Since 2019, digital advertising in news media spaces has taken a larger market share than traditional advertising. The change builds from technological advancements that more precisely collect, analyze, and segregate audience data that can be leveraged for financial benefit. Whereas historically American news media brands built their financial viability off of mass advertising to broad audiences, today their value increasingly lies in a combined revenue model that focuses more on segmentation–the ability to collect detailed audience data that publishers can both sell to advertisers for revenue and also use themselves to drive revenue through targeted reader subscriptions.
This shift has been building for the past 20 years, and some believe it is collapsing the mass media model altogether. NPR called the Super Bowl “one of the last truly mass-market opportunities for advertisers,” an assessment that also suggests news media brands no longer occupy this space for effective mass advertising. However, journalism has always been about more than its business functions: it is also meant to be an essential public service that helps combat corruption and maintain an informed voting populace in democratic states, regardless of the tech tools it has used to make money. As financial incentives evolve within the industry, publishers are left with challenging tensions between editorial decisions that serve the public good and decisions impacting advertising that serve their financial viability.
Editorial decisions, audience trust, and advertiser effectiveness
In the late 1990s, media researcher and former journalism professor, Dr. John H. McManus, forecasted the political impact of economically motivated news media. He called it ‘market-driven journalism,’ and the National Library of Medicine summarized his work five years after Facebook launched, saying:
“From the standpoint of political-economic theory, newspapers have historically kept advertising and news-editorial functions separated as an institutional practice, yet content and audiences are becoming increasingly commoditized. According to political-economic theories, a relationship exists between the way media are structured economically and the ideology of media content. In media consolidation, a major factor is avoidance of economic risks. Politically, citizens in a democracy must have access to free information in order to participate actively, exercising their democratic rights to vote and maintain or improve their well-being.”
The migration of journalism from print (or TV) and traditional mass advertising to online platforms and more segmented digital advertising has been a driving force behind the commodification of readerships and journalism content. This has also created the challenge of determining what counts as a platform versus a publisher. The industry shift as a whole seems to have placed questions like brand safety for advertisers and their consumer audiences at odds with editorial content that draws readers and serves civic needs.
In 2020, for example, consumer brands would not place ads next to Black Lives Matter content for fear of buyer backlash. Companies mostly used the traditional tactic of keyword blocking to filter their ad placements, which can have harmful financial impacts on publishers and disincentivize them from certain types of reporting. Ultimately, the consequences of that decision will not fall on advertisers or publishers, but on readers. A democracy without a free press for informed voters is not much of a democracy at all. Senior Vice President of Global News and Special Projects at VICE Media Group, Marsha Cooke, told NPR:
“We found that content that was related to George Floyd and the protests monetized at a rate 57% lower than other news content. And that’s because brands and agencies specifically blocked their ads from being next to content around racial unrest…brands or advertisers would not want their product to be aligned or placed next to the content that is important for the American audience to know about….[But if publishers] do not have the support of the brands or advertising industry, we have a very difficult time existing.”
Certainly, editorial choices can be aligned to protect brand safety for advertisers, but this is one factor that can also create more narrow channels of reported content and increasingly homogenous, separated audience segments in comparison to mass media. Highly diversified information sources and siloed audiences risk catering more to audience interests for a financial benefit than fulfilling traditional functions of journalism within a democratic state. Of course, algorithmic biases from tech tools that analyze and segment audiences–and may indicate types of editorial decisions publishers should make–can also unethically narrow access to information, as Facebook has found in its efforts to eliminate AI bias. Ethical and socio-political considerations aside, however, aligning brand safety with editorial decisions makes understanding reader audiences even more important. Tech tools can empower publishers to better understand their audiences–not only to convert subscribers and build their own brands on quality editorial content–but also to educate advertisers about the unique value of their readerships.
As publishers and advertisers shift towards using AI-driven contextual and sentiment analytics, third-party data use laws are also evolving; consumer brands that are trying to determine ad spend strategies are becoming more dependent on readers’ first-party data collected by publishers. Publishers collect this data by earning reader trust in their editorial content, not by focusing on consumer trust. These layered dynamics make editorial decisions more important than ever–both for readerships and the publisher-advertiser relationships. Senior reporter for The Drum, John McCarthy, explains:
“Going deeper than keywords to understand the sentiment and emotion around the web pages is the ‘difference between content being blocked or monetized’. It will free up more inventory than has been historically available and will give brands more control. Marketers are under the impression ads next to positive news stories garner less risk and better outcomes, but there’s scant evidence to back that. In fact, research by Reach suggested that an ad placement against bad news in a trusted news source would do little if any, reputational damage.”
The key, then, is for advertisers to understand whether, how much, and why reader audiences trust a publisher. The key for publishers is to make editorial decisions that prioritize trust with their readers first, and then offer that strong understanding of the data stories from their different reader segments as value to advertisers. While what creates trust may differ from audience to audience, that trust is built largely by editorial content decisions. At this point in the evolution of journalism, the most valuable relationship for publishers and advertisers alike is becoming the trust between publishers and readers, no longer advertisers and their consumers who happen to be reading news. This insight needs to guide editorial decisions.
For example, in 2018 BBC conducted a massive global study that found high-quality journalism results in better outcomes for advertisers, and in the Reuters Institute 2020 Digital News Report, BBC also ranked as the most trustworthy news media brand for American audiences across the political spectrum. BBC was ranked this way by American readers for its perceived content objectivity. Content objectivity is one of many possible tones and substance editorial decisions that performed well with this segmented audience, not as brand consumers but as newsreaders. Having such high-level reader trust in the publisher brand ultimately also benefits consumer-advertiser relationships associated with that publisher. Other editorial decisions that create reader trust could depend on generational demographics, or, as a 2020 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on trust, media, and democracy found, American readers generally value content produced by more diverse journalist teams.
For publishers, the evolving landscape points less to the importance of understanding mass types of editorial decisions in relation to consumers and more about how editorial decisions impact their own brand trust for their segmented readers. If they keep readers’ trust with their editorial decisions, publishers can reduce subscriber churn and also offer higher value, better performing data to advertisers.
Editorial priorities: advertiser revenue, subscriber revenue, or public service?
These complex dynamics make editorial choices ethically and economically much weightier: what happens when the editorial decisions required to keep readers’ trust in a publisher don’t align with the public service functions of journalism? In their editorial decisions, should publishers prioritize 1) brand safety for their advertisers whose ads will be placed in the context of publishers’ editorial content; or 2) readers who can also become paid subscribers expecting certain types of editorial content in order to keep paying; or 3) public service journalism, which may or may not align with the values of advertisers, consumers, or readers while still filling an essential social function?
Even if publishers prioritize their relationships with readers first and advertisers second, as previously argued, they may still reach a conflict between monetizable reader interests and public service reporting. Equally important, the function of journalism as a public service in a democracy is partly to maintain a common base of information society-wide and tools of anti-corruption in order to empower widespread, educated voting. Of course, these functions are also connected to editorial decisions. This narrowing of information or audiences can be counterproductive to the public service ends of journalism, even if beneficial to the bottom line for publisher brands and their advertisers.
This dynamic is one reason why partisan-backed local media enterprises like Brian Timpone’s companies are so effective, even while undermining the values, standards, and social functions of traditional mass journalism: these networks successfully leverage the interests, biases, trust in local news, and values of niche audiences–which are highly monetizable–without leaning on the same ethical principles or content standards of traditional journalism.
The success of this “pay-for-play network” as the New York Times describes it demonstrates the risks of this current trajectory, regardless of which partisan groups, private businesses, or activists fund it: “The network is one of a proliferation of partisan local-news sites funded by political groups associated with both parties…While Mr. Timpone’s sites generally do not post information that is outright false, the operation is rooted in deception, eschewing hallmarks of news reporting like fairness and transparency.”
Whereas the previous example from the BBC generated editorial content for a large segment of readers who value content objectivity, Timpone’s network leverages other reader values in making their editorial decisions. But this approach is undermining the credibility of traditional local journalism and replacing it with partisan funded influencer campaigns that have contributed to election misinformation, according to the Columbia Journalism Review:
“An investigation by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School has discovered at least 450 websites in a network of local and business news organizations, each distributing thousands of algorithmically generated articles and a smaller number of reported stories…The networks can be traced back to conservative businessman Brian Timpone…[who previously created] an outlet known for its low-cost automated story generation (which became known as ‘pink slime journalism’), which attracted national attention and outrage for faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism. [His rebranded network] is behind many of the publications we discovered that mimic the appearance and output of traditional news organizations. These sites do not bear much information about their political use or funding, but some of them have been funded by political candidates and lobbying campaigns…Websites and networks can aid campaigns to manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media. ”
Quality, trustworthy journalism remains an essential social structure for anti-corruption, democratic stability, civic education, and–as demonstrated by the coronavirus pandemic–even community safety. As evidenced by the different editorial choices leveraged by BBC compared with Timpone’s network, the current business, legal, and technological structures in place leave the consequences of editorial decisions on both advertiser relationships and democracy weightily in the hands of publishers. While such complex considerations–and their relationship to media law, political ethics, economics, and technology–are not entirely new for news media publishers, the current iterations of these issues are urgent. Editorial content decisions stand at the important intersection of democratic values, ethical use of human data, and quality relationships with readers and advertisers that ensure the viability of journalism in the digital age.