Online journalism let down by ad agencies

The Festival Economia opens in Trento next week, not for the first time relishing the slipstream of news stories coinciding with its chosen theme.

Debates about Information, Choices and Development are bound to ponder the recent move by The Times and Sunday Times in the UK to restrict online content to subscribers, the tightening of Facebook’s privacy settings and the European launch of the iPad.

In their different ways, these milestones in our unfolding history of digital media all grasp for the same elusive prize – a viable financial model for online publishing.

The end of free access to the Times’ titles, aided and abetted by the Apple tablet’s high screen resolution, will unsettle the liberal values of the Italian Festival, and indeed supporters of OneWorld. A small subscription, such as the £2 per week charged by The Times, is not small in poor countries, even for the middle classes with internet access.

We see the internet as a new dimension of freedom – the freedom for all to access general information; the freedom of small publishers to cover special interest topics such as development, otherwise neglected.

As editorial costs are cut, foreign news desks are being whittled down to nothing. This week alone, two respected bloggers on international affairs – Owen Barder and Chris Blattman – both disclosed their reliance on political blog and tweet content over regular media. These new sources are invaluable but they should be secondary to quality professional journalism.

We’re told that the erection of the dreaded pay-wall has been forced by the failure of online newspaper advertising to balance the books. Blame has been pinned on the ephemeral behaviour of internet users.

I’m not at all persuaded by this explanation. My hunch is that the big advertising agencies have much to answer for. Their old core competence of negotiating block placements in print titles has floundered amongst the subtleties of new media outreach.

In consequence, newspaper websites serve up some of the worst user experiences on the net. Content is crammed into tiny ghettoes whilst the advertisement delivery software slows down site navigation.

Worse still, the old obsession with customer profiling has lived on through these agencies. This inflexibility has contributed directly to the pratfalls by Facebook and others who have been guilty of reckless acquisition of personal data.

Things are different on the net. We are defined less by the static parameters of our lives and more by the exact page that we view. We are what we do.

This is why keyword search has been so successful. A search for vacuum cleaners generates adverts accordingly, disdainful of our favourite music or food. The personal database is a blind alley.

As a quick check on the quality of display advertising, I glanced at the Huffington Post and Guardian sites, each being the most ardent defender of free access to journalism on either side of the Atlantic.

The Guardian’s energy efficiency page displayed an appeal for an animal cruelty charity. Huffington’s review of global warming books by James Hansen and Bill McGibben was headed up by a low cost airline promotion. Whoops!

No wonder Google is laughing all the way to the bank. Yet an imaginative blend of search and display advertising principles is not rocket science.

For example, a visitor to the OneWorld Tropical Forests Guide might respond to advertising for FSC certified timber products, campaigns to save the rainforests, fair trade goods sourced from indigenous groups or a distance learning course in biodiversity.

But the big ad agencies are not beating a path to our door because this optimisation of display advertising fragments their bulky culture. Publishers of special interest content, such as OneWorld, look to the boutique firms to get their act together quickly.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK