Ad revenue & the newspaper: who’s calling the shots?

In a week that has seen considerable discussion about the world of journalism, first in the wake of that John Oliver monologue on the state of local news and, in the UK, the start of the campaign ‘Stop Funding Hate’ (which is calling on businesses like Virgin Media to withdraw their advertising from the tabloid publications who seem to have made incendiary headlines an acceptable part of the daily news machine), a comment made by Clay Shirky that ‘society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism‘ has never seemed so pertinent.

If newspapers are so hamstrung by their ads, can they be reliably expected to instigate, initiate and implement the change required to reinvigorate journalism as a public service?

Journalism, said Shirky, is wedded to print, not by design but by coincidence. Long before other media became available, newspapers were pretty much the only large-scale option for those wishing to advertise and the revenue stream this generated has become inextricably intertwined with the monetization of the newspapers themselves. And here we have the problem. The connection between the two has been accepted as a kind of unbreakable bond, when perhaps it should be recognized for what it is: a mutually beneficial and convenient arrangement, yes, but an accidental one.

In the transition to digital, newspapers seemed to insist that all that was needed was, as Shirky said, ‘a digital makeover’. This comment – and this article– though nearly ten years old, sadly seems as relevant now as it was back in 2009. We hear an awful lot about newspapers looking for new ways to innovate and adapt in the digital world, but as Ken Doctor noted last week in his article on NiemanLab, these are claims that they have been making since the digital world started to threaten the media more than twenty years ago, and the fact that they’re still ‘exploring’ options perhaps suggests that the newspapers themselves aren’t the best ones to be proffering and implementing radical change for the journalism profession.

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We see this online, where we’re in a fairly precarious situation. As consumers, we’re getting more tech-savvy: we use ad-blockers; we’re increasingly realizing that if content is free, we must be the commodity; we’re used to myriad platforms and apps to consume an infinite amount of information – and to do this without handing over a cent. As journalists, the increased technological platforms have only created more calls on our time, as the job now requires us to write, share, blog, tweet and respond. The seemingly voracious – and insatiable – appetite of the consumer (not, tellingly, the ‘reader’) only fuels demands for more and more articles, more and more interactions – even when these interactions, in the guise of simple metrics, are meaningless barometers of quality.

Offline, the inexorable decline of the newspaper can chart its origins to the 1950s when the television revolutionized the world and way it communicated news and information. Across three countries surveyed for a 2010 report on newspaper circulation, the same trends were evident: daily newspapers in paid circulation as a percentage of households fell from more than 100% of households in 1950 to between 30% and 40% by 2010. That’s quite a decrease. Ad revenue, perhaps not surprisingly, saw a correlative drop off in 2015: the biggest fall since 2009, according to the Pew Research Centre’s 2016 report, and various sources state that it is in a state of permanent decline.

From the 2011 Report by Media-CMI.com
From the 2011 Report by Media-CMI.com

All this is to say, journalism no longer means ‘the newspaper’. Just because something has worked in the past does not mean it will (or should) continue to do so into the future.

Newspapers and their advertisers have, perhaps unwittingly, found themselves in a chicken-and-egg scenario, where both are reliant upon each other, and this being the case, are unlikely to rock the boat. To prove their worth to their advertisers in the wake of a clear trend of print ad decline, the papers need to prove that theirs is a product reaching enough eyes.

As if this wasn’t enough, being caught in this cycle where ads fund content, but content chases clicks (or in the case of print, sales) we’re at a point where we have a dangerous (and irresponsible) reliance on business money to fund content that at best is ‘clickable’, but at worst is tantamount to inciting not only social disquiet, but also a pernicious culture of hate.

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It’s this connection that Richard Wilson picked up on last week when he launched a campaign called ‘Stop Funding Hate’ via 38degrees, a British petition site. The campaign’s contention, that by advertising those businesses are tacitly condoning and complicit in the content that gets printed and published, is an interesting one. The first target, Virgin Media, was highlighted because, as Richard says, “we think there is such a clear clash between their values and the behavior of newspapers like The Sun. We also think that by taking a stand on this issue, there’s an opportunity for Virgin Media to show that they’re ahead of the curve in responding to the growing public concern about hate-speech within the UK media.”

If ad revenue is falling as fast as the Pew Report suggests, businesses, like Virgin Media, are indeed in a strong position. Withdrawing their business may not impact the newspaper to the extent that they are forced to reexamine their editorial process – and dare we say, their conscience – but it sends a very strong signal to newspapers that businesses are at least aware of the content they are essentially funding.

It would be quite something to see such a bold move, but businesses are businesses at heart and the fact that Virgin Media hasn’t withdrawn its ads of its own volition could be said to speak volumes about its priorities.

Stop Funding Hate sends a strong signal to newspapers that businesses are aware of the content they are funding

If newspapers are so hamstrung by their ads, can they be reliably expected to instigate, initiate and implement the change required to reinvigorate journalism as a public service? Put in the terms of what Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired described as ‘The Shirky Principle’: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”. This astute observation seems a logical one, though depressing. In the meantime, we’re watching the 38degrees campaign with interest.

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