How true advertising can save journalism from drowning in a sea of content
by Doc Searls Saturday, January 7, 2017

[A newer version of this post is in Medium at]

 In The New York TimesIn New Jersey, Only a Few Media Watchdogs Are LeftDavid Chen writes, "The Star-Ledger, which almost halved its newsroom eight years ago, has mutated into a digital media company requiring most reporters to reach an ever-increasing quota of page views as part of their compensation."

That quota is to attract adtech placements.

Adtech is called advertising and looks like advertising, but it's a different breed. That breed is direct marketing, a cousin of spam descended from what we still call junk mail.

Like junk mail, adtech is driven by data, intrusively personal, looking for success in tiny-percentage responses, and oblivious to massive negative externalities, such as wanton and unwelcome surveillance and filling the world with crap.

Here's one way to tell the difference between real advertising and adtech:

  • Real advertising wants to be in a publication because it values that publication's journalism and readership, and enjoys sponsoring the publication.
  • Adtech wants to push ads at readers anywhere it can find them.

Here's another difference: 

  • The world of journalism supported by advertising has a finite size, because there is a limit to the supply of journalism. 
  • The world of content supported by adtech has no size limits, because there is no limit to the supply of content. Worse, adtech incentivized maximizing content production, so there are more places ads can run.

Journalism is also limited to some degree by its ethics and the cost of producing ethical products.

Content generation has no ethics, and the cost of producing it is very low. Without the ethical limits of journalism, content production is free to create any kind of content that attracts eyeballs and clicks. Hence fake news.

Standing up a fake news site is dead simple, as The New York Times just reported. So is making money at it, as Buzzfeed reported, days before last year's Presidential election day in the U.S., in How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.

Simply put, fake news has a business model, and that model is adtech. 

In the old advertising-supported publishing world, journalism was what mattered most. In the new adtech-supported publishing world, content is what matters most.

The Faustian bargain ad-supported journals made was in trading journalism for content production, and trading read advertising for adtech.

As I wrote in Separating Advertising's Wheat and Chaff, what happened in the process of that bargain was that "Madison Avenue fell asleep, direct response marketing ate its brain, and it woke up as an alien replica of itself."

It is to satisfy that alien replica that the Star Ledger now wants an "ever-increasing quota of page views" more than the journalism that was once its stock in trade. And why the paper is now itself something of an alien replica.

That alien replica also doesn't care that it is driving people into mutually hostile echo chambers, as The Wall Street Journal's Blue Feed / Red Feed demonstrates.

Want to save journalism and the democracies that depend on it? Re-brain Madison Avenue and the CMOs that are still drunk on digital. Bring back real advertising.

To help with that, go back and read Don Marti's Targeting failure: legit sites lose, intermediaries win.