Interesting piece by Dave Gehring over at Medium:
My friend Amy Webb shared it with me over on Facebook. I replied with a bit of a rant, and here it is:
I hope this gets through to people finally. It’s not particularly provocative to me, and certainly not new. This says everything I’ve been saying for years, both on blogs – even as far back as lost remote – and in conferences. And Robert Hernandez has beat the drum also. But people have been tone deaf, perhaps now the time is right and David clicks. We essentially said that ads were good, and the newspaper could be a refuge from crappy ads – use the credibility of the paper to sell trustworthy, safe ads.
But journalists are late to this awareness because their culture is historically alienated from the means of its own production. The wall between ads and content has produced a dangerous lack of awareness and appreciation for the advertising as legitimate content. Journalists expect ads to be the galley slaves that enable their lofty work and propel their ship. They are inherently distrustful of advertisers and public relations people. They make enemies of the paying customers.
People consume content like it is a sandwich – the journalism may be the meat, but the advertising is the bread (and butter, har har). And consumers get both in each bite, so if the bread is crappy, the experience is crappy.
Publishing is brokering. Advertising is the business, the audience is the product, the journalism is the expense that brings the product. Membership and admission fees are not unique – Pro sports and amusement parks are the same way – spectators pay an admission fee, see the game or ride the rides, and then buy concessions from vendors who lease space in the venue. People pay to be able to buy – from approved vendors who are part of the experience.
Aron Pilhofer once quotably said at a NICAR presentation in 2007 that “you can’t outsource your future.” Everyone outsourced advertising because the markets were not mature, the audience wasn’t there yet, and owning production and sales was expensive. when doubleclick and yahoo consortiums came calling, impatient revenue hungry publishers looking for a fast buck pushed their chips in. They outsourced their future.
We saw this with major style brands, I used them as examples in my teaching. Esquire and GQ ran google ads and double click ads on their templates, which were completely out of place with the brand positioning. You’d never see a compostable toilet or belly buster ad next to a rolex watch full page in the front of those magazines. But they were there as outsourcing products.
We all sighed when we saw Time ink their $100 million deal with outbrain. Promoted content is going even worse than bad ads. We’ll see 25 NFL hottest wives showing up on the Atlantic. My kids won’t look at weather.com anymore because their promoted content ads are scary and inappropriate.
Journalists are now all up in arms about native advertising and branded journalism and content studios – what they miss as they are tone deaf because of years of conditioning against advertorial and press release disdain – is that native advertising only works because of mutual brand credibility and complete transparency. The same concerns were voiced about curation of content — blogs plagiarize! — but that is now a regular and accepted practice without a second thought.
But, ironically, we did all the right things in 1997 and 1998. We launched the papers under new stand-alone domains. We built local portals. We built our own banners, we sold local businesses sponsorships into targeted content, we built sites for businesses in our studios and kept the updated — we were essentially doing what “branded content studios” at the big papers are doing now. The markets just weren’t ready. Not enough people online yet, not enough results for advertisers. Really, facebook is the not far from that – it’s the core featureset of AOL – buddylists, chat, messenger – with a few new things, a better user experience, and hence, mega scale. The audience was ready for it.
The hyperlocal startups in 2007 were in the same boat, they used their ad network money to start paper products because that’s where local advertisers saw value. That’s still an issue. Small hyperlocal bloggers still don’t have an effective ad solution. They’re going back to selling on their own and partnering with other local blogs — it’s a geography based version of blogads – which appeared to serve blogs like dailykos and instipundit when they first appeared.
So good for David. Good for Richard. Good for Sally. But there is nothing that substantially new here for people who know the business end and the history of publishing, just new names for old practices with little twists. The pioneer presses were located in county seats to print handbills and wanted posters because there were no advertisers in the markets yet – they made civic partnerships. TV and radio partnered with businesses to get shows sponsored before there were spot commercials. We partnered with local businesses to create local guide special sections. We partnered with each other into the largest news collective ever – the AP. We partnered with tv stations for weather. we partner like crazy and always have.
And while we are listening to google preach about this… we should also remember that google did much to create this situation: it’s their search algorithm that lies at the bottom of the clickbait, it’s their adwords and google ads that accepted all the untrustworthy and low rent ads and served them out without filtering control at the publisher level, it’s their news aggregator that shifted the traffic flow. I like Richard a lot, I shared a cab with him to the airport after his first ONA in Las Vegas, and flat out told him that a google pitch to local news publishers is sharecropping their templates for google’s ad products, and he conceded as much as he very kindly paid for the ride. Our friends in Mountain View need to own all of that in the same breath that they counsel the industry on how they can save themselves. As we say in journalism, context is everything.
What hard news has always done is treat advertisers like slaves. They saw the success of sites like buzzfeed, copied them with click bait, grabbed remnant programmatic ads and suddenly everything looks like the Weekly World News. Mashable went supernova when it stopped using ad networks and sold its own. New startups like Vice and Vox went back to quality, eschewed the ad networks, established credibility and rose to the top while everyone else raced to the bottom to stop the bleeding. They’re carrying capital costs on print production and distribution that are still depreciating, so they’re hacking body count instead to balance, eating their seed corn. The digital pureplays without that added massive operating expense are the nimble, right-sized players who can rapidly adjust and grow. And that’s the real reason why they’ll win in the end. It’s legacy infrastructure as well as the historically obtuse culture.
Many local papers and legacy brands will survive. But what will happen is that they’ll be sold into local hands and go private again, and then right size to their markets. Like they were originally. The corporate conglomeration of print products and tv stations under publicly traded companies is a fairly new practice, only a few decades in the more than 400 year history of print. Gannett and Scripps and McClatchy dealing their papers isn’t the death of journalism, it’s just the next chapter.
And in the end, it all depends on credibility. It always has. Not just for journalism – for everything. You can’t have a business unless the customer trusts you. You can’t have a partnership without trust.