Ad Blocking and the Future of Journalism

OK so this needs reviewing and editing. Anyway…

So what’s happening?

The news industry is hundreds of years old, and advertising is just as old. In contrast, the online news industry is barely twenty years old, but it has grown phenomenally in that time.

Print ad revenue still outweighs digital, but print it is decreasing. In years recent years online ad revenue has steadily increased, driven by the continual uptake of the internet.

Ad blocking though is growing faster than ad revenue. If it continues to grow even at its current rate, ad revenue will begin to stall.

revenue-vs-blocking@2x

And it does seem likely that ad blocking will grow at an exponential rate. The number of users who block ads barely hints at the number of ads blocked — it’s the users who access content more often that resort to blocking (according to Sourcepoint and Comscore via Business Insider Australia). So the problem may be worse than it seems.

This crisis is far from an internal matter. The effect it will have on news and journalism in general has spilled into the public conscious, especially in the last few months since Apple made known their plans to allow adblocking in iOS9.

adblockingtrend@2x

People want to know about ad blocking, and not just how to do it, for which the interest curve is much more gradual over the last five years.

I’ll Have The Status Quo, Please. 

status-quo

The internet as we know it runs on an economy that is based on ads. Take it away and things will change. For those a part of that system, fist defense is that ads support the free content we enjoy. Blocking those ads is like stealing that content. Ars Technica mentioned in 2010 that ad blocking was like eating at a restaurant and not paying. Reuters report that publishers in Germany actually took the parent company of Adblock Plus to court. (but the court determined ad blocking was legal).

PageFair and Adobe, in their joint study of ad blocking. In their 2015 report, ad blocking is linked to “blocked revenue,” and attributes a predicts a “global cost” to the practice in 2016 of 41.4 billion. It is seen as a disease.

But their own report’s findings that ad blocking is seeing 41% yearly global growth. “More than 30%” of users in Germany use ad blocking, according to Reuters, and globally between 10–40% of internet users (according to PageFair / Adobe), are they wrong to attribute this cost to the people who block ads? Can you really deny the voice of such a large of people?

How about better ads?

red-head

People are worried about online advertising for a variety of reasons, but not because they are opposed publisher business models.

In the PageFair/Adobe 2015 report, it is reported that 50% of would-be adblockers cite privacy and tracking as their main concern.

A diminished online experience. Ads are often distracting, tricky,

All that tracking and ad loading comes at the expense of bandwidth and speed. The next web’s Owen Williams looked at page load speeds with and without content blocking on iOS9. The effect was marked. Below is a summary of the difference.

PAGE-LOAD@2x

Most people think that ad blocking is the result of inherent problems with the online advertising industry, a decline in quality that has penetrated even reputable sources of news. The Huffington Post, for example, used to be a great place to go for news and analysis. These days, it’s clickbait central.

Adblock plus is the primary means of blocking ads on desktop browsers. It can block ads indiscriminatly, it offers as default an option to allow ‘acceptable ads.’

The like PageFair, the Australian Internet Advertising Beaureau argues for better ads. Like the RSPCA labels meat as humane, the IAB

Subscriptions are not common and a relic of the old-world. Most people prefer their news from a variety of sources.

Pay-per-view for news would require an industry-wide joint effort, syndication to a third party, and present a large and scary change to their business model.

I’ll have whatever’s new. Or good. 

There’s no point defending a system if it’s not working well for those it serves. News media serves it’s consumers, not the other way round, so the onus is on the industry to adapt.

Sure, if folks just want content for free, we are at an impass. But let’s not jump to conclusions about what people want.

Blendle, the first widely adopted pay-per-read online content experiment in the world, has discovered that people do indeed want news for free. However, they are much happier to pay for analysis.

In other words, they’ll pay for why, but not what in a reading experience that educates, not just informs.

If this plays out across the board, it’ll be an insult to the journalistic concept of impartiality .

This is good for news for sites that already present both news and opinion such as the Atlantic. It hints at monetisation models outside the old subscription/free dichotomy.

One example might be free news, with paid for longform analysis. The longform articles might work as follow-ups to numerous similar news stories. For example, different reports of happenings in Syria (such as this) could be followed by the option to read longer peices written by experts on the issues, or insiders, like this piece about the Syrian responders, the While Helmets, written by one of them.

Thus we have an incentive for publishers to provide the what, a way to encourage readers to pay for the why. The why is potentially more empowering and inspiring. The days of flinging bad news at people like so much dung in the face are hopefully numbered.

Information is safe and can be packaged with a catchy headline. However it doesn’t change or challenge our perspective. I can’t count how many market bombings I’ve read about in the news in the last decade. It’s not brave to publish such a report even though it will affect readers on a visceral level. It makes sense that more value would be in adding perspective — a risky venture in the news world.

Analysis features needn’t be numerous, they’d just have to be good. The news can be numerous, leading to these well researched, thought out and expert pieces.

Regarding cost, pay-per-read costs would low enough as to experiment with without incurring backlashes. There isnt’ a huge difference between 5 cents and 20, which will allow companies to find a sweet spot where more people can access their content for similar revenue. Blendle readers incur suprisingly high costs per article. They’d quickly amount to more than a subscription for a handful of reads. Starting at 10c per read would mean more numbers, and perhaps similar revenue.

The meachinism of delivery will be important though. If you’re paying per article, you won’t want to go through complicated transactions for every article, or even every site. Even entering passwords as with paypal might be prohibitive, as would anything more than a button with a confirm dialogue.

Imagine a system where articles could be voted up and down, with in-demand content becoming worth more. Third party payment systems could be integrated with rating and comment systems.

People would share articles again.

Posted on October 30, 2015, modified October 30, 2015.