I’ve been a subscriber to Popular Photography for four or five years. I didn’t buy my first digital camera until two years ago (a point-and-shoot), but I’ve had a life-long interest in photography and I’ve been using Pop Photo to keep up with the evolution of digital tech.
I still have an analog SLR and three lenses that I love, but I wouldn’t go back to film if you offered me the choice. Between the per-image cost of processing, the film requirement of processing all images instead of tossing the mistakes, and the difficulty (impossibility) of getting good prints at anything less than custom prices, I’m completely sold on digital.
Still, I’m not an early adopter when it comes to tech. I tried that, and it’s just too expensive. I’d love nothing more than to own a DSLR today, but I wouldn’t have said that even two years ago. Why? Because two years ago camera manufacturers were still in a megapixel race, which, like the return of the horsepower race in cars, provides only limited end-user utility. It’s only in the last two years that the DSLR feature set has matured to the point where you can buy a camera now that won’t be obsolete in six months. (Not that there won’t be advances. But the question of image resolution in digital formats has been thoroughly asked and answered. If you want to take good pictures that can be printed to 8×10 or larger, that’s now a given in any DSLR, and true for many point-and-shoots as well.)
In terms of knowledge and information about cameras, my subscription to Popular Photography has been well worth it. As an unexpected bonus, however, I’ve also learned a bit about what’s happening to the analog magazine business in the age of digital information, none of which would come as a surprise to regular readers. (See also my take on PC Magazine. Which, by the way, recently launched a new web site that is much improved in terms of clutter, but even less trustworthy than before in terms of mingling editorial content with advertisements posing as press releases posing as editorial content. Consider yourself warned. Again.)
I don’t remember what I paid for my first Pop Photo subscription, but it was cheap. Twelve issues for pretty much nothing. Or maybe it was two years (24 issues) for pretty much nothing. In any case, when I received my annual renewal reminder last year I was shocked to see that another twelve issues would cost me five dollars. As in $5. As in five hundred pennies. As in: are you kidding me?
Then again, the offer worked — I signed up without hesitating, even as I wondered how a magazine could stay in business at that rate. Yes, the magazine has been getting skinnier over the past four or five years, so I’m getting fewer pages. Yes, I know they only need to bring in enough advertising revenue to offset the cost of publication. But still…five dollars? I just didn’t see any way they could continue publishing if that’s what they were charging, and I half expected the magazine to go belly up before the year was through.
Today, however, Pop Photo topped themselves by sending me a renewal notice with the following offer:
Renew your Popular Photography subscription now AND we’ll send TWO FREE gift subscriptions to anyone you choose. That’s 3 subscriptions for the price of 1!
The fine print — which is in plain view, but not in the bold, arresting headline — has the price of my subscription renewal at $18, which is about three-and-a-half times what I paid last year for myself. Doing the math, then, Pop Photo isn’t really giving away the store. At best, they’re treading water.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think I can do this. It might be the offer of a lifetime for all I know, but it’s asking me to do two things I can’t do. First, it’s asking me to give Pop Photo the names and addresses of two people I know who are interested in photography, on the promise that those people will each receive a year’s subscription to the magazine. But in my gut I don’t believe that. I’m so conditioned by scams and cons and itty-bitty fine print (the hidden, impossible-to-find kind) I’m convinced that anybody I send a gift subscription to is going to end up getting cheated, or having to pay a fee, or something.
Second, I don’t like the idea of turning two names over to a company that just sent me an offer that asks me for two names instead of giving me the opportunity to renew at the previous year’s rate. Because this new offer puts me in that box. I can either renew myself for $18, or renew and give up the contact info of two friends for $18 — but no matter what I do, the cost is the same. Yes, it motivates me to go for the two free subscriptions, but that benefits Pop Photo more than it benefits me, which makes me wonder what kind of similar abuses I’ll be subjecting my friends to. What new marketing lists will they find themselves on? And why am I even thinking about stuff like this?
Frankly, I’m tired of playing defense. I’m tired of having to have a conversation with myself about whether I’m paranoid or naive every time an offer comes at me. I’m tired of the cons, I’m tired of sales goals as justification for the excuses and abuses of marketing weasels, and I’m tired of the idea that nobody can make or sell something without lying about it or playing me or doing something that may not be legal.
So the Pop Photo renewal offer is going in the trash, despite the fact that I like having the physical copy in my house. I like the magazine as an object, I like the portability, I like the images and the content. But not enough to fight through the barrier to re-entry that the magazine editors themselves just put in front of me.
Maybe if the cultural climate in America wasn’t so lawless on both sides of the fence — consumers stealing all the content they can get; businesses stealing from consumers by any and all means possible — things would be different. Maybe there would be a measure of trust assumed in any company’s offer. But right now I don’t feel it, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that.
Maybe, too, I’d take Pop Photo up on their offer if I couldn’t find info about digital cameras online, but I know I can. At PopPhoto.com.
— Mark Barrett