The upside of fake news?

Fake news — or more precisely, the weaponizing of news for partisan gain or pure profit — has polluted our public discourse and eroded our faith in media. 

Might there be a silver lining, albeit a small one, to emerge from this mess? Consider this: Earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase, one of the biggest ad spenders in the financial services industry, was pasting its message on more than 400,000 sites across the web. Today, it sends ads to only about 5,000 sites it has pre-approved. The reason was that its brand was winding up next to all manner of fake, or at best questionable news stories, and it couldn’t guarantee that a Chase pre-roll would not lead into an offensive video on YouTube. 

The upshot: More ad dollars are heading to quality publishers who invest in creating real content rather than the media equivalent of junk food. In fact, concern has spread among numerous brands that the great promise of internet advertising is leading to an out-of-control mess. If this flight to quality proves to be substantial, it could help news organizations claw back some of the revenue they have lost in recent years. 

“The fear is real,” says Oliver Smith, an executive at Unruly, a digital marketing consultancy. “It’s fair to say that among buyers, at least anecdotally, there is a greater desire to go into direct relationships with publishers, rather than rely on the marketplace.” Smith cautions that the change is still modest, but that the industry is taking note.

It’s important to understand what created this situation in the first place. Over the past decade, a growing amount of spending has gone into what is known as “programmatic advertising.” This is done through a dizzying array of software that creates a real-time marketplace. Click on a link and a slew of info about you, your purchasing choices, location, etc. are put out for bid to any advertiser. By the time your webpage loads, you are being served an ad from a company that has bid to reach consumers just like you.

The promise is that this brings great efficiency to the market. Hit the elderly potential wealth management prospect when she is visiting a dubious site promising a cure for sciatica rather than paying big bucks for an ad on The Houston Chronicle. 

The theory is that this will give more reach at lower dollars. But in practice, the one thing it has done is spread a limited pool of ad dollars out across millions of sites, many of them bogus. And despite promises from these programmatic platforms to limit the kind of sites that they serve ads to, experience has shown that there is no way of truly knowing where they will spew these ads. 

Suddenly, quality publishers — such as reputable news sites — realize they have something to offer: a secure and safe space for brands to advertise without the contextual risk of winding up next to a piece of embarrassing content. 

There is still no telling whether this migration will persist, but a number of key players are recognizing the value in quality.


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Gabriel Kahn

Gabriel Kahn has worked as a newspaper correspondent and editor for two decades, including 10 years at The Wall Street Journal, where he served as Los Angeles bureau chief, deputy Hong Kong bureau chief and deputy Southern Europe bureau chief, based in Rome. He has reported from more than...

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