Clay Shirky
Nov 10, 2015 · 3 min read

John, one key source of anxiety for the current transition should be the role of the advertiser. One reason advertisers are abandoning traditional media is that that relationship never really worked for them, quite by design.

No one in marketing has ever had it easier than the advertising director of a U.S. metro daily newspaper. Roll in around 10, check the answering machine, and see who is calling to offer you money, in return for which you had to agree to almost nothing other than a solemn promise not to accidentally print their ad upside down or something.

The essence of the relationship was that advertisers needed individual publications, but publications did not need individual advertisers. This allowed newspapers and TV stations across the country to both overcharge the advertiser, but also, and this is critical, to underdeliver.

The Ford dealership ran a full-age ad last Sunday and didn’t sell many cars? Well boo-fucking-hoo — what are they gonna do, not take out an ad next Sunday? Leave that page to the new Toyota dealership out by the highway? I don’t think so.

The relative geographic monopoly set up by economies of scale (for newspapers) and FCC preferences for a small number of large stations instead of a large number of small ones (radio,TV) meant that news outlets had reliable sources of revenue and they didn’t have to cater to advertiser’s desires.

This was never perfect in practice, of course. Small town papers were less likely to go after the mayor or local businesspeople, because they were more reliant on overall goodwill from the government-business nexus, but for all those sorts of imperfections, the ability to both profit from and ignore advertisers created a surprisingly stable oddity — commercial businesses supported the journalism that could rein in the worst predations of commercial businesses.

Then along comes Google, and AdWords, and it’s like the advertisers suddenly went from an inattentive partner to a completely attentive one. The thing Google offered — something the newspapers considered anathema — was a real and deep desire to make advertising actually work. Google would shitcan ads that didn’t have high enough clickthrough rates, unheard of in analog media, where non-performing ads were just another revenue stream.

At first advertisers were like ( ͡° ʖ̯ ͡°), but then they were like ~(˘▾˘~). And after a while, they started to get used to the idea that if they handed over money, they should get results. (The death knell of the old system.) To compete with the upstarts that actually delivered something of value, older news organizations (and newer ones that were consciously delivering news) set out to be valuable to advertisers as well. And of course the easiest way to do that is with native content, moving the relationship with advertisers from ‘arm’s length’ to ‘full-body oil massage.’

So: in the old days, a publication with 20,000 readers — less than you’ll get for this article — could support a staff of a hundred people, by overcharging and underdelivering for any business who wanted to sell a mattress or motorcycle within 30 miles of the printing press, and the publication could provide detailed, skeptical reporting of things individual advertisers might not want reported, because the relationship was so one-sided.

In the new days, which you chronicle better than anyone, the large companies that can resist individual advertisers are not themselves news-gatherers (and unlike Netflix making shows, there is zero zero zero actually negative incentive for FB or Google to take on news production) while the smaller companies (like the New York Times) that want the audience will have to compete with the advertisers for the attentions of the platform owners.

Imagine you run advertising at a Big Platform Co. At the end of the day — by noon, in fact — if you had to referee a fight between an advertiser, who makes you money, and a news outlet who doesn’t, what are you going to decide? A news environment where the publisher (platisher (which I am delighted to see that Medium, of all places, regards as a typo)) has an incentive to treat advertisers like valued partners, and not economic hostages, is a new and troubling thing.

Clay Shirky

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Bald. Unreliable. Easily distracte