From ‘dark ads’ to political twitter bots, social media giants have been in the spotlight this week. But new research points to an even more worrying trend for our democracy – and one we need to talk about this election campaign.
For a while in journalism, it was a source of consolation that, although papers were selling fewer copies, and print ad revenues were down as a result, there was a great saviour on the horizon.
That great saviour was to be online ad cash. With papers rapidly switching to ‘digital first’ strategies – the Guardian among them at a national level, but locals and regionals too – the strategy was to pull in the clicks, and advertising cash would come flowing. Put simply: clickbait would fill the coffers.
And indeed – newspapers’ websites have soared. They bring in the readers. Figures show that regional newspaper traffic was up 40% last year compared to 2015. That’s a huge rise. Can you Imagine if print circulation soared to that extent?
But we’ve just had the latest confirmation that is isn’t working. It isn’t enough. Or perhaps that’s the wrong way of wording it. Becaase it may never be enough.
For all that extra traffic, online ad revenues for our local and regional papers aren’t just stagnating: they’re actually falling.
Data released by AA/WARC shows that digital advertising going to regional newspapers actually was down last year by 3.4%, to £193m.
But there’s a contradiction. Online ad spending on the whole is soaring. It now accounts for the majority of ad spend – more than the billboards, the TV/radio slots and the full-pages. So where’s it going?
You probably already know the answer: it’s going to Google and Facebook. It is, as media rag Press Gazette have highlighted, a Duopoly.
Online advertising grew 17% per cent to £10.3bn last year. Yet 80% of that digital growth went to Google and Facebook, according to a recent report from the Internet Advertising Bureau.
This is a crisis. No matter how much our local, regional and national publications grow online, they are merely treading water – while print revenues plummet.
The resulting panic is behind the trend in some quarters for clickbait – rather than the hard slog, the time-intesive, sometimes low-readership, but nonetheless powerful and meaningful content that holds those in power to account. The result is less number crunching, fewer investigations, council meetings going ignored, and a dearth of data-digging, deconstruction, un-spinning and report-sifting.
But it’s a crisis that will be felt most at a local level – when newspapers often providing the only dedicated journalists able to shine the torch on politicians in an area – are lost. Those businesses that used to advertise with them and support local media don’t sell their space on those publishers’ sites now, they simply target on Facebook and Google. It’s estimated, partly as a result, the number of local journalists has halved from 13,000 to around 6,000 in just a decade.
Facebook, as we know, thrives on stories being shared, people engaging with articles, and so much of the embedded content that means people scroll down their feed for interesting articles. At the same time, Google is in large part a news aggregator, while Facebook is now a primary news ‘source’ for millions of people.
Together, they now have almost total online ad market dominance – a dangerous scenario for competition, the consumer and the news organisations trying to fund high-quality journalism.
Press Gazette estimate this ‘duopoly’ have taken at least £1bn a year of revenue which previously went towards paying for trained reporters.
Let’s not mince our words: this is a crisis for our democracy. The market is totally bust. If Google and Facebook continue to sweep up all the online ad spend, consolidating their duopoly, the situation for accountability – speaking truth to power through the fourth estate – is very stark indeed.
We’re talking about scandals left uncovered, corruption unchecked, conflicts of interest unnoticed, councillors unscrutinised and corporations unchallenged. Our media isn’t perfect – but a free press needs defending in more than just words: it needs the financial models to sustain it, in a fair market.
The difficult question is of course the obvious one: what can be done? There are sticking plasters: crowdfunding for local papers, co-operatisation to remove the need for profit margins, sponsoring of individual journalists, and subscription/donation options for the few who will be prepared to chip in that way.
But at the end of the day, this comes down to the dominance of the new online behemoths: power that needs investigating, analysing, and challenging. Let’s not leave it too late.
Press Gazette have launched a campaign urging Facebook and Google to make a fairer deal with the news industry.
Josiah Mortimer is a reporter and Contributing Editor for Left Foot Forward. He also works for the Electoral Reform Society and tweets at @josiahmortimer.
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