The original sin of online news, it’s often said, was the decision to make the information free. I think that’s only half-true, and to be honest, I don’t think blaming the users for that gets down to the actual problem.
I think the real problem is that we gave advertisers more than enough rope to hang themselves—as well as the publishers whose work was being funded. To some degree, marketers had long been looking for increased data to maximize results, and here was this online thing, which could basically do the most granular work of online research for them, so they could maximize their bottom lines.
The problem, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is that they didn’t actually care about whether you survived, as long as they got theirs. And with that in mind, the “original sin” has been allowed to spread into new mediums with increased damage to the entire ecosystem. We bend to the will of what the advertisers want, without considering what makes for a better product for all of us.
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Which is why it does not surprise me one bit that, in the name of “brand safety,” brands have literally been starving the actual news when the going gets tough, because advertisers too often don’t care about the news—they just want the eyeballs, and the data that those eyeballs get. As AdWeek reporter Mark Stenberg recently wrote in his newsletter:
When advertisers remove ads from coverage of critical events, such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, news publishers have to fill those ad spaces (called inventory) with digital ads off the open-exchange, which are poorer quality and less lucrative than ads sold directly or through curated deals, such as private marketplaces or programmatic guarantees.
The result is that news publishers’ most critical reporting, which is also often their most expensive to produce, is inefficiently monetized. And while they can, to a degree, make up for this decrease in price with higher volume, as readers flock to stay current on whatever issue is at hand, the margins are poor and there is a significant opportunity cost.
So many bad decisions have been made over the years in the name of supporting someone else’s data-minded business model. All the major publishers who jumped on the “pivot to video” train without understanding what they were giving up or why are just one example of this. Another is CNET’s decision to remove huge chunks of its archives because someone told them Google would look kindly upon their platform if they did—something Google itself had to deny.
Why are we so willing to change our models for the sake of advertisers who don’t care about them? Why shouldn’t the advertisers learn to work more like us, even once?
Recently, Ezra Klein of The New York Times, famed for his Washington Post work and his time running Vox, said something about advertising’s chilling effects that I think touches on the whole mess.
“I think podcasting would be really, really harmed by the development of granular analytics,” he told PJ Vogt on a recent episode of Search Engine.
Think about what that one comment says about every other creative venue in major media. We’re giving up what makes our content good, what makes it interesting, in the name of analytics that aim to hit an audience target, not tell an interesting story. The companies that find this magical audience target scale; everyone else gets thrown the scraps.
For years, we have been at the mercy of data requirements. Advertisers expect you to give up all of your data, or they’ll find a way to take it from you anyway. (Example: I find the practice of companies having interns email newsletter publishers asking for media kits with in-depth data numbers to be particularly unsavory.)
Honestly. it’s the ad industry’s turn to bend to creators for a little while. At least when it comes to the newsletter space, creators should aim small and be honest with marketers, and avoid working with advertisers who seem more interested in their scale than your work. They should lean more on products of their own, or donations, or ways to minimize outside influence. And they definitely should do this sooner rather than later.
Honestly, I think the way online news should have been managed in the first place was by subsidizing news outlets, not via Google or Facebook, but via the ISPs—through strong regulation. Net neutrality, mandated through Type II classification, with the addition of a small carrier fee for funding local news outlets. (This was already a successful model for the cable industry, mind you.)
That was the way to do it way back when, and instead, we did not do that, so we have this mess of media outlets barely holding on by a thread, forced to consolidate or missing their financial targets so much that their only savior is private equity.
The chaos we have now is a direct result of us trusting the free market to protect the news industry—a free market that often finds the news industry’s coverage distasteful and even disturbing. It did not, and now we suffer the terrible consequences.
To me, it’s telling that Meta’s great solution to having to rein in its terrible, aggressive approach to data siphoning is to start charging real money to European customers in exchange for no advertising whatsoever.
Either you give up your data entirely or you pay Facebook €120 a year to use a service that up to this point has been free. That’s Facebook’s solution to the mess that it created.
Let’s close the doors on bad data practices. Instead, let’s force an industry reset. Work with advertisers that actually make sense for your audience. Or don’t accept advertising at all, and charge money for it. (Honestly, I may personally drop advertising entirely on my little experiment, but I need a way to fund it, too. So, work in progress.)
At some point, we have to address the rot, or the whole house is going to collapse.
Links Without Data
Richard MacManus, a fellow digital-publishing lifer who has interviewed me a couple of times over the years, has a new book coming out.
This weekend has been a tough one for losing major sitcom actors, with Matthew Perry’s before-his-time passing being particularly tragic. Not to be lost, however, is the death of Richard Moll, who perfectly played Bull on Night Court. In his honor, here’s a clip of him in Scary Movie 2 with two other legendary sitcom utility men—David Cross and Chris Elliott.
Absolutely convinced Martin Scorsese thinks of his films as bladder endurance tests rather than examples of fine cinema.
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And see you tomorrow!