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

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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