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Newsonomics: Tribune’s Thursday night surprise rescrambles the consolidation puzzle
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March 6, 2018, 11:11 a.m.
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“What is the future of the relationship between publishers and advertisers? And how can platforms, news publishers, and advertisers ensure a robust future for news publishers by shaping the quality of advertising?”

These questions are addressed in “The Future of Advertising and Publishing,” a report released Monday by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the Digital Initiative at Harvard Business School, and the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. It sums up an event that took place back in October; we wrote up an afternoon panel that was open to the public, but the report released this week focuses on a closed, invite-only morning discussion.

Some thoughts from the discussion:

— In 2006, $49 billion in advertising went toward newspaper revenues in the United States, Tow’s Emily Bell writes in an introduction; “by 2016, the equivalent amount was $18 billion.” In the panel discussion, “few participants could see a certain long-term future for advertising-supported journalism on anything like the scale of its historical basis…the clarity recognized among publishers around the collapse of the traditional advertising model is brutal, but it allows organizations to focus on the reader as a main source of support.”

— “It’s only advertising when it’s bad advertising.” A discussion participant who works in branded content said that many companies are asking why they can’t be publishers, too — the example of GE’s podcast The Message came up, for instance. Facebook and Google are so effective at reaching audiences that “it is becoming less clear what the value-add is for advertisers to work with publishers,” and publishers feel pressured to play by the platforms’ rules even though “we’ll all look the same in Alexa.”

— What’s the future for high-quality, free journalism, and who’s responsible for providing it?

One proposed scenario for how to keep news readily available, suggested by a participant from the advertising industry, was having publishers provide two tiers of content: 1) free content supported by brand partnerships and 2) premium content that people pay for.

A publisher participant said they were “deeply alarmed there’s no in-between,” meaning high-quality and free journalism. That, they said, is the current crisis, and advertisers don’t appear to be taking responsibility for that. (What didn’t come up for debate is whether this is the responsibility of advertisers alone.)

The group then discussed what the future institutions supporting journalism might look like and the question of subsidized access. One participant noted that the U.S. Government has long subsidized news distribution by covering the majority of Postal Service mailing costs, and suggested there might be more opportunities for similar funding.

— We need to find out what consumers want from advertising. “Help us have an unbiased perspective around what consumers really want,” one participant said, addressing the academics in the room. Another pointed out that maybe it’s publishing that’s broken, not advertising: Facebook, Google, and Amazon are doing just fine, aren’t they? Maybe publishers should just stop thinking about advertising at all, suggested moderator Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “If advertising works but not for news, should publishers pay any attention?” A participant who works in branded content, meanwhile, “imagined a future where Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks would bid on them as they sat in their self-driving car, and the car would go to whichever business won. Then the participant added, ‘I’ve never been more excited to be in the business.'”

The full report is here, and our coverage of the open afternoon session is here.

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