I have been in the media buying industry for 30+ years and, sadly, news brands have been in decline since then – and for some time before that.

But what hasn’t waned is my belief that, irrespective of delivery format, we need a free press representing different views – and providing people with the “truth”.

What matters to me, and most people in civilized democracies, is that I can consume news which I can trust is well researched and true.

Many people like their news presented through their own preferred political lens and that’s OK. Personally, I am quite fond of the opposite – meaning I am currently an avid Guardian reader (and yes, I do pay my voluntary contribution), because it makes me question my biases on business and politics.

Most recent readership figures have shown that news brands are over 20% up year on year since the pandemic, with 43 million people a week reading a newspaper across all delivery mechanisms. This demonstrates that newspapers are a critical component of our society, and a valuable symbol of our freedom. Therefore, a well-funded, independent, varied and free press is essential for our civilisation.

And that’s where we come to the question of news being “well-funded.” The commercial news landscape has become hugely more competitive since my early media buying days. Other dedicated news channels took some of the audience and the revenue, first TV and then digital. Google’s moves into the area have further increased the pressure, and huge reductions in marketing spend caused by the pandemic have turned this to a critical situation for many titles.

There are people much more knowledgeable than me on the financial ins and outs and challenges news brands face. For example, Nick Hugh, CEO at the Telegraph, has set out his organisation’s plan and determination to be completely funded by circulation and subscription revenues by 2021 – at least to where the paper would break even without ad revenues. That is a worthy goal, but demonstrates that advertising spend currently remains critical to their survival.

DMGT is on another path, driving ad revenue through MailOnline to help shore up the more serious end of its news operation. Others, somewhere in between.

Whatever commercial model they choose, this demonstrates the primary challenge faced by news brands: that monetising the content they create has become uneconomic and that it is putting the whole system at risk.

Some would say that’s fine – survival of the fittest, the markets will decide, etc. But going back to the initial points, I personally do not think that can be allowed to happen.

That cannot mean that advertisers have any kind of moral obligation to support news brands over and above any medium offering the same results. But I do believe most advertisers care about the context of their ad placement, and news brands represent some of the best context available.

However, simply put, the digital advertising ecosystem is essentially set up against news brands being successful. That’s not right, it’s not fair, and it is something we can change. Again, it’s a hugely complex issue, but there are three primary elements.

Firstly, many media buyers don’t, and possibly never have, read the news through a news brand either physically or digital, and therefore see them as irrelevant based on their in-built biases. Secondly, independent audits show that, on average, half of programmatic digital ad spend is not arriving with the publisher, instead it is being siphoned off by intermediaries in the tech infrastructure which supports digital advertising. And finally, the algorithmic keyword-based engine is blocking news brands’ ad placements based on Covid and other terms perceived as potentially unsafe for advertisers.

Most advertisers and their agencies would agree that not having news brands on their plan, and half the advertiser’s money disappearing before it gets to ‘published’, are not good things, even if both are somehow technically “justified”.

So, someone needs to take a stand, but it has to be a joint one. Publishers need to take themselves out of the programmatic marketplaces; agencies need to go back to publisher direct buying for news brands; and advertisers need to demand news brands are carved out on plans, separated from the mass of digital inventory.

We need to revert to seeing news brands’ properties as one buy across all formats including the print and digital editions, and agencies need to agree a fair price which reflects the quality of the context. News brands also need to work harder together to prove the relative effectiveness of their medium for brands, and all parties need to push further for more creative ways to harness the power of the environment whilst maintaining the integrity of the content.

As a media buyer I will certainly play my part, but the whole industry needs to tackle this issue.

Danny Donovan
UK CEO, Mediahub
(Part of MullenLowe Group)


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