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Advertiser concern about journalism’s fate should be due diligence, not philanthropy

April 2, 2018 | By Sam Ford, Media Consultant & Research Affiliate—MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing @Sam_Ford

What role do advertisers play in the state, or the plight, of contemporary journalism? What role should they play?

Jim Rutenberg’s New York Times piece last year entitled “Ad Buyers Have a Say in Whether Real News Survives” generated some discussion in both news and advertising circles around these questions.

Particularly, people debated his proposition that marketers should “do their part to support” quality journalism. Ben Thompson called Rutenberg’s piece a “rather fanciful suggestion” because advertisers “are (rightly) motivated by what is best for their business.” Meanwhile, an anonymous ad buyer told Shareen Pathak at Digiday that it’s particularly difficult to “hold up products that people don’t want. I don’t see corporations getting into that business. And I don’t see my agency recommending they do.”

I’m sympathetic to the point that agencies and brands shouldn’t be responsible for providing philanthropic support of companies running for-profit news organizations. After all, there’s always the option to provide underwriting for non-profit news organizations if we’re talking about patronage. However, Rutenberg’s piece, and the discussion around it, moves us into potentially productive ground for the contemporary debate about a crisis of trust in news organizations.

Successful Self-Interest

Advertisers should care about the plight of for-profit journalism, but not for the sake of altruism. Instead, advertisers should be motivated by their own self-interest to push back against what they’re being sold—the clickbait headlines, incendiary pieces, and partisan chest-thumping that are perpetuated by business models not optimized for long-term vision, and the difficulty publishers have changing what they’re offering as long as they’re still finding ways to recalibrate the machine to bring decent profits in the door.

For-profit newsrooms have continued down these paths in the past few years because advertisers have been buying it, and many advertisers have continued buying it in part because it’s what publishers are hawking. Thus, it is indeed imperative for marketers to be at the table in this conversation about the current state of journalism, if we’re going to break such cycles.

In fact, I’d argue advertisers are currently in the business of frequently propping up broken media business models that aren’t operating in their brands’ self-interest. Changing contemporary advertising practices would be in the service of getting out of supporting bad for-profit journalism practices.

Marketers shouldn’t automatically trust that publishers are acting in the best interest of their own audiences or the long-term viability of their advertising products, since for-profit newsrooms are heavily driven by monthly and quarterly profit goals, and the tactics that can reliably can reach them.

It’s up to brands and their agencies to think carefully about whether the ad units available to them might negatively impact trust in their brands over time, or else how engaging in advertising offerings only hastily strategized by their publishers might diminish the effectiveness of those products over the long term.

Wrestling with Metrics

And that gets us to the need for marketers to recognize the digital publishing industry’s brand of “kayfabe.” In pro wrestling circles, kayfabe refers to all efforts meant to preserve the fiction of the industry—a collective con over the “marks” they sell their performance to. For digital publishers living off venture capital, this is the sort of “investor storytime” Ethan Zuckerman writes about—creating the best story for getting continued investment.

The kayfabe aimed at marketers comes in the form of creating the best possible amalgamation of numbers to emphasize their reach and sell the ad units easiest to monetize. It might include uniques or clicks without getting into specifics about bounce rates. It might include emphasizing video views on social channels while steering clear of video completion rates. It might include packaged traffic numbers that includes ad inventory the brand sells for a network of otherwise unaffiliated publications.

Of course, marketing and communications departments are sometimes complicit in the lies the metrics tell, too. Like the professional wrestling fans who are actually not marks but are instead “in on the con,” ad buyers, agencies, and brand managers are sometimes playing their part to maintain kayfabe as well. It’s easy to accept numbers which—internally—will impress the rest of corporate leadership, shareholders, and others, ensuring that marketing is considered as certain a bet for investment as other corporate functions—no matter how connected to reality they might be.

Business Sense

Responses to Rutenberg’s piece last year pointed out that the ethical duty of marketing professionals lie with making the best investment possible for the organizations whose budgets they oversee. That should involve a healthier skepticism than ever in what’s being sold, and it should also account for a negative calculation in the ROI: the risk that certain ad products/buys might have the effect of slightly eroding the reputation and trust accrued by the brand over time. The efficacy and economy of advertising opportunities on offer sometimes appear appealing only because no room is given in the model for the negative effects they might have.

The unsettling truth is that for-profit digital newsrooms, in many cases, have the same basic business model as partisan commentary sites and fake news publications. And, in that case, journalistic ethics and process just become “cost centers,” because the ad units they sell and the way that they sell them don’t make any use of the premium the publisher’s reputation should afford. In the process, it means they are focusing on business models that are further damaging the trust between publisher and audience.

Marketers who haven’t revisited their approach shouldn’t change their ad-buying practices because of altruism. They should change their practices because what they’re currently doing isn’t sound business.

Sam Ford is a media consultant and research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing, based in Bowling Green, Ky. He is also a Knight News Innovation Fellow with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and an instructor in the Popular Culture Studies Program at Western Kentucky University. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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