By Mark Tatge
Gone are the days when magazine and newspaper publishers set prices for advertising. Journalism benefited. So did consumers and society. There was an abundance of quality content.
But the world has changed markedly in the past five years. New York Times writer Natasha Singer reports, advertisers are now in the driver’s seat. This movement is having a profound impact on editorial content. This may help explain why the strict line between factual material and advertising is blurring.
Rubicon and other technology companies are using advanced algorithms to automate the ad buying system on the Web. The automated system identifies the best Web sites to place ads and then pitches buyers on how to place ads that will score the most eyeballs. The placement could be for a given space and for a select moment or two. The sophistication of the system is breathtaking. It sells advertising in real time – at the very moment people are visiting the site. The ads then follow the visitor from site to site.
At DePauw University I teach students how to develop digital content and tell long-form digital stories. I can’t help but wonder what the impact of such an ad buying system will be on serious, factual content.
For much of the past 50 years, the content creators (journalists) were control. Advertisers would blanket a given target market with a message. Much faith was put in the particular media brand and past editorial experience. The system worked, but it was probably far less effective than with Rubicon and other companies have devised.
In the digital world, each ad space is an impression. The value of that impression depends on the ads ability to reach a particular group or person. Computers and tracking software associates a give ad message with the desired target. And the inventory of ad space is no longer finite. In other words, what media companies have to sell no longer depends on a broadcasting hour or a printed page count.
In the pre-Web days, TV, magazines and newspapers had a virtual monopoly. Advertisers had little choice in terms of where to place their messages. If an advertiser didn’t like a particular news story, they could always choose not to advertise. But the choices of where else to advertise were limited. Today, the reverse is true. Advertisers have an almost unlimited number of content platforms. This shift has resulted in an increase in competition for ad dollars.
Under the new system, advertisers will no doubt reach their target market, and presumably, will also save money. But while this may be good news for advertisers, it is not-so-good news for journalists and serious content producers.
The economics in the media business are shifting, and with this shift, comes a major change in the balance of power. Publishers face tougher competition and have become less concerned about financing expensive investigative stories that could offend advertisers.
Instead, magazines, websites and broadcast outlets are bending over backwards to please advertisers. The result? We are seeing ads and marketing material passed off as news. It has become much more difficult to sort out what is true from what is false. Ad messages are increasingly being disguised as non-fiction editorial, or news. I can’t help but fear we are losing something even as we have gained a valuable new technology.