Publishers seek ad dollar alternatives

“Next year, I predict many more publishers will push to establish business models with which, as one executive at a national publication recently put it during my research for the Tow Center’s Platforms and Publishers project, ‘you can kind of give the finger to the platforms.'”

Digital advertising has become an unreliable and messy foundation for the business of journalism, and many smart publishers have begun to aggressively pursue alternative or additional revenue streams. That trend will continue.

Internet users are increasingly installing ad blockers in response to annoying ads (popups) and privacy concerns (eerily on-point and data-driven ad for that top you recently considered buying). This in turn hits revenues of publishers and platforms that rely on ad dollars as a major, if not dominant, revenue source. And ad agencies, too, are seeing falling profits as advertisers cut spending in response to concerns around ad performance, among other issues with how ads are delivered by opaque algorithms and where those ads are seen (for example, alongside hate content on YouTube).

As I recently wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review, there is a cleanup coming for digital advertising, but the efforts may primarily benefit the very platforms that currently gobble up nearly all the growth in digital ad dollars. For example, the new Chrome browser rolling out in January will filter out certain ad formats, like popups, and Google has a say in whether an ad is unacceptable or a publisher’s site is “failing” for including it. Publishers’ hands are tied when it comes to advertising because Google and Facebook own the space and write many of the rules.

In the last couple of years, publishers scrambled to use platform products like Facebook’s Instant Articles, Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages, and Snapchat’s Discover, which promised to return to publishers some of that ad revenue they lost to platforms in the first place.

Now, publishers are identifying other paths forward. In 2017 alone: The Guardian established a nonprofit in the U.S.; The Atlantic launched a paid membership program; The New York Times is aggressively courting digital subscribers and halved the number of articles that can be read for free, the first major change since 2012. And even Wired is putting up a metered paywall as a “hedge against the future.” While it may be far-fetched to imagine a future free of ads or platform distribution for the vast majority of publishers, diversifying revenue streams can give publishers the leverage they need in those relationships.

Next year, I predict many more publishers will push to establish business models with which, as one executive at a national publication recently put it during my research for the Tow Center’s Platforms and Publishers project, “you can kind of give the finger to the platforms.”

Nushin Rashidian is cofounder of the news organization Cannabis Wire.

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