I’ve written about this a lot, because nothing is more important than knowing what’s true, and journalism is failing at helping us with that. Two reasons:
- Because the advertising business stopped sponsoring journalism. As I explain in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, this happened when “Madison avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.” This alien replica is adtech: tracking-based advertising. And it lives like a vampire off the blood of personal data, which it craves so it can aim “relevant” or “interest based” messages (which 99.x% of the time are neither) at people who don’t want it, and prove they don’t want it by making ad blocking the biggest boycott in world history. (The number of people blocking ads approached 200 million in 2015, when I wrote the post behind that last link, and was 1.7 billion when I wrote this follow-up in 2017.) Here’s the thing about adtech (what you helpfully call direct advertising, as opposed to the brand kind): it only wants eyeballs. So, rather than sponsoring brands (which publishers are), adtech uses publishers as bait for eyeballs into which tracking beacons can be injected (by adtech systems working behind publishers’ curtains), so the same eyeballs can be shot with ads anywhere they show up on the Web.
- Because adtech turned publishing’s mission into content production, rather than journalism. So you have stories like this one in the New York Times last year, which reports without tragic irony what happened to the newspaper I grew up with in New Jersey:
So, no surprise: journalism today is drowning in a sea of content. But it’s worse than that, because the Star-Ledgers of the world are disadvantaged in an advertising environment that pays for content regardless of whether or not that content speaks truth. And it’s a lot easier to fake up interesting bullshit than to do the hard work of reporting honestly on real facts.
But there is hope.
As I say here, we can kill fake news and save journalism by aligning incentives. There are two ways to do that.
One is with regulations. The two operative examples today are the GDPR in Europe and the CCPA in California. Neither is much enforced yet, but they have been influential. For example, in After GDPR, The New York Times cut off ad exchanges in Europe — and kept growing ad revenue, Jessica Davies (@jessdaviesmk) in Digiday reports this encouraging news:
The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, svp for global advertising at New York Times International.
Currently, all the ads running on European pages are direct-sold. Although the publisher doesn’t break out exact revenues for Europe, Demarta said that digital advertising revenue has increased significantly since last May and that has continued into early 2019.
“The fact that we are no longer offering behavioral targeting options in Europe does not seem to be in the way of what advertisers want to do with us,” he said. “The desirability of a brand may be stronger than the targeting capabilities. We have not been impacted from a revenue standpoint, and, on the contrary, our digital advertising business continues to grow nicely.”
The NYT briefly tested reintroducing open-exchange programmatic ad buying last fall but didn’t pursue it. “When we weighed all considerations, it was decided not to continue with it,” added Demarta.
In other words, even the programmatic stuff the NYTimes runs in Europe is wheat rather than chaff. This is huge, and perhaps the beginning of a real sea change.
The other source for hope is all the development work going on toward increasing agency on the individual’s side. This includes cookies that go the other way and terms each of us can proffer as first parties, and that the sites and services of the world can agree to as second parties—rather than the other way around.
To sum up, I’m glad you’re writing that book, Rick, and putting so much good work into it. If you’re looking for help, I’m glad to give it. Toward your title (a good one), here’s some of my own research on John Wanamaker.