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Faux outrage at a media whore

Image: Martin Deutsch

It is often said of the internet that: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”  What many don’t realise is that the same goes when you pay a lot less than something costs.  Newspapers are a case in point.  Back in the days before Facebook, you could buy a copy of a tabloid paper like the Sun or the Mirror for just 20p.  Even heavyweight tomes like the Telegraph or the Financial Times could be bought for less than £1.00.  The cost of printing and distributing those papers was a lot more.  And if readers had been asked to stump up the full amount, newspaper circulation would have dropped like a rock.

Newspapers made money by selling their readership to corporate advertisers in much the same way as online platforms like Facebook and Google do.  Upmarket newspapers like the Financial Times were able to profit on the back of less than 100,000 readers because of who those readers were – primarily the wealthiest people in the UK.  Papers aimed at the unwashed masses, like the Sun, by contrast, had to maintain a circulation of more than 1,000,000 just to break even.  This was simply because the advertisers of expensive luxury products would pay a premium to access the Financial Times readership while actively shunning Sun readers.

The downside of this for the idea of a free press is that advertisers have always held the whip hand when it comes to burying bad news.  Most often, newspaper editors simply self-censor when it comes to bad news stories concerning key advertisers.  Similarly, there is always an unconscious temptation to paint advertisers in a positive light; perhaps being less critical of their publicity materials than might otherwise be the case.

It is in this light that we need to examine the faux outrage that has accompanied George Osborne’s offer to pimp out the Evening Standard’s editorial stance to the highest bidder.  OpenDemocracy.net, for example, explains that:

“The widespread criticism of Osborne and his editorship follows an openDemocracy investigation which revealed details of a £3 million deal between ESI Media – the commercial division of the Standard and Independent online – and six major companies each paying £500,000 to secure, among other promises, ‘money-can’t-buy’ positive news and ‘favourable’ comment pieces.”

For what it is worth, there is a name for this type of content.  It is known as advertorial – “an advertisement in the form of editorial content” – and it has been used routinely for at least half a century.  Indeed, pick up any magazine from your local newsagent and you will likely find advertorial text appearing next to a glossy advertisement for the related product.

Ironically, many of the politicians and journalists who are currently feigning outrage at Osborne are themselves responsible for undermining a form of internet advertising that serves to prevent online news outlets from benefitting from advertorial content.  Whereas advertising in physical newspapers follows the paper, online advertising follows the reader.  That is, the algorithms used by companies like Facebook and Google track our respective interests and serve us adverts accordingly, irrespective of where we are on the internet.  As a result, the adverts that I see when I read or view online content will be entirely different to the adverts that you see when you view the same content.  Prior to 2016, the only way an online news outlet could get around this was through direct sponsorship.

The problem with this system was that it left advertisers with no control over the kind of readers and viewers who might see their adverts.  In practice, this should not have been an issue, since algorithms were connecting advertisers with consumers far more effectively than would be the case with a block advert in a print magazine or newspaper.  However, in 2016 journalists from the legacy papers began drawing attention to the fact that adverts for upmarket products of the kind that affluent liberal journalists buy were appearing on what were alleged to be neo-Nazi and terrorist-related YouTube videos (when said affluent liberal journalists happened to be viewing those videos).

Displaying the usual lack of awareness of how the internet works, politicians threatened Google and Facebook that unless they gave advertisers the power to choose where their adverts appeared, legislation would be enacted to force them.  The result was what came to be known as the “Adpocalypse” in which online content creators saw their advertising revenues slashed overnight.  In effect, those MPs and journalists had handed back to corporate advertisers the means to do online what George Osborne has done with the Evening Standard – treat the corporations favourably and you make a lot of money; treat them badly and you go bust.

The legacy media in the UK – even more so in the USA – is fast going down the u-bend of history.  Circulations have plummeted and audiences have aged.  Like Pravda in the days of the USSR, people refer to the BBC these days “to get the line,” while searching online to see if it is true.  For papers like the Evening Standard in this environment, probably the only means of surviving is to sell out to corporate interests.  But so long as the internet operates to a system in which advertising follows the reader rather than the news outlet; such a sell out to corporate interests is far harder online.

The irony, therefore, is that the people who are currently crying crocodile tears over George Osborne’s antics are simultaneously making them more likely to dominate news in future.

As you made it to the end…

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