Without aligning incentives, we can’t kill fake news or save journalism

From The New York Times’ In New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are Left, by David Chen.

It’s time to move past the toxic and destructive business called adtech: surveillance-based advertising.

That pull quote above should be the first step on the path toward understanding what adtech as done, not just to journalism, but to the whole Internet.

Why would the Star-Ledger, one of the country’s great newspapers, incentivize its reporters to maximize page views, rather than than to do real journalism?

In three words, because it pays.

It is essential to understand that adtech doesn’t support journalism. Instead it supports content production—by anyone, anywhere, including bad actors galore—to maximize the number of places eyeball-aimed ads can be spread.

The result is a flood of content so large, and full of awful shit, that even biblical metaphors fail. Hell, at least Noah’s flood was limited to forty days and nights on the physical world. There is no end to how much content adtech will pay just to pull in eyeballs, wherever they go.

Graphically speaking, we are here:

Publishers need to face the simple fact that handing revenue production over to adtech meant trading a business model that supports journalism for one that supports content production, and that the easiest way to align incentives that support both business and journalism is to return to the simple business model that worked for a century and a half before everything got all digital.

That business model was advertising.

What they call advertising now isn’t.

See, adtech looks like advertising, and gets called advertising; but it’s actually a form of direct marketing, better known in the old days as direct mail. In the vernacular employed by its receiving end, junk mail.

Here’s the main difference:

  • Advertising sends creative and economic signals to populations. It doesn’t want to get personal. It doesn’t want clicks. It is also the only form of advertising capable of branding, and of sponsoring publications.
  • Direct marketing sends targeted messages at eyeballs known to machines through surveillance by tracking beacons (most of which are inserted into browsers without the user’s knowledge). It wants to get personal. It wants clicks. It is incapable of branding, and hasn’t produced a single brand known to the world, even after about a $trillion has been spent on it. It is also not interested in sponsoring publishers, because the number and variety of eyeballs a given pub can gather is too small, no matter how well journalists are paid to bait clicks.

How did advertising turn into adtech, and vice versa? Well, as I said in Separating Advertising’s Wheat and Chaff, Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself.

Thus it became damn near impossible for anyone wanting to make, sell or buy real advertising to get it. Publishing had no choice but to re-base its advertising business on adtech. And, since adtech wants to support content and not journalism, the publishing business has now vastly expanded to include content-producers of every kind, including bad ones in abundance beyond estimation. It has also caused good journals like the Star-Ledger to bias their purpose toward maximized content production rather than journalism.

And what’s the easiest content to produce?

In two words, fake news.

The are examples aplenty. One is this Wired story about Macedonian teenagers who got paid well for click-baiting fake stories such as “Pope endorses Trump.”

See, fake news and clickbait are eyeball candy that is a lot easier to produce than the meat and potatoes of actual journalism. This is why so many online publications also feature piles of additional clickbait from Taboola, Outbrain and Zergnet. Those are Joneses that publishers can’t keep up with.

For journalism to win, we need a new alignment of incentives. In many posts here I’ve suggested that a return to #SafeAds —real advertising that’s not based on tracking people—is one way. I also believe the GDPR is going to require it in any case.

Membership is another way. So is subscriptions, with or without putting everything behind a paywall, like the big publishers (and all of pay TV) already do.

There are bound to be others. Let’s think creatively here.

What I am sure won’t work is trying to get the adtech world to fix the mess they made. Their incentives are what’s killing journalism. Simple as that.

[20 October 2017 update…] I’m at @mattervc’s #matterdemoday, and will be looking for incentive alignment here. I have no advance knowledge about who or what will be debuting at the event.

Cool: https://getpurple.io/ (@getprpl), debuting at #matterdemoday, has a membership model. Also digging @meetgretta. More after the mixer (and I drive back to Santa Barbara…)

[24 October 2017 update…] I just re-wrote much of the above to address the concerns behind this tweet by Ben Werdmuller of @mattervc: “If it turns out post-war liberal democracy was finally undone by the internet, we’re all going to feel a little bit foolish.” It’s important to note that democracy and journalism are both victims of adtech. In my rewrite, by the way, I took out this metaphor, which I’ll re-use somewhere else:

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