Advertisers have both a business rationale and ethical imperative to invest in news and magazine brands – especially as AI looms large.
This article was written by Gideon Spanier and originally appeared in Campaign.
A young media agency strategist from Initiative asked a good question at a recent, internal event, called “New Journalism: Democracy in Darkness”, at which staff discussed the relationship between journalism and advertising with two leading UK media owners. Why, this executive asked, do established news brands and publishers still break so many stories, despite the explosion in the number of digital outlets and sites?
Initiative’s educational Q&A session, one in a series about media matters that the London agency is hosting this summer, was held under Chatham House rules but the answer should be self-evident. Trained journalists and editors know how to investigate and verify facts responsibly, tell brilliant stories that engage audiences and hold power to account – as I have been reminded recently when reading many of the excellent entries for the Association of Online Publishers’ Digital Publishing Awards 2023 in my role as co-chair of judges.
In theory, advertisers should place a premium on trusted news and magazine brands because they create compelling, professionally produced content, particularly given the surge in fake news and other unreliable and toxic content across the media world. Alas, the reverse has happened, because many brands and their agencies have reduced their advertising investment and moved their money into the big, global tech platforms.
The UK ad industry has shifted from a position a decade ago where advertisers were probably still over-investing in newspapers and magazines because of their print legacy (they represented more than 30% of adspend as recently as 2010, according to WARC) to a situation now where there is, arguably, under-investment (only 3% share) – albeit the overall market has more than doubled in value terms in a dozen years.
There is a paradox, because this shift in adspend away from trusted news and magazine media has come at a time when brand trust itself has risen in importance as a driver of profitability, according to Peter Field, the marketing guru and co-author of The Long and the Short of It. He looked at the IPA Databank of award-winning effectiveness case studies and found that brands advertising in news brands enjoyed an 88% uplift in profit growth between 2018 and 2022 versus brands that didn’t advertise there, despite identical budget levels.
Those numbers sound almost too good to be true but Field argued there is a rational explanation. The data shows that trust in news brands leapt around 2016 – the year of the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president – as fears about fake news and misinformation boosted the reputation of responsible news brands.
Journalism’s halo effect
This halo effect that surrounds journalism stems, in part, from its print past but it has extended online and may have a beneficial effect for other associated media channels, such as news podcasts, Field told Campaign’s Media 360 conference, where he spoke alongside Newsworks, the marketing body for news brands, in May.
Seen in this context, advertisers have not only a business rationale but also an ethical imperative to invest in news and magazine brands to support democracy and ensure media plurality and diversity.
However, ethics don’t tend to play a major role in media planning decisions, and editorial brands rely on advertising as their sole or chief revenue stream at their peril, as we have seen recently with the decline of several new-era titles, including BuzzFeed (which has shut its news arm), Vice (which filed for bankruptcy protection) and Gal-dem (which closed).
It is important to recognise that the news industry has made some major strategic errors, including giving away a lot of online content for free and being slow to embrace digital subscriptions during the early days of the internet. Phone-hacking and other historic wrongdoing also cast a long, reputational shadow over parts of the UK news business.
Failure to collaborate on ad sales was another mistake because news brands did not make life easy for their advertising customers at a time when their market share was shrinking and programmatic buying was taking off, a situation that was recognised belatedly with the creation of Ozone, a joint digital ad sales house for UK news brands, which launched five years ago. Even now, some respected news brands persist in making poor decisions when they prioritise clickbait and revenue over the user and advertiser experience – for example, running reheated stories with old quotes to drive traffic and over-loading pages with intrusive ads.
All of which matters because journalism faces a watershed moment with the rise of artificial intelligence, which “will profoundly change the way we both produce and consume media”, as Nina Wright, the chief executive of New Scientist owner Harmsworth Media, told the PPA Festival in April.
It is vital that “there are protections in place for content creators whose works have been used by machine learning tools without appropriate compensation and this will involve working alongside other creative sectors and trade bodies”, Sajeeda Merali, the chief executive of the PPA, said, speaking at the same event.
Her comments were a tacit acknowledgment that AI is likely to lead to more dubious content, whether that be via rip-off merchants with financial motives (for example, operating “made for advertising” websites that copy stories to generate clicks) or bad actors with more sinister motives (such as political propaganda and election-rigging). Advertisers and agencies can play an important role because where they choose to invest – or not to invest – can have a significant impact in terms of the credibility of the editorial content.
There is, understandably, a sense of foreboding about AI and yet there is also a recognition that the media industry, which has seen advertising technology misused and weaponised in the past decade, can learn from past mistakes. As Kara Swisher, the US tech journalist and commentator, said about generative AI on a recent episode of her podcast, the next generation of leadership has a “responsibility to monitor this the way that we have not monitored early social media and early internet to figure out what’s best”.
An ex-agency leader, still involved in the media world, puts it in similar terms, warning “we shouldn’t make the same mistake again” after brands poured money into the Google-Facebook duopoly at its zenith at the expense of the producers of professional content. “Advertisers need to be on the right side of the argument this time,” this media sage urges.