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Columnists Remarkable Providences

A tough call

A tough call

Are advertising pages a forum?

Frank Lane, a baseball general manager during the 1950s and 1960s, is a minor legend for the multiple trades he pulled off. In 1960 he masterminded a 1-for-1 swap, the American League home run champion (Rocky Colavito) for the batting champion (Harvey Kuenn). At other times he went for big numbers, with dozens of players changing uniforms. He was said to have three teams: One coming, one going, and one on the field.

Sadly, pastors of big churches sometimes feel like that: Each week lots of folks checking out the service and the sermon, a handful staying, most streaming out, never to be seen again. Some preachers see them as looky-loos and don't get upset about the many who nibble and run. Those with very strong pastoral senses, however, mourn each departing soul. Only faith in God's sovereignty-along with seeing those who do stay growing in grace-keeps them from depression.

At WORLD, we have a little sense of this, because the magazine business is full of arrivals and departures. As I write this, I'm looking over a list of subscription cancellations from July to September, with reasons cited: "movie reviews ... offended by ad ... wrong point of view ... too intellectual ... it upsets me ... no time to read ... can't afford ... WORLD is filthy trash ... Clinton coverage ... not worth the price."

We understand some of those losses-our magazine costs a dollar per issue, and some people would rather spend that dollar in other ways. We don't want to raise the price any higher, and the key to holding the line is gaining advertising revenue, which means accepting some ads we do not necessarily like.

Our principle has been that the editorial and advertising parts of WORLD have different functions, and we hope our readers understand that. On the editorial pages (24 of them in our normal 36-page issue) we only print what we believe to be true; of course, we report on and quote accurately some wrong-headed folks, but we'll communicate to readers what we think is right. The advertising pages, however, are different: the goal of those pages is to bring in revenue while serving as a forum used by all sorts of individuals and organizations.

One example of how far we're willing to go concerns a book on Bible translation called The Inclusive Language Debate. We've run ads for that work even though it takes a position completely opposed to the one we took last year in the Stealth Bible controversy. But we want folks on the gender-neutral side to accept advertising from groups like the Committee on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, so we do the same even for books that mischaracterize last year's debate.

A second example: Our view of the Y2K bug is that the problem is serious but the big scare-narios are overstated-and yet, we may run some ads that are scary. We do trust in the ability of our readers to be discerning. Besides, we may be wrong and the advertisers may be right. The ad pages, in a sense, are the paid equivalent of our mailbag, where we also run pros and cons.

My final example comes from our toughest call. Several years ago we carried a series of ads from a Catholic publisher who aggressively challenged some Protestant thinking. Many of our Protestant readers were offended by that, but we followed through on our distinct approaches to editorial and advertising matter: Recently, we've run an ad for a conference taking place this month on "Christianity and Roman Catholicism." The very title of the conference is obnoxious to Roman Catholics, and some of the lecture titles are even more pointed.

That ad has left us uncomfortable for two reasons. First, we all know there is a difference between disagreeing with someone and baiting that party with ornery language. Second, frankly, since we're looking for advertising dollars to hold down the subscription price, it particularly hurts when some ads actually lose money for us. That's been the case here.

In the abstract, I relish provocative ads almost as much as I do provocative articles. The rationale is revenue but also education: I really do believe that iron can sharpen iron. The problem, though, is that words can be sticks and stones, breaking not bones but the morale of readers. We'll scrutinize ads, but our desire is to maintain a mostly open forum. Will our subscribers understand this, or will we, like Frank Lane, have more players coming and going?