Fixing Online Advertising and News: A Matter of Life and Death

As the COVID-19 pandemic reshapes life in the 21st century, the news industry’s long history does not protect it from fundamental change. One major issue the crisis has illuminated is many advertisers’ reluctance — for brand safety reasons — to advertise against news, whether by directly blocking news sites or blocking terms related to large news events (such as the pandemic or the presidential election). The problem is enormous, as are the stakes. Advertising remains the primary source of revenue for most news publishers, although even before the pandemic, news publishers earned a small fraction of the money spent advertising online, with the lion’s share going to Facebook and Google. If the news industry cannot be sustained, bad actors may rush to fill the void, sharing misinformation that can be dangerous, even deadly, especially in a health crisis. This is a question of health — both that of the industry and the public.

A major issue the pandemic has exacerbated is that many advertisers — and the ad-tech system as a whole — view cost (of the audience, of the content surrounding the ad, and of the system of getting messages to consumers) as more important than quality. This was largely driven by the shift by advertisers to buying audiences instead of specific publications. Past logic was that if advertisers had enough information about consumers to pinpoint them in any online activity, then it shouldn’t matter what content they were reading when the ad was served. After years of this, however, it has become clear that the content does matter to advertisers. A 2017 UK study tracked brain activity as consumers read “hard” and “soft” news and found that for many, engagement with ad content was actually higher when ads appeared near news. In addition, according to the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) report, “Cross-Industry Collaboration to Redefine Brand Suitability in Trusted News Environments,” published in April 2020, 90 percent of people respond favorably or neutrally when ad adjacencies appear next to serious content like COVID-19.

It’s also evident that people who read real, quality news are better targets for advertisers across a number of industries. In the News Media Alliance’s 2018 News Advertising Panorama we found that:

· Digital news consumers have a median household income over $70K

· The news media audience generally is wealthier and better-educated than the average US adult

· News media consumers have a median home value over $18K higher than the national median

· More than 86 percent of the adult news media audience is registered to vote

Though the logic has only recently been reversed, quality for the system was always more important than cost.

There is also concern about programmatic advertising and perpetuating misinformation. As a January op-ed from The New York Times estimates, the programmatic advertising system earned Russian disinformation sites and Sputnik news at least $5 million in over six months. The advertisements came from brands as storied as Geico, Amazon, BestBuy and Walmart. The same op-ed points out that those two specific sites — not unique among disinformation sites and other bad actors — were promoting conspiracy theories about 5G networks earlier this year. With the proliferation of new conspiracies related to 5G and COVID-19, the risks of continuing to support these types of sites has only increased.

Advertisers, publishers and tech companies all need to be on their toes to stay ahead of scammers and crooks. But the system is so decentralized that it’s easy for companies to deny any responsibility. For example: DSPs can claim that content doesn’t meet the definitions of “brand safety” set by brand safety companies; brand safety providers pass responsibility for interpreting their data to advertisers; advertisers believe their media agencies should decide which audience to reach. And the cycle continues, with misinformation putting people at risk, publishers losing out on advertising dollars, and advertisers supporting bad actors while missing out on high-value targets.

There is no single solution to a problem this complex and large. However, there are multiple approaches being taken, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, to attempt to mitigate the effects of this particular crisis, while also taking long-term steps to fix the system as a whole.

The 4A’s report mentioned above encourages the advertising community to “contribute to the greater good of the industry” through taking an unbiased approach to brand safety. This is, effectively, a call for 4A’s members to come together to develop a consistent set of standards, re-evaluate their blacklists and support the news industry with their full online ad investment. The report references a study by CHEQ in September 2019 that found “more than half (57 percent) of neutral or positive stories on major news sites are being incorrectly flagged as unsafe for advertising. This is severely damaging publishers’ ability to monetize premium content.” According to the same study, “Some 93 percent of publishers say brand safety solutions are hurting their revenues through over-blocking.” Similar to the 4A’s recommendation, in the UK, the ISBA found that “keyword blocking practice may be getting in the way of brands’ intention to engage the attention of target audiences from trusted news sources.” To help brands navigate these confusing waters, the organization has publicly shared its guidance for brands on how best to continue to advertise in a brand-suitable manner.

In March, Buzzfeed reported that a brand that typically spends $3 million on advertising on news and technology sites, saw its ad blocked more than 35 million times across 100 news sites for just that month. Some ad-tech companies want to do their part in supporting journalism by minimizing the chance that their clients block ads on trusted news sites. MediaMath and TRUSTX recently announced a plan to promote brand suitability and “to lower the risk while making it easier to advertise in news.” MediaMath is partnering with Peer39 to understand what news content would have been blacklisted to understand how news is suitable for most brands, while TRUSTX allows buyers to select brand-safe, trusted news sources for ad placements. By helping brands understand that news is brand-suitable, these approaches can ensure advertising dollars still flow to publishers.

A man in a protective suit reads a newspaper

Another suggestion, for those organizations that remain risk-averse in the face of the 4A’s report, is to use a vetted “whitelist” of real news sources to help ensure ads are placed there. Multiple attempts at a vetted list of news sources have been undertaken, including a partnership between the Local Media Consortium and the Brand Safety Institute. The LMC-BSI whitelist focuses on ensuring advertising dollars flow directly to local news publishers, who are facing massive financial stress while also continuing to provide on-the-ground information to communities about the local response to Coronavirus.

A challenge for organizations creating whitelists — particularly if they don’t have an existing list like LMC’s — is defining the criteria and vetting sites. Many ambitious projects have gotten bogged down in the question of what defines a news publisher. Fortunately, the team at NewsGuard was invested in rating sites by trustworthiness long before the Coronavirus crisis began. The team uses nine key journalistic criteria to rate sites and the information they promote and has lately been active in fighting against the battle of misinformation specific to COVID-19. As of early April, NewsGuard shared its data with a WHO-backed effort fighting misinformation about the virus and through July 1, their individual browser extension, which flags specific sites, will be available for free download. The group is also working with a number of companies at various points in the online advertising funnel, including Peer 39 and IPG in the UK, to help support journalism more broadly.

Associations representing advertisers and news publishers alike are sounding the alarm to stop blocking ads from appearing alongside quality news content. To news publishers, it is a matter of life and death. In April, David Chavern, President & CEO of the News Media Alliance, and Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next, called on digital advertisers and digital advertising companies to stop using keyword blocking practices that jeopardize the sustainability of high-quality journalism during this critical time. According to the statement, “Fact-based, reliable journalism supports the online ecosystem by providing readers with invaluable information and advertisers with high-quality content and access to these readers. Keyword blocking threatens this symbiotic relationship at the worst possible time.”

In addition, in an open letter to the industry, Kint urged certain advertising technology companies, including Integral Ad Sciences and DoubleVerify, to exempt “premium, trusted media properties” from brand safety filters around COVID-19 and related terms.

While more attention is being paid to this issue now, the advertising and ad-tech industries must act quickly to reverse the damage being done to news publishers. Their future is literally at stake.

VP, Research & Insights at News Media Alliance

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