The Advertisement Industrial Complex
How Ad-Blocking Software Could Save Small Publishing
Hi. I’m Tyler Reinhard (@abolishme). My colleagues and I publish a small digital magazine that doesn’t have any ads. We pay writers. The conversation about ad-blocking sparked by new software in Apple’s latest version of iOS has created a maelstrom of opinions about the future of digital publishing, but no one seems to be talking about how an ad-free internet could actually help small publishers stick around. Should small publishers charge money for content? Should writers prefer to work with ad-free publishers? I think so. Here’s why:
In ad-driven publishing, each page view earns the publisher a certain amount of money. The money comes from advertisers willing to pay for exposure on the page alongside the content. The amount of money they get from advertisers per page view is miniscule (fractions of a US cent). So publishers need hundreds of thousands of page views just to break even on their overhead, hoping the occassional story goes viral and creates enough revenue to encourage growth. To that end, they pay a portion of what they expect to earn in ad revenue on ads for the articles themselves. That’s right: they pay for ads to get paid by ads.
Because most digital publishers follow this basic model, they all have to pay. Who do they pay? Facebook. With maybe a few exceptions, publishers pay lots of money to Facebook hoping that the social network will expose articles to people most likely to tap or click on them. To deal with this flood of content on Facebook (no one could possibly see everything posted on a single day), Facebook built a complex algorithm to balance out ads and content from friends. If your friends share articles, the articles published by companies willing to pay are more likely to be exposed to you in your feed. The algorithm is intelligent and learns: the more likely you are to click on an article, the less organic shares from your friends you see. Since big publishers can afford lots of ads, you’re less likely to see the more obscure stuff from smaller publishers.
Since this whole messy process is what ultimately compensates writers for their work, it’s especially important for writers and editors to think about it critically.
Firstly, it means our method of earning a living can be jeopardized by a new feature on a phone— something like ad-blockers — which in this case has such potential to disrupt our livelihoods that the developer of the first successful ad-blocker app for iOS removed it from the App Store after it became the top paid app in the country for 36 hours because he didn’t want to be responsible for destroying an entire industry.
Secondly, it means our work is only valuable if it is scandalous. Ragebait pays. It drives traffic. It also insulates ideas from discussion, and flattens our lives into hashtags and campaigns. Perfectly arranged for data analysis, but terrible for capturing how we actually feel and experience the world. In reality, our lives are complex and difficult. So many of us are in fact marginalized by the culture we’re producing. Our scandalous essays about the misery of life under systemic and acute oppression gets the clicks— but “what is it actually like to live in that world every day, and use your words to capture the humanity of your individual experience?” That’s not the lowest-common-denominator, so work on that on your own time!
Too many people aren’t paid for their writing at all. No big surprise that the distribution of that uncompensated work cuts right along existing racial and gender disparities. But we have to consider the ad model of publishing as a mechanism of those disparities, not a compromised means to the end of them.
As the attention of internet users becomes further commodified, we’re seeing a concentration of power over who sees what and when. Facebook, obviously, is the biggest feudal lord of this battle for territory, but there are others. Social networks control our impressions of each other, the basis of an entirely new kind of relationship that exists between humans — if we think the structural racism, homophobia, and gender violence of the previous century were bad, watch what happens when our vehicle for socializing (our networked attention-span) is also both the primary raw material of a new global industrialism, and the means of state and corporate surveillance over our lives. Seen from this lens, the advertisement industrial complex is a very real part of engineering the flow of power in our society.
Writers and publishers have always played a crucial role in shifting the balance between over-powered companies and exploited workers. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the radical criticisms of unregulated capitalism came to life through the work of precisely this field — typesetters, publishers, editors, and writers documented new and radical ideas and distributed them freely. This caused the wave of change that ultimately became the labor movement, which fought for (and won) most of the primary standards we come to expect out of working life — the 40-hour work week, the weekend, safe working conditions, child labor laws, etc.
Today, most of us are familiar with these ideas and most of us want desperately to undo the oppression we’ve been wrapped up in. Yet we don’t have weekends. We work 60-hours a week or more (or, can’t even tell when we’re working and when we aren’t). We get harrassed at work. The racial income gap keeps widening. The gender income gap keeps widening. And we write about it. And it goes viral. And we work more. We get paid less. The pattern is toxic. So it’s not the ideas per se that we need to bring attention to, it’s the methodology of producing them. Namely: how our industry is organized changes who has the power to rethink problems when they start to form. That power is attention. Writers and editors are the ones who produce this power.
Advertisers pay a lot for this power. But they’re not paying us for it. They’re paying a very small group of tech companies with an incredible influence over our lives. We have to consider how and whether we profit from this cycle of advertisement-driven social scandalism.
Me and some friends started a online magazine called Mask Magazine. It’s just a small culture and style site with a decidedly political orientation. One thing that makes us different is that we don’t have any ads on our site, and we pay our writers — primarily writers who are marginalized and not often published by larger companies. How do we pay writers? Some of our longer features require a subscription — a sliding-scale monthly fee our recurring readership pays. A paywall.
Mask Magazine isn’t the only example of this model, but there aren’t a lot of small magazines with paywalls out there. Why? I was surprised at how relatively straightforward it was to do. Whereas I built and designed the software we use, there are existing tools out there for creating subscriber-supported digital publications. After we launched, it took a few months to get the hang of things, but since then Hanna Hurr, Isabelle Nastasia, and I have been commissioning work with the subscription revenue and working with writers to make their stories shine. A year later we’re breaking even on our editorial budget. Really, we’re just three people with no formal training. Last year, more than half a million people read the articles we’ve published.
Granted, we work tirelessly on Mask Magazine, and we can’t pay our writers as much as they deserve. This subscription model will have to balance growth against paying well and competitively, tweaking things as a matter of experimentation. It’s really hard work, and won’t pay off for us personally for at least another year or two. But if I could give one piece of advice to the writers and editors out there balancing a food service job with a dozen freelance writing gigs just trying to collect Twitter followers and afford food until they make it big, it’s this: break away from ad-driven sites and do your own thing. If you have to hold a side job anyway, you might as well be developing the audience and attention that’s willing to compensate you directly for your work. That community is out there.
In the writing and publishing world I see, people really seem to care about who pays writers. There are hashtags and forums and Twitter accounts all dedicated to amplifying organizations that pay writers. Typically, this means which magazines pay writers. Sorry to say, but I believe this is a very short-sighted way of thinking about the “who” here, even as one myself.
Go one step beyond the publisher. Where does the publisher’s money come from? Most magazines that pay get their money from advertisements. That’s who pays writers now. Advertisers. It’s possible to change that.
You might think the free services we use all of the time are a sign of the decentralization of power the internet brings. We use Google for free. Facebook for free. Twitter for free. On and on. Often we extend that logic to what we read — why should we pay to read things on the internet, when so much information is out there and freely available? Here’s why: Facebook makes more money than your favorite magazine. They always will. They are centralizing power. They have bigger computers than you. They have bigger computers than Vice, or Condé Nast or Buzzfeed even. They always will. And eventually, advertisers will go directly to companies like Facebook and leave your editorial office in the dust. It’s happening already. Be smart. Get out.
As shameful as it feels to ask for money on the internet, it’s how you develop a committed community. Most of us writers and editors aren’t in it for the money anyway, our payment is the attention and recognition of our peers and friends and readership. But weening our industry off of financing via advertisement is something we will all have to do eventually, if we don’t want to know what it’s like to quit cold turkey when the advertisers pull their money out all together.
People do pay for writing. They do all the time. They have always paid for it, since the first typeset books nearly six centuries ago. People tend not to pay for writing that exists for the sole purpose of holding our attention for just long enough for a page to load. But we actually have incredible stories to tell.
The biggest reason to walk away from the Advertisment Industrial Complex is to preserve our craft as a critical aspect of society. Something we can use to defend the mistreated. Something we can use to further realize who we are, why we matter, and where we’re headed.
In my work as a publisher, I hear more than anything else from our writers that they got a chance to publish a story with us that they would never have been paid to write elsewhere. It has been and will continue to be an uphill journey to make a living as editors and publishers of our own work, and compensate writers well enough to compete with ad-driven projects. But I believe it is incredibly important to experiment here, and now. For us, it has been a fascinating and inspirational trip so far, and as new technology develops we keep finding our ad-free model on the safer side of a growing abyss. Watching our friends try to leap from one side to the other, we reach out as best we can. This article is me trying to do just that: pass on my experience of doing something dangerous but critically necessary … setting out to publish in the ad-free future.