The year advertisers stop boycotting news

“Restoring digital advertising to quality news publishers is a rare case where companies can do good and do well.”

When I was publisher of The Wall Street Journal, we would give an airline advertiser a free substitute ad in the next issue of the newspaper if its ad happened to run alongside a news story about an airline crash. Airline marketers were happy to continue to support news with their advertising.

Fast forward to today, when the largest category of advertising is digital, with programmatic advertising placed through algorithms increasingly dominant. One of the less well-understood inputs into these algorithms is keyword blocklists. These are lists of words that the ad tech industry uses to exclude advertising from running on particular news stories. Over the years, these lists have ballooned, running well into the thousands of words. As a result, programmatic ads can be excluded from news stories that include words such as “Trump” or “Biden,” as well as “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “gay,” or “lesbian.”

The result is that much of the advertising inventory on news sites is deemed brand-unsafe. A significant share of the ad inventory of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times falls into this category. For sites serving Black or gay communities, 70% of the ad inventory can be excluded because so many of their stories include words that keyword blocklists have deemed too risky for ads.

This means companies find themselves effectively boycotting serious news, and disproportionately depriving high-quality news sites that serve minority communities. CMOs don’t mean to boycott journalism, but this is how programmatic advertising now operates. This unintended consequence of keyword blocking is especially ironic at a time when many corporations have publicly pledged to redirect more of their advertising to media serving Black and other underserved communities.

These keyword blocklists cost news sites a key source of revenues that could support newsrooms that badly need the funding.

In contrast, companies routinely find their internet ads running on websites publishing misinformation, healthcare hoaxes, and Russian or Chinese disinformation. My colleagues at NewsGuard, which rates the trustworthiness of news sites, this year worked with media measurement company Comscore to estimate that $2.6 billion worth of online ads from blue-chip companies annually run on sites that advertisers never intended. The problem is that programmatic algorithms don’t differentiate between misinformation sites and quality publishers.

Warren Buffett’s Geico, for example, has been the largest advertiser on Vladimir Putin’s site Sputnik News — a subsidy I’m sure Mr. Buffett does not intend or even know about. NewsGuard found ads from more than 4,000 advertisers running on sites publishing misinformation about Covid-19, its vaccines, and its treatments. NewsGuard now offers advertisers lists of thousands of high-quality news sites, including sites serving minority audiences, so that they can stop using keyword blocklists and instead be confident that their ads are running on quality sites. The billions of dollars now going to propaganda and healthcare hoax sites would be a big help in restoring support for journalism.

An increasing number of advertisers and agencies realize the impact of these blocklists on news publishers. A case study from ad agency IPG found that removing ads from low-quality sites and placing them on high-quality news sites resulted in lower ad rates to the advertiser — with higher clickthrough rates thanks to more engaged audiences. Restoring digital advertising to quality news publishers is a rare case where companies can do good and do well. With corporate social responsibility and ESG standards now so top of mind — along with the need to support the journalism that can strengthen democracies — I’m betting that 2022 will be the year when this happens.

When I was publisher of The Wall Street Journal, we would give an airline advertiser a free substitute ad in the next issue of the newspaper if its ad happened to run alongside a news story about an airline crash. Airline marketers were happy to continue to support news with their advertising.

Fast forward to today, when the largest category of advertising is digital, with programmatic advertising placed through algorithms increasingly dominant. One of the less well-understood inputs into these algorithms is keyword blocklists. These are lists of words that the ad tech industry uses to exclude advertising from running on particular news stories. Over the years, these lists have ballooned, running well into the thousands of words. As a result, programmatic ads can be excluded from news stories that include words such as “Trump” or “Biden,” as well as “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “gay,” or “lesbian.”

The result is that much of the advertising inventory on news sites is deemed brand-unsafe. A significant share of the ad inventory of The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times falls into this category. For sites serving Black or gay communities, 70% of the ad inventory can be excluded because so many of their stories include words that keyword blocklists have deemed too risky for ads.

This means companies find themselves effectively boycotting serious news, and disproportionately depriving high-quality news sites that serve minority communities. CMOs don’t mean to boycott journalism, but this is how programmatic advertising now operates. This unintended consequence of keyword blocking is especially ironic at a time when many corporations have publicly pledged to redirect more of their advertising to media serving Black and other underserved communities.

These keyword blocklists cost news sites a key source of revenues that could support newsrooms that badly need the funding.

In contrast, companies routinely find their internet ads running on websites publishing misinformation, healthcare hoaxes, and Russian or Chinese disinformation. My colleagues at NewsGuard, which rates the trustworthiness of news sites, this year worked with media measurement company Comscore to estimate that $2.6 billion worth of online ads from blue-chip companies annually run on sites that advertisers never intended. The problem is that programmatic algorithms don’t differentiate between misinformation sites and quality publishers.

Warren Buffett’s Geico, for example, has been the largest advertiser on Vladimir Putin’s site Sputnik News — a subsidy I’m sure Mr. Buffett does not intend or even know about. NewsGuard found ads from more than 4,000 advertisers running on sites publishing misinformation about Covid-19, its vaccines, and its treatments. NewsGuard now offers advertisers lists of thousands of high-quality news sites, including sites serving minority audiences, so that they can stop using keyword blocklists and instead be confident that their ads are running on quality sites. The billions of dollars now going to propaganda and healthcare hoax sites would be a big help in restoring support for journalism.

An increasing number of advertisers and agencies realize the impact of these blocklists on news publishers. A case study from ad agency IPG found that removing ads from low-quality sites and placing them on high-quality news sites resulted in lower ad rates to the advertiser — with higher clickthrough rates thanks to more engaged audiences. Restoring digital advertising to quality news publishers is a rare case where companies can do good and do well. With corporate social responsibility and ESG standards now so top of mind — along with the need to support the journalism that can strengthen democracies — I’m betting that 2022 will be the year when this happens.

Gonzalo del Peon

David Cohn

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Victor Pickard

Anita Varma

Millie Tran

Stefanie Murray

Richard Tofel

Parker Molloy

Simon Allison

Chase Davis

Raney Aronson-Rath

Ariel Zirulnick

Moreno Cruz Osório

Joy Mayer

Cindy Royal

Chicas Poderosas

Daniel Eilemberg

Jessica Clark

Joe Amditis

Ståle Grut

Laxmi Parthasarathy

Matt DeRienzo

Gabe Schneider

Megan McCarthy

Amy Schmitz Weiss

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Rachel Glickhouse

Wilson Liévano

Meena Thiruvengadam

Joanne McNeil

Zizi Papacharissi

Christoph Mergerson

Paul Cheung

Simon Galperin

Mario García

Catalina Albeanu

Andrew Freedman

Matt Karolian

Tamar Charney

j. Siguru Wahutu

Anthony Nadler

Burt Herman

John Davidow

Errin Haines

Francesco Zaffarano

Mandy Jenkins

A.J. Bauer

Sam Guzik

Julia Angwin

Jennifer Brandel

Kathleen Searles & Rebekah Trumble

James Green

Julia Munslow

Alice Antheaume

Candace Amos

Melody Kramer

Kristen Jeffers

Jim Friedlich

Juleyka Lantigua

An Xiao Mina

Joshua P. Darr

Sarah Stonbely

Doris Truong

Shalabh Upadhyay

Robert Hernandez

Natalia Viana

Janelle Salanga

Tony Baranowski

Mary Walter-Brown

Brian Moritz

Jennifer Coogan

Shannon McGregor & Carolyn Schmitt

Christina Shih

Nikki Usher

David Skok

Kerri Hoffman

Stephen Fowler

Eric Nuzum

Cherian George

Cristina Tardáguila

Amara Aguilar

Jesenia De Moya Correa

Gordon Crovitz

Kristen Muller

Mike Rispoli

Whitney Phillips

Joni Deutsch

Matthew Pressman

Michael W. Wagner

Jesse Holcomb

Sarah Marshall

Anika Anand

Jonas Kaiser

Tom Trewinnard

Jody Brannon

Don Day

Larry Ryckman

S. Mitra Kalita

Izabella Kaminska