Is There a Future for Ad-Free Children's Media?
By Nancy Gruver
A year ago my answer would have been a resounding YES! As the founder and CEO of New Moon Girl Media, I’ve spent nearly eighteen years creating ad-free media for girls ages 8 and up. When my eleven year old twin daughters, husband (CCFC Steering Committee Joe Kelly) and I started New Moon, one of the first big decisions we made was that our magazine by and for girls would be ad-free. We also decided not to be non-profit as history shows that non-profit funding sources rarely support print media.
We decided against ads for both philosophical and business reasons. In 1992 nearly every ad aimed at girls ages 8 & up (our age range) was sexist: telling girls that they needed to buy lots of products to make themselves pretty, popular, likable, nice, etc. Other dominant ad messages presented a mold of acceptable girlhood (and womanhood) that they must try to squeeze themselves into. That inflexible mold included denial of their emotional needs in order to meet the needs of others and it decreed that sexual attractiveness was the only power available to girls and women.
Our business reason for not relying on ad revenue was that our magazine was going to challenge sexism and stereotypes. We had seen Ms. magazine be put out of business at least twice by advertisers unhappy with the editorial content flexing their muscle and pulling enough ads that Ms. couldn’t pay its bills. We wanted New Moon to rely solely on its readers for financial support. That way we wouldn’t have to try to balance our readers’ needs against advertisers’ needs.
Our business was never wildly profitable, but we did better than break-even over the long-term. We were able to pay fair wages, pay writers and artists, and offer excellent benefits to our small staff, including health insurance. But in the past 18 months it hasn’t worked anymore. This is partly due to the severe recession but there are also other forces working against us. We’ve “coped” by doing 3 painful rounds of staff lay-offs and cutting our overall expenses by 65%. But the question of how to thrive as ad-free media still hangs over us.
In 1993 we charged $25 ($36.80 in 2008 dollars) for a one-year subscription (6 issues). In 2009 we charge $29.95 for the same 6 issues plus a huge interactive, fully-moderated, safe, COPPA-compliant online community for our members. Both the magazine and the online are ad-free.
We’re providing much more value for a lower price. Yet we often hear from potential customers (and even current customers) that our $29.95 price is too high and that we should accept ads so that we don’t have to charge members the full cost of providing the magazine and online community. They don’t think ads are that bad and girls can just ignore ads anyway. We respectfully disagree and they don’t purchase or renew New Moon, even though they may pay up to $72/yr for Club Penguin or similar online-only products.
The numbers of parents and grandparents who know that ads are harmful don’t seem to be large enough to support New Moon at this point. So we face the question of survival. I still haven’t been willing to accept ads. But if something in the small media business model doesn’t change it will come down to a decision in the next few months about accepting ads or sponsorship in order to keep providing the New Moon experience to girls. I dread that decision and am looking every day for ways to resolve it without accepting ads or sponsors. We launched a Save New Moon campaign which is going well so far. But we can’t expect our supporters to continue to respond if we have a permanent financial crisis condition.
Other children’s media can’t either. If we want ad-free, high-quality media for children to continue to be available, we need to work quickly to greatly increase the perception of the value of ad-free media and increase the willingness of parents, grandparents, libraries and schools to pay what it actually costs to provide that media.