreciate it. It sounds like you all are making a clear effort to think through the ethics of these issues. I acknowledge that this was mine was not a controlled study by any means and that it sounds like I just happened to pick an issue with an usually high number of advertisers.

    Glen, as far as When Advertising Is Obscene and why it is relevant, I think the title was meant not just to refer to sex in advertising, but also to refer to the obscenity of advertising itself. Monaco’s thesis is not just that Calvin Klein went too far, but that it is part of a broader wave of commercialism the way it shapes the values of our society. Here are a few addition quotes that reinforce this idea:

    Rampant commercialism is seeping into every crevice of American culture. Today, nearly anything, from sex to the pope, can be twisted and manipulated into a sellable product.

    As advertising persists in targeting the few remaining untouched markets and unexploited issues, America may be growing weary.

    In her concluding paragraph:

    Indeed, advertising messages have an enormous impact on our culture, the values we deem important, and the ideas our children form about the world in which they live.

  8. SteveK

    Tim, I think you make a lot of good points, here. I, too, am disturbed by advertising culture and what it implies. But the main thing I am concerned with is not the advertising itself, (after all, if it is a good product, then it is worth paying for people to know about it) but the implication that good items could or should be a salable product at all.

    If an education is really going to make a postitive impact, then should we put people in debt to receive it? If a concept is so important for people, should we force them to pay for our intellectual property? Underlying advertising is an approval of the capitalistic idea that every good is a good to be purchased. And every positive thing, ultimatly is something we can “make our living from” and so it is limited to those who can pay for it.

    I’m not specifically complaining about Sojourners, here. They are “swimming in the same sea as all of us”, as Tim points out. But, again, if the Sojourner’s message is so significant, then shouldn’t they also provide it for free for those who can’t afford it?

    Shouldn’t we find alternatives to that sea, and live according to Jesus’ principle, “Freely you have recieved, freely give.”

    Steve K

  9. ST

    This is a great discussion and it seems to have pulled in some people who don’t normally write on YAR. We get our Sojourners from someone who subscribes, and then instead of recycling the magazine directly, gives it to us to read. I am bundling lots of magazines and Menno periodicals to take to the 15th Assembly of Mennonite World Conference next year.

  10. Tim Baer

    Steve points out that if some things are important why are they not free? Simply, things cost money.

    Our higher education system, for instance, isn’t simply a cost of “intellectual property” but one of building permits, maintenance contracts for lighting, janitorial supplies, and the associated labor. Water and water treatment for the facility. Desks, paper, and all the tools needed for the educational experience. The list is endless.

    Things are not free, like sticks laying upon the ground. There is a whole host of costs, too numerous to even begin calculating here, that require attention from all sorts of people.

    The free market, while being a poor determiner of “fairness”, makes sense of this madness rather well and, more often than not, delivers it cheaply.

    Sojouners, likewise, is more than some writing on a computer put to paper. It is postage and paper and ink and office supplies and salespeople and an office building and computers and lighting and carpet and the list goes on and on and on.

    We call things “Healthcare” and “Housing” and “Education” as if Healthcare, Housing, and Education are just laying all about the face of the Earth, and that some pick these things up and choose to sell it before others can get to it. As if there is no limit to it, nor any personal investment, nor endless scientific advancement through the ages that has cost untold trillions to develop.

    Things are not free, nor will they ever be. You cannot wish it so, nor regulate it so, nor do anything to develop programs upon which anything becomes “free”. Someone, somewhere, is going to pay for it.

    The question then is: Who?

  11. Andy


    Sojourners is not an Anabaptist magazine. It has significantly left its roots, when Yoder was on teh board of editors. Nowadays, it advocates a Constantinianism of the Left and as far as I am concerned represents a very, very wrong turn for Mennonites. The “God’s politics” of that magazine is every bit as idolatrous as the “god’s politics” of the right wing.

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