The toll of online ads

We were told that the end is just the beginning.

Indeed, as I leave Stanford’s John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship this month, I feel like I’m embarking on a new adventure yet again.

When my wife and I arrived here from Los Angeles with our kids in tow, I knew I wanted to take a shot at changing the world of journalism for the better.

The problem, as I saw it, is that online advertising takes a greater toll on our lives than it generates in ad revenue for publishers. And everything I’ve researched this past year has confirmed that to be true.

As we begin to look hard at data from publishers, the writing is on the wall: Ads alone can’t and won’t pay all the bills and publishers must creatively come up with new ways to fund journalism. Shining a light on the hidden, exposing the truth, and speaking up for the marginalized is hugely beneficial to our society. But finding individuals to pay for this work is like threading a needle.

We’re on a mission to thread that needle.

And when I say “we,” I don’t mean my family or my fellow fellows. Since starting work on the value of ad-free last year, I’ve gained two compatriots dedicated to solving this problem with me: Stanford adjunct professor Sam Savage, an expert at modeling uncertainties; and our technical lead, who I can’t name for now. We’re about to add a fourth member of our team, a statistics expert who will add consumer surveys as a tool in our data-mining arsenal. Combined with our key partner, Mather Economics, whose Listener tool gives an excellent view of ad revenue across an audience, we are bringing our “A” game to tackle this big problem.

Giant companies — like Apple and Google — are developing their own solutions to reduce the burden that ads place on our privacy and online experiences. But publishers’ relationships with these platforms will always entail being one step removed from their data and their relationship with the audience.

We are pursuing a pay model for ad-free access that publishers can launch on their own digital properties. The first stage of this is determining whether to offer ad-free at all and at what price. As we move through the pilot stage, we’ll see what’s working in one market and try to replicate it in others.

I can’t say whether our team’s solution will work for every publisher or every audience, or even if we’ll get there first. What I can say is that the pressure to change our broken online ecosystem is mounting, and all of our digital experiences must get better.

As a journalist and a citizen, I’m deeply invested in helping journalism thrive in the digital age. Whether a single solution gets us there or it takes many fits and starts, it’s great to be part of pushing change forward.

Ryan Nakashima was a 2016–17 JSK Fellow at Stanford University. He will continue to consult with publishers on pricing ad-free offerings as he returns to work as a technology reporter for The Associated Press’ San Francisco bureau in July. He can be reached by email at, and on Twitter at @rnakashi .

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