Yes, News Sites Need To Get Out Of The Ad Surveillance Business — But Blame The Advertisers As Well

from the takes-two-to-tango dept

Doc Searls has a great recent blog post in which he rightly points out why Bernie Sanders’ “plan to save journalism” is completely misguided and will fail. It’s worth reading — with the key point being that Sanders’ plan to save journalism assumes a world that does not exist, and one where heavy regulations will somehow magically save journalism, rather than stifle it. As Searls notes, that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world of informational abundance, which changes everything:

Journalism as we knew it?scarce and authoritative media resources on print and air?has boundless competition now from, well, everybody.

But there’s an interesting point Searls makes later in his piece, suggesting that part of the problems with the news today is that the old school news publications have bought into “surveillance” based business models — and nothing will change until they dump that and move back towards brand advertising:

Meanwhile, the surviving authoritative sources in that mainstream have themselves become fat with opinion while carving away reporters, editors, bureaus and beats. Brand advertising, for a century the most reliable and generous source of funding for good journalism (admittedly, along with some bad), is now mostly self-quarantined to major broadcast media, while the eyeball-spearing ?behavioral? kind of advertising rules online, despite attempts by regulators (especially in Europe) to stamp it out. (Because it is in fact totally rude.)

He later says:

I think we?ll start seeing the tide turn when when what?s left of responsible ad-funded online publishing cringes in shame at having participated in adtech?s inexcusable surveillance business?and reports on it thoroughly.

And, to some extent, I agree. I’ve pointed out a few times now that, especially for news publishers, the evidence suggests that there’s no real benefit to behavioral advertising that requires sucking up all the data.

But this is not just about the publishers. You may note that we at Techdirt use some tracking in our advertising. Because, if we didn’t we’d have no advertising, and no advertising revenue at all.

Every single time I write about this, I point out that we have eagerly approached tons of advertisers, even those who promote themselves as supporting privacy, and offer what we think is a great freaking deal to do no-tracking, brand advertising on Techdirt — which we think our users would appreciate. And every single time one of two things happens: we never ever hear back or we eventually get passed on to some cog in the advertising machine with a spreadsheet who simply can’t understand what we’re trying to offer, and the whole thing falls apart. We’ve had multiple long conversations with large companies — some of whom are “famous” for supporting privacy, and we point out all the benefits of doing a brand advertising program that doesn’t track, and we just get politely brushed off or ignored.

So, yeah, I’d love it if the media — including us! — went back to brand advertising that doesn’t require surveilling on visitors (though, lots of you already use adblockers, which is totally cool by us). But, since not a single advertiser seems willing to buy such ads, we’re kinda left in the lurch. So, as I do every time, I’ll again say that if you happen to have an advertising budget and believe that supporting Techdirt in a way that we can highlight that you support us without requiring sucking up data on our community please contact us. Given our experiences so far, I’m not holding my breath.

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Comments on “Yes, News Sites Need To Get Out Of The Ad Surveillance Business — But Blame The Advertisers As Well”

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42 Comments
Zof (profile) says:

News Sites Need To Do News Again

Pick any "news site" now.

You can literally list the PR firms.

The fake vaping is going to kill you stories? One firm paid by Michael Bloomberg. Yes, websites knowingly published outright lies and health scares about vaping because Michael Bloomberg paid for it. It was all THC related and had absolutely nothing to do with the vaping everyone has been doing for over a decade.

The fake hate stories against Elon Musk with fake science? That’s a PR firm paid by Warren Buffet to attack Elon Musk. That’s how you get 12,000 satellites messing up space photography when there are literally 12,000 airplanes in the air at all times. If you see junk science being used to attack Elon Musk, Warren Buffet paid for it.

The fake stories supporting Google’s unethical search rigging? Yet another K street PR firm. The same firm churning out ad copy defending the unethical use of section 230 for political censorship.

Can I list any of these firms? Sure. If I want to get sued to death. If I want fake copyright strikes made against me on social media platforms. If I want Google to declare me a "nazi" and algorithm me to death.

The point is, the wealthy 1 percenters are buying so much "news" now that hardly any of it is real. Just the delusions of wealth sociopaths with serious mental problems.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Can I list any of these firms? Sure. If I want to get sued to death. If I want fake copyright strikes made against me on social media platforms. If I want Google to declare me a "nazi" and algorithm me to death.

You’re a semi-anonymous commenter on a blog that Google has no power over and copyright strikes can’t take down your comment. List them, coward, or stop whining about consequences that you can’t face here.

Zof (profile) says:

Re: Re: News Sites Need To Do News Again

There’s literally a story about Bloomberg’s fake vaping PR nonsense on Reason. There’s literally 1000 pages of leaked Google docs that prove they are rigging search. There’s literally actual science that shows the PR attack on Musk is ridiculous. I don’t feel the need to back up objective reality.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: ... and this is entirely off topic, but...

Hmm… Cite or it didn’t happen, right?

The Reason story that you quoted earlier itself has a quote from a Michael Siegel, an e-cigarette advocate:

"By the CDC’s own admission," Siegel notes, "80 percent of the cases have been tied to vaping illicit marijuana/THC cartridges, not legal e-cigarettes.

Yet when I go to the CDC’s page on the Outbreak of Severe Pulmonary Disease Linked with E-cigarette Product Use the quote is not supported in that context.

Later in the reason article…

Contrary to the impression [Bloomberg and Meyers] are trying to create, Juul does not sell cotton-candy-flavored pods.

Can’t say aye or nay on that, but I did just this morning read that Juul was marketing to kids in schools (with links to FDA documentation). So yay, they’re not selling cotton-candy-flavored pods?

There’s two anecdotes-worth of points in the Reason article that need to be examined closer before forming an opinion. I’m sure there are others that pan out, and others that do not. I would wager the same against the Bloomberg article, including points the Reason article does not try to refute. Still, anecdotes are not data. Inaccurate reporting is inaccurate. But it ain’t turtles all the way down. You can get to original source material if you try.

And as for yourself?

I don’t feel the need to back up objective reality.

Not asking you to back it up. Asking you to document it. You seem reluctant to go to the effort. And when you’re dealing with dueling news, you got the cue right there that you need to do that, sir, rather than rely on the news you prefer. Please consider looking deeper before telling us the objective reality.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: News Sites Need To Do News Again

Can I list any of these firms? Sure. If I want to get sued to death. If I want fake copyright strikes made against me on social media platforms. If I want Google to declare me a "nazi" and algorithm me to death.

So convenient that there are all these powerful forces preventing you from citing sources that would let us evaluate your claims. I guess we’ll have to just dismiss them entirely.

Thad (profile) says:

Doc Searls has a great recent blog post in which he rightly points out why Bernie Sanders’ "plan to save journalism" is completely misguided and will fail. It’s worth reading — with the key point being that Sanders’ plan to save journalism assumes a world that does not exist, and one where heavy regulations will somehow magically save journalism, rather than stifle it.

I think perhaps if we’re going to talk about regulations, it’s a good idea to delineate which specific regulations we’re talking about.

A good chunk of Sanders’s proposal concerns making it more difficult for major media companies to merge — which sounds good to me (and seems inline with Techdirt’s coverage of recent media mergers).

On the other hand, I’m inclined to share Rob Williams’s skepticism at Sanders’s proposal to tax online ads and use the proceeds "to fund nonprofit civic-minded media."

(And a churlish aside: any proposal I’d make for improving online news sources would begin with "stop putting light-gray text on white backgrounds." Maybe someone can pass that along to Doc Searls.)

Personanongrata says:

Pile Driver

We’ve had multiple long conversations with large companies — some of whom are "famous" for supporting privacy, and we point out all the benefits of doing a brand advertising program that doesn’t track, and we just get politely brushed off or ignored.

Follow the sage advice of Winston Churchill – use his pile driver technique – it would be an effective means of communicating dialectical heresy to a well entrenched advertising status quo.

Pile driver:

If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack. ~ Winston Churchill

Jason says:

brand?

Sorry if this is a stupid question, but even after looking at the linked article I’m not sure I’m clear on what "brand advertising" is supposed to mean in this context.

From the comparison against surveillance-style ad tracking, my best guess is that the idea is advertising from someone (i.e., the "brand") who looks at the potential market area (e.g., Techdirt) and says "this place is full of people interested in X, I should put some ads there for my new product cool_X_thing". That wouldn’t require any tracking or other behavior, just putting advertising in a spot where people who might be interested are likely to congregate.

Am I close?

Doc Searls (user link) says:

Re: brand?

“Brand advertising” is advertising-speak for the kind aimed at whole populations rather than personalized for individuals. The latter is called advertising, but is really a form of direct marketing. I explain the difference in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, here: https://medium.com/@dsearls/separating-advertisings-wheat-and-chaff-47858adfcb20#.i6msx57rv.

Anonymous Coward says:

Advertising is a victim of their own actions.

No one can tell what third party advertising is subject to give you malvertising. The only safe way to guard against that is to allow no ads at all. Now every site seems to want you to view their ads to make some money. Not one, wants to know who you are or how to get rid of one of those malvertisers products off your computer once you have it.

I am not going to remove my surfing in privacy mode to view a site. I’m not going to shut down my VPN usage that prevents a lot of this datamining for targeted ads. I am not going to shut down my ad blockers to expose myself to these hazards. Until advertising can become reasonably responcible and ethically minded. All safeguards will remain.

If a sight does not want me to see their content because of that, so be it. I don’t want them counting my eyeball prints as a method to raise their advertsing rates because of the traffic they get. None of those sites are valuable to me. It simply saves me a lot of time cleaning computers on my dime.

I’m good with that.

Doc Searls (user link) says:

You're right about advertisers

Great point about the advertisers, Mike. Also (and especially) their agencies.

At Linux Journal all our advertisers abandoned us after they hired CMOs, CDOs and agencies that believed, across the board, in collecting personal data so they could do “interest based,” “relevant” and “behavioral” advertising (which is actually direct marketing). It was a craze, and remains one, GDPR withstanding.

After all but going out of business at the end of 2017, we were rescued by a company headed by one of our long-loyal readers, and given runway to start living off brand advertising (the kind not based on surveillance—and that actually sponsors a publisher for its own worth) as well as subscriptions. We were making headway when (for reasons of their own, far as I know having nothing to do with Linux Journal), told us to cease operations. Which we did. Damn shame.

I think brand advertising will come back. But in the meantime, it’s still hell for publishers to participate in a deeply flawed and corrupt system that is sure to fail, simply because it’s just fucking wrong.

As a former advertising guy (my agency was a big one in Silicon Valley late in the last millennium) as well as a journalist, I’ve been on this topic for a long time. The post you kindly sourced is one in my People vs. Adtech series, which dates from 2008: http://j.mp/adbwars. Another source on this topic is Bob Hoffman, aka The Ad Contrarian: http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/ . His writing is also reliably entertaining as well.

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