The news industry is broken. Advertisers can be part of the solution

The information sector is in trouble. This month, hundreds of journalists still employed by Gannett, the country’s largest news outlet, came out to protest further cuts to local newsrooms. This follows massive layoffs at national news outlets since the start of 2023, including deep cuts at companies like the Washington Post, Los Angeles TimesBuzzFeed, News Corp, NPR, Vox, ABC News, NBC News, Vice Media and many more.

It is not a cycle that will end naturally; it’s time to reflect on what America will look like without functioning local news outlets and a severely hampered national news ecosystem. And by “news” here, I don’t mean lifestyle or celebrity coverage, but real, on-the-ground reporting on issues that matter to communities. Newsroom employment in the United States fell 26% between 2008 and 2020, matching a 77% decline in newspaper advertising revenue, according to the Pew Research Center. Already 70 million Americans live in so-called information deserts without any local media. Many others have only the name of local news, with newsrooms staffed by outsiders or so empty they can barely produce local sports reporting, let alone hold officials to account or to play the essential role defined by the authors in the first amendment to the Constitution: informing the electorate in a free and democratic society.

While this environment bodes ill for what is sure to be one of the most divisive presidential elections in our nation’s history – accelerated by the fact that we now live in the post-truth era – the free press must play an even greater role in covering events. truth than she did before in order to keep the electorate informed. The press doesn’t always get it right, but day in and day out, journalists are the essential fixers of truth, ensuring that common understanding does not become rare and enabling society and the economy to function on a shared set of facts. and expectations. . Without them, more than our politics would fall into a Tower of Babel.

The flawed premise of brand safety

Advertising alone cannot solve this problem, but we can be part of the solution. In fact, I’m going to call it here and issue a challenge to the advertising community: let’s bring $1 billion in ad revenue back to news and, along the way, resurrect the notion of the triple bottom line: good for our customers, good for our shareholders and good for humanity. This is a small fraction of the ad revenue that has gone from news over the past 12 years, but it would be a huge boost to the remaining news industry, helping it to retain and recruit the type of editorial talent capable of uncovering and spreading the truth.

How do we do this?

First, we must reject some old and long-disproved ideas about hard news advertising: namely, that it is somehow unsafe, unsafe, or unsuitable for brands. This myth took hold a decade ago when brands started buying advertising through tech intermediaries and wanted to be sure that their ads wouldn’t appear next to a disturbing or graphic content. An industry has grown around the concept of “brand safety,” which has functionally driven brands to avoid real news altogether through aggressive keyword blocking that has filtered vital coverage of government and social issues.

But the whole idea that news is somehow unsafe for brands rests on a flawed premise: A 2020 Internet Advertising Bureau study found that advertisers in professionally produced news earned a “halo of trust” among consumers, even when the information itself is confusing. They were more likely to gain advertising confidence in serious or breaking news than in light or opinionated content.

News audiences are more affluent and educated than those who read general digital media, and at the moment they are also cheaper to reach. After years of news divestment, news ratings are a relative godsend compared to, say, streaming services or network TV. So there’s a lot of ad spend that just has to go back to the news in order to generate a traditional ROI. Frankly, this sustained divestment also means that for most marketers, news audiences also represent significant unduplicated reach.

Journalism as ESG

Second, we need to start seeing information as a public good; and that means classifying it as environmental, social and brand governance, or ESG, spending. Call it ROR, or return on reputation. Journalism is a foundation of our economy, our democracy and our society itself. That alone should qualify it for a place in marketers’ ESG portfolios.

Brands spend billions each year on ESG advertising, supporting a litany of causes ranging from diversity and DEI initiatives to green energy and sustainability to human rights and education. Since none of these laudable goals are possible without a free and functioning Fourth Estate (remember the climate deniers?), it becomes clear that ESG should go next: into news journalism.

For that to happen, we would need to convene a Self-Made Authority, a group of 12 advisers representing publishers, brands, and an association with a vested interest in protecting and growing American journalism. Back when I was running media for a major US bank and we wanted to add AIDS research and prevention to what we were already doing in climate, recidivism and DEI initiatives, we did made in collaboration with the non-profit association RED. Once there is an organization that can provide guidance, all it takes is brand commitment and a pledge.

No one expects brands to blindly invest in news. The information ecosystem has changed since most brands left, largely out of an abundance of caution, and returning will require new governance and risk criteria that consider many factors, including levels of variable quality, original reporting and bias. That’s why I joined Ad Fontes Media, which rates news sites, TV news programs, podcasts, and radio on trustworthiness and bias to empower marketers to make those decisions in a meaningful way. fairly and on a large scale.

Once supporting US newsrooms becomes an ESG initiative, we could take it out to the public and raise awareness through Ad Council ad campaigns touting the value of news. Imagine, for a minute, a couple on a park bench debating an issue of the day, their heads behind newspapers but with very recognizable voices. They lower their newspapers and we see George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, or Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Kevin McCarthy.

Of course, today we would replace newspapers with tablets, smartphones or Apple’s new AR headset. The idea, however, is the same; in the future, politicians could once again have a civil exchange of ideas. It might seem unlikely given today’s hyperpolarized electorate, but with a greater abundance of high-quality journalism in circulation – made possible by loyal marketers stepping in to play their part – that electorate could do it again. not only to forgive, but in fact to encourage their representatives to receive the ideas of others who do not share their ideology and recognize the need for a common good.

Like all great ESG causes, news support can and should bring brands, parties, and Americans together and help American newsrooms continue to uphold the truth every day, which is essential for our democracy. Time is running out, however. If marketers think truth and democracy are important enablers for their businesses, they need to act now.

Lou Paskalis is Chief Strategy Officer of Ad Fontes Media. He was previously president and chief operating officer of MMA Global and led global media at both Bank of America and American Express.

Leave a Comment