Funding Journalism: How Ad Tech Can Help in the Battle Against ‘Fake News’

Professional headshot of Phillip Buxton
By Philip Buxton, Vice President, International Marketing
May 16, 2017

A recent piece in The Sunday Times did an excellent job of outlining the challenge facing traditional news organisations; the digital economy has done them no favours and has led directly to a culture of click-chasing that, in partnership with some nasty-looking geo-politics, could only end in the rise of ‘fake news’. But ad tech, which might until now be considered part of the problem, has a vital role to play in providing some solutions.

The article (accessible only behind a data and paywall, which tells us something in and of itself) explains how 89% of the growth in digital ad spending in the UK last year went to Google and Facebook. It adds that, in the US, the newspaper industry has suffered a 70% decline in revenues and a halving of its employee count since 2001. Digital ad revenues have simply not gone any way to replacing the decline in print.

All of this highlights the degree to which the producers of news content have become separated from its monetisation, a trend that has already hit those producers hard. The more that trend continues, the less able are ‘quality’ publishers to fund good journalism, and we should all agree that access to independent information is vitally important.

However, a fightback might be on. Apart from the ongoing testing of data and paywalls and increasing pressure on the duopoly to address ‘fake news’, stronger use of better publisher-side ad technology is playing a significant role. The key trend is ever-advancing tools to return control of supplier-owned data and ad inventory to the suppliers themselves; in essence, technology that closes the gap between publishers and the monetisation of their content.

One way control is being returned to the publisher is through the rise of header bidding and, latterly, wrapper solutions. Header bidding has resulted in the democratisation of programmatic bidding, not only to the initial benefit of publishers but also, in the end, of advertisers as the ecosystem becomes a little healthier as a result. By enabling a site-owner to pull in bids for all inventory on a page from all potential buyers at the same time, header bidding helps publishers extract the most value from their ad space and thus from their content.

However, so successful was header bidding that site owners soon sought multiple partners to maximise the number of potential buyers, and that meant multiple tags weighing down their web pages. Wrapper solutions bundle up all those tags into a single piece of code so that the all-pervading, parallel auction for ads can take place without slowing down their sites.

Another key example is unified ad serving. For most publishers, the sale of digital ad inventory direct to advertisers and their agencies remains siloed from the inventory they sell via programmatic channels, whether direct or via open real-time bidding. A publisher will drop its direct-sold campaigns directly into its ad server, while programmatic buys are pulled from multiple supply-side systems. This makes for a disconnect, since there is no way to see all these buys in one place in order to plan the delivery and sales of inventory via direct and programmatic channels in a cohesive way. Unified ad serving, where a single supply-side system manages and serves campaigns regardless of the source of sale, is a significant step towards helping publishers maximise their revenues.

These innovations might sound niche and unsexy, but they have something approaching a transformative effect for the quality publishers we so sorely need. With the introduction of header bidding technology, one PubMatic news media client saw eCPMs increase by more than 50%, which is not unusual. For large publishers, this is a step-change.

As publishers of quality content are better able to support their businesses through ad revenue, the financial necessity of ‘fake news’ will inevitably subside. Whether merely a symptom or part of the cause, ad tech has played a crucial role in the evolution of the digital economy and its effects on the consumption and provision of quality journalism. But, its continued evolution – especially those tools that focus on enabling the return of power to publishers – can also see it form part of the solution.