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September 15, 2015

Filed under: journalism»industry

Value Ad

Welcome to the block party:

The math is even starker for smaller publications and individual bloggers, who rely more heavily on display advertising—and who have already been battered by shifts in the advertising market; some longtime professional bloggers, like Heather Armstrong, have given up writing their blogs full-time. The Awl's publisher Michael Macher told me that "the percentage of the network’s revenue that is blockable by adblocking technology hovers around seventy-five to eighty-five percent." Currently, readers use an ad blocker on around twenty-five percent of all pageviews. Nicole Cliffe, one of the founders of The Toast, said that "adblocker is brutal for us. And people always break out the 'Subscribers model! I donate twenty bucks a year!' thing but it doesn’t add up."

I'm finding myself thinking about adblocking a lot this week, and about publishing platforms. I spend a lot of time thinking about this in general, because I enjoy working for a Seattle newspaper and I would like it to still be here (in one form or another) fifteen years from now (at least), something which was never guaranteed but looks noticeably more tenuous these days. And the upcoming launch of easy, widespread mobile ad-block software is a big part of that.

Bad apples

You can't say that the ad industry has not done anything to deserve this, because of course they have. Online advertising has always been the place where incompetent programming and delusional management meet in a nexus of terrible. You're not a bad person if you work in ads, but you work for a bad business and in all seriousness I will help you go work somewhere else if you get in touch with me. Contact info is on the right.

The problems that advertising causes for web pages are well documented. Ads slow pages down. They're heavy and disruptive. They cause security risks and drive-by hacks. There is a strong argument that a lot of the (admittedly welcome) improvements in web programming technique comes from having to work around these issues: lazy-loading content, async scripts, module systems that can't be stomped by leaky ad code globals.

As a side note, in these discussions, one of the big elephants in the room is that Google (and Facebook, and Apple, and Twitter) are all ad companies. Which is true, but it's true in the way that we might say that insects are a good source of protein — you're still not going to sell me a grasshopper sandwich. Lumping Google in with the average fly-by-night agency may be technically correct, but anyone who has interacted with regular ad code will tell you that the two are miles apart. If Google were actually the people writing the ads you see on an average media site, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion.

Well, we might. Apple might still have decided to stick their thumb in Google's eye out of pure spite, because they're a nasty little gang of capitalists, and that's kind of what they do. But it doesn't matter, because the really smart people at Google aren't writing actual ads. They write very elegant, high-performing auction software that distributes other people's horrible, horrible code, thus undermining quite a bit of their moral high ground. It's a little hard to get mad at readers who want to run content blockers or Greasemonkey scripts or whatever. Of course you want to block these ads! Who wouldn't?

Disruption and its discontents

We have a bad habit in the news industry, which is that we have no faith in our ability to run a business, even though we speculate on it endlessly. Allison Hantschel has been writing posts like this for literally a decade now as a result. One word for the embrace of clear management-led self-sabotage is "trusting." Another word is "suckers."

Newsrooms are very good at grilling other organizations about their plans, and very bad at interrogating our own, in part because we're supposed to have a "wall" between the business and editorial sides of the enterprise. These days that wall is often porous, but the tradition is still there. So when the business half of a paper tells editors and reporters that running obnoxious ads are necessary, we don't often push back, even though we don't want to run them any more than readers want to see them.

This is an explanation, not an excuse. That said, it is inescapably true that the business models we chose, as an industry, are not proving to be as solid as they once were — and it is worth remembering that journalism really was (and in many cases, still is) wildly profitable. Craigslist killed off the classifieds, and content blockers will probably suck all the profit out of the banner-ad revenue stream. Ironically, the one strategy that's still surprisingly sound is printing the previous day's events into a complicated stack of folded paper and selling it for a buck or two. It's not a growth industry, but it seems to be relatively disruption-proof so far. Nobody seems very clear on how to take that model online, though, except by digitizing old people a la Kurzweil and counting on them to pay for content (probably a long shot).

The thing about Silicon Valley's lust for disruption is that, absent of any principles other than a libertarian belief in market power, it tends to just recentralize or recreate the pre-disruption problems. So instead of having a corrupt taxi bureacracy, now we have a corrupt Uber oligarchy, where half the cars you see in the app are fake and they're probably selling your ride history to data merchants in Russia for pennies on the dollar. You don't have to like the taxi system to think that this is kind of a bum deal. Similarly, you don't have to be a fan of advertising, or of advertising-supported journalism, to think that the inevitable outcomes of blocking display will range from bad to worse.

Personally, I think it's healthy to feel wildly uneasy with this entire dynamic, in which tech companies decide to target one bad actor and inflict collatoral damage on an entire industry with a nonchalant wave of their hand. I think it's normal to believe that publishers are getting what they deserve for decades of bad management, and still feel like wiping them out is overkill. It's reasonable to think we should have control over the experience as users, while also arguing that media companies need to pay the bills somehow. But then, I'm not exactly disinterested, myself.

Brought to you by everybody, and nobody

I have a post that's been incubating for about two months now, about riot grrrl and open source. I started thinking about it when I watched The Punk Singer, a shockingly-good documentary about Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. And the story of the whole movement that she founded (along with a number of other influential women) is fascinating, because it's based on an entire ethic of self-publication and self-determination. They didn't like the commercial media that they had, so they made new media of their own and taught people how to do the same. To me, that's how open source should feel: undermining centralized power and giving the means of production back to the people.

But there's another way of looking at that, which is to say that riot grrrl zines never changed much of anything and the old open web got lost in the shuffle. We can romanticize both of them as much as we want, but at the end of the day they weren't capable of surviving against moneyed interests, and no amount of self-mythologizing is going to change that. That doesn't mean we should give up, but we need to be realistic about the gap between "should be" and "is," because we're in the middle of it now: readers should pay for journalism; they actively don't want to do so.

Our grim meathook media future

Here's one difficult truth: if you are a reporter, editor, or other news human in the year of our lord 2015, your fate is almost certainly on the web. The New York Times and the hot youth flavor of the day (Vox, Vice, Buzzfeed) may get invited into Instant Articles or Apple News, but everyone else is on their own. App-only publications have been tried, and failed, even with the force of Rupert Murdoch behind them. That leaves the web as the place where a diverse, free press can exist, especially once those print revenues finally dry up.

Here's another: the web is always going to grapple with hostile ads, because it's a platform built on remixing and embedding third-party content. The same things that let advertisers abuse your mobile connection also allow us to host comments via Disqus, or embed media from Twitter or Youtube, or create neat interactive features. Open platforms are messier, which is part of why they grow so effectively, and also why they have a hard time competing with closed, curated platforms. Nobody's going to make it easy for us.

Between those two difficult truths is a spectrum of uncomfortable options, ranging from paywalls to subscriptions to (most likely) bankruptcy. As Casey Johnston says in the Awl piece that opens this post, the likely outcome is the rapid eradication of many sites that currently scrape by on Doubleclick revenue. The small and the quirky are going to take the hit here, even if they're not so small: The Dissolve was shuttered earlier this year, despite a pretty impressive stable of contributors and support, and they won't be the last.

In the very long term, we all die alone. I hesitate to make any other predictions. But I suspect that the eventual fallout of these changes is the hollowing-out of the American media: two big national papers at the top; a horde of niche publications clinging, white-knuckled, to subsistence at the bottom; and not very much in the middle except the non-profits who have opted out of the entire rat race. That this arrangement parallels our national economic inequality is probably not a coincidence, but we're long past the point where anyone wants to hear a systemic critique. Will your favorite publication survive? It's time to spin the wheel and find out.

Future - Present - Past