No, New York Times, it is not up to ad buyers to save media

Alex Tselios, The Big Smoke.

It is considered reasonable that any business or commercial investment should be scrutinised.

Are there multiple revenue streams? Does the market want it? Would a buyer return because they get value out of it? Is there an opportunity to innovate products and can that be done quickly?

Yet for some reason, many in media still believe we need to be ‘saved'. This may be in the form of donations from readers, or, in the recent case, a plea to ad buyers to feel morally obligated to save us. 

I refer to Jim Rutenberg who this week wrote an article published in the New York Times titled “Ad buyers have a say in whether real news survives”.

It’s title is actually quite fair, considering that ad buyers require more transparency around where their ads actually appear, and the validity of the outcomes their campaigns claim to have and should have a say in where their ads are placed and with what quality of news.

Yet the basis of the article reads little more than a desperate plea to make other components of our complex digital landscape responsible for dwindling dollars being spent directly with publishers. The article cites the lay-offs of Gannet-owned papers (we could equally start to lament over Fairfax and News Corp cuts), and frustration towards Facebook and Google giants. 

In the agnostic world of business, it is a mistake to assume that competition or changing market conditions are an excuse for our own demise.

I am unsure why for-profit media should be seeking reader donations, when business models within it still exist and are largely driving revenue.

It is broadly accepted that digital disruption is actually that, disruptive. It means the model you thought worked 20 years ago is now redundant and to survive must be changed and refined.

Take retail, for example, there is no suggestion that it is the responsibility of the manufactures to save retail. A competitive shift does not result in being worthy of a hand out.

Les Cohen, commercial director for business intelligence firm Invigor Group agrees, saying: “Digital has changed the retail world, and with that, comes the obligation of retail itself to leverage technology and data to give itself the best chance against data-driven giants like Amazon. As the list of failed retail businesses continues to grow, it is understood that retailers must harness the power of data in their ecosystem, rather than fight for a model that cannot compete.”

Ad buyers and marketers are already struggling with their own obligations. They are required to understand and solve digital complexities that even the biggest players like Google and Facebook are constantly trying to figure out.

Their obligation is to provide tangible outcomes to their clients, the advertisers, and connect them to the audiences they seek – wherever they are.

There are enough opinion pieces and analysis on the 'how and with what tools’ that could be achieved, but one thing is clear to me – it is the obligation of both ad buyers and media owners to constantly test the value of their own changing models and underpin a sustainable infrastructure.

The answer for media isn’t to sacrifice investigative journalism, nor is it inserting cheap news widgets that lead to trashy clickbait; and it is certainly not to ask the public for donations towards an already commercialised platform.

In my own model at The Big Smoke, I have personally done away with some of the revenue streams that many media platforms have held onto (such as third-party programmatic and content paywalls).

However, I do use that technology to harness multi-channel results for our clients, producing native advertising that is of value to both the clients and readers. Our creative teams focus to serve both end users (the advertisers and readers) with the same obligation to outcomes driving us.

It would be a commercially fatal mistake to believe this is where the model stops. It will continue to change and evolve for us, and not just over a five years forecast, but over, at times, a five day period. Adapting to the market in a climate with accelerating innovation is my obligation, and it’s tough.

Ginger Gorman, a social justice journalist with an impressive 16-year career, is looking at new and innovative ways to protect the profession she loves. When discussing with Gorman the recent reports around our industry, she made the point to me that “if we get past the fear and devastation at what’s happening to our industry right now, perhaps this disruption could offer us opportunities for innovation. In essence, I simply don’t agree that just because advertisers have always supported journalism, that the funding model has to stay this way.”

As in any other industry, it is up to us to solve the challenges that the digital revolution has presented us, adapt and move forward.

“We’ve known for more than a decade that the so-called rivers of gold (classifieds advertising) are drying up. So maybe it’s time for us, the journalists, to think about new ways of supporting our work and maintaining a healthy media ecosystem that holds those with power to account. As reporters, we must continue to make the voices of the voiceless heard.” Gorman adds.

The answer is to take the same approach as other industries disrupted daily by equally devastating results, and to evolve their own business model.

Media’s obligation is to refine and adjust to a new model that works – based on current market needs and technological developments.

It is not the ad buyers obligation to save media, it is ours.

Alex Tselios is the founder of The Big Smoke website.

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