Truth to power: Adtech has to stand up for journalism

The future of the press is in doubt. If you need an example of just how powerful fake news has become, remember August, when even seasoned journalists accepted at face value a spoof campaign ironically titled “Don’t believe every tweet”, featuring bogus quotes from Twitter’s chief executive Jack Dorsey.

The changes in journalism have not gone unnoticed by governments. At the risk of sounding flippant, journalism must be truly in crisis when politicians acknowledge that they need to support quality reporting to maintain democracy.

But that’s what we’ve been seeing – culture secretary Jeremy Wright has said he would not rule out a tech tax for Google and Facebook to fund public interest journalism. That’s similar to what the News Media Association, a newspaper trade body, has called for, suggesting that the duopoly pay a licence fee to publishers when their content is used.

But governments can only go so far. And with trust in societal and political institutions on the decline, we need good journalism more than ever.

This is a particular concern for the adtech industry – without media brands, we wouldn’t exist. However much advertisers talk about creativity, people don’t subscribe to The Economist for its advertising.

We all know that, while media consumption is in flux, the press is and always has been part of a much larger cultural ecosystem. It’s not something that exists in isolation.

Those of us in media and advertising implicitly know that quality media outlets can charge a premium for their advertising, but now there’s explicit evidence that context matters. Research by World Media Group, the body representing top media brands, shows that great journalism boosts ad performance (full disclosure: I sit on its board as an associate member).

Quality media placements also solve advertiser headaches around ongoing brand safety challenges. While savvy marketing officers have always been wary about where their brand appears, social media has opened up a whole new world of risks.

As a sector, our grubby supply chain has chipped away at the revenue received by news brands. It’s too easy to say it’s their fault for not reacting fast enough. That sounds like victim blaming. We’ve not helped them by acting like the school bully and eating their lunch, leaving only crumbs behind.

The bottom line is that the way the industry has reacted to the rise of the tech giants will have cost journalist jobs. Right now, journalism is under threat. In the UK, there are 6,000 fewer journalists than there were a decade ago, and newspaper revenue has more than halved.

The UK government is so concerned that in March it launched the Caincross Review, to explore what protection is needed to ensure the future viability of the industry.

Advertisers too need to stand up for a free press. If we want the privilege of decrying the latest abuse of power, in business or politics, we need to fund those who uncover it for us.

Quality journalism is not cheap, it’s not free, and it’s a public service that isn’t funded by the state. As it’s crucial for democracy, we must fight for it. If we care about fairness, we need professional journalists.

Published in CityAM 22/10/2018

By Mark Bembridge

Mark Bembridge is chief executive of ad tech firm Smartology.
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