Digital Advertising: Broken by Design

Journalism + Design dove into the heart of one of the most critical issues facing the future of journalism: the role of advertising technology on news platforms. In a three-part series organized by J+D, we explored everything from how the banner ad has done more to shape news and general web design than anything else to how fake ads and arbitrage drive most of the digital advertising economy and what this all means in the context of journalism ethics.

As J+D’s design lead Irwin Chen said, ad tech is “a dense technically challenging terrain which very few people people get together to talk about.”

“We hope this discussion will help journalists, publishers and advertisers alike begin to understand and imagine new ways forward,” he added.

Aram Zucker-Scharff, Ad Engineering Director for the Research, Experimentation and Development (RED) team at The Washington Post led an open discussion among a group of experts, which convened on October 17.

“While I was working on publishing sites, I noticed that the world of advertising technology is awful and filled with terrible companies doing terrible things,” Zucker-Scharff said.

“I believe that the problem that we have today is that the technology we use to run advertising on the web does not align with the ethics of our journalistic organizations,” he said.

Not only is digital advertising lagging behind in profitable income, but it opens up a slew of questions about reader protection.

Advertising technology can undermine basic journalistic ethics of truthfulness and transparency through false information, clickbait, or even ransomware. While subscription-based content provides an alternative revenue source, people who are unable to pay may be blocked from accessing a free press.

“If there is no advertising-supported free media and everybody has to pay, I think that’s a really profoundly problematic place for us to end up as a democracy,” said Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Another problem with ad tech and subscription models is data security. Readers’ personal information can be at risk in the hands of publishers through accounts and logins.

“A lot of people that I’ve talked to who both consume a lot of news and who produce a lot of news are just simply unaware of this massively complex and huge actor network of firms through which user data passes,” panelist Elizabeth Anne Watkins said.

Watkins, a graduate student in Communications at Columbia and former case writer at Harvard Business School, introduced what she calls “risk pathologies,” in which third party services, such as a Facebook login, are used to give readers access to a publisher or website.

“I think there is a very dangerous and increasing reliance on third-party systems — not just publishers, but all over our digital economy — that is due for a reckoning, where a risk becomes outsourced to the user and as the user travels from platform to platform, they take data and data risk with them and expose them to more risks,” Watkins added.

As users login to more and more websites with their personal information, they’re at greater risk of having that information stolen if one of the websites is breached.

The panelists all agreed the government needs to regulate the access and distribution of personal data online, but that it likely wouldn’t happen anytime soon. In addition, most readers don’t realize the dangers of having their personal information in the hands of the wrong people and this provides another obstacle for publishers when readers may find additional account security measures tiresome and unnecessary.

Brendan Spain, VP of Advertising for the Americas at the Financial Times, said that though sometimes his company can be oversensitive to breach threats, “it’s a relatively new issue and we’ve not got our head around it.”

However, Ryan Brown, SVP of Business Development and Commerce at Gizmodo Media Group argued that as Facebook’s participation with publishers on its website dwindles, an opportunity for publishers arises.

“I think now as we’re watching Facebook itself recoil from its participation with the publishers … there’s an opportunity for us, most publishers to return to the direct relationship [with readers],” he said.

Gizmodo’s stand-alone content management system allows readers to publish content and have conversations in the comment section. “I think ultimately it’s really important to build that relationship with the reader. It’s germane to our success,” Brown said.

Both Brown and FT’s Spain argued advertising can be additive and beneficial if it’s done with context and readership engagement in mind.

“If you can actually build an advertising experience or some type of revenue metric that requires readers to engage with it, I think you’re incentivizing an honest experience, but it’s not that easy,“ Brown said.

Bringing readers genuine value through advertising is what can fix ad tech, the panelists said.

The Financial Times is “focused on garnering attention, keeping attention and growing attention and that’s much different from page views or impressions,” Spain said.

“I think you know the more we move to an economy of attention and publishers focus on attention, the better the ecosystem will be,” he added.