Could advertisers help real journalism defeat fake news?

Joe Dermody interviews Paul Moran, managing director of Mediaworks marketing and advertising.

ADVERTISERS could yet prove to be a driving force in creating a sustainable online environment for quality investigative journalism, suggests a leading figure in Irish advertising.

Paul Moran, MD of marketing and advertising company Mediaworks, says companies are becoming increasingly conscious of not placing their online promotions alongside fake news. Many companies are also mindful not to have their brand associated with online publishers who carry content which is either racist or discriminatory against minority groups.

One standout global example was food producer Kellog Co's decision to stop advertising online with Breibart News. Kellog deemed the site, which is owned by Donald Trump's advisor Stephen Bannon, to be an unfit platform for its adverts due to its support of 'white nationalism' and 'alt right' groups.

Back in November, the digital ad platform AppNexus banned Breitbart from using its ad tools because the site promoted racism and content that might incite violence, which was against the firm's rules. Brexit has also raised challenges for UK advertisers.

“The Co-op group in the UK decided to pull their advertising from certain media because they felt that their news content contradicted what the supermarket chain stood for,” said Paul Moran. “This raises important questions about the need for quality journalistic content going forward.

“Advertisers want to be associated with content that is responsible, open and honest. What I can say about our clients is that I don't know of any company operating in Ireland which would be happy to be associated with content that would be viewed as offensive or hurtful towards minority groups. Our commercial clients certainly don't want to be associated with offensive content.”

This view carries some weight. Mediaworks is one of nine agencies who come under the Core Media umbrella, along with Mediavest, Starcom, ZenithOptimedia, Core Knowledge, Engage Communications, Livewire, Ignite and Radical.

Core Media's recent 'Outlook 2017' report projects a 3.3% increase in an overall Irish advertising spend of €915m this year. TV is to rise 2.5% to €243m, radio to drop 3.5% to €123m, print to drop 9.5% to €138m, and online investment to rise 13.5% to €328m.

In a wide-ranging report, Core Media proposed that Irish news organisations could set a global example by gathering under a shared paywall, the proceeds of which would fund quality journalism. If 10% of Irish adults subscribed €5 per month or €50 per year, the fund could generate more than €17m in revenue.

Naturally enough, Paul Moran admits that the idea is intended more as a starter for a debate rather than a workable proposal. Nonetheless, he says the explosion of 'fake news' is fueling a growing need for a debate about credible news content.

“Of course, this is not just about online content,” he said. “Radio music stations are devoting more time to celebrity gossip than real news. There's also a dumbing down across the print and broadcast media that people are consuming.

“This starts with people making personal media choices; too many of us are choosing simplistic soundbites over quality content. Fake news has been a growing problem for the past decade, and quality journalism is being diluted as a direct consequence of the choices people make about what they want to consume.

“In the past, people would come in and take turns sifting through a newspaper sitting on a coffee table. They shared quality content, managed and verified by quality journalists and editors.”

Mr Moran paints a clear path linking the shift towards people making their own media choices, the general dumbing down of content, the dilution of investigative journalism and the demise of both public discourse and informed debate.

“We see the product of this culture of simplistic soundbites in the US presidential elections and in the Brexit vote result,” he said.

However, it remains to be seen how a shared paywall would work, and not just due to the challenge of bringing competing Irish media companies into one room. Irish print and broadcast media companies realise that their real competitors are global digital content producers rather than their neighbouring journalists.

Indeed, outside of conflict over who would manage the resulting fund, and how to split it, and any debate about what constitutes 'quality' journalism, the bigger problem is that the any advertising revenue aligned to digital content is currently being hoovered up by the likes of Facebook and Google.

That was the experience with an attempt by 'rear guard' traditional media producers in Slovenia to gather behind a shared paywall, managed by Piano Media. Despite the added language barrier against global media competition, Piano's paywall generated just €65,000 in 2012.

Poynter.org writer Rick Edmonds estimates that Facebook alone sucked around €1 billion out of US print advertising budgets in 2016. US newspapers that once generated €40bn a year are now down below €15bn and sliding.

The advertising budgets have migrated, a lot of it to online spend. For those fans of old style reliable content, there must at least be some encouragement in Paul Moran's informed industry view that many advertisers would be much happier aligning their brand to guaranteed real news outlets.

“Of course, people will be able to pick holes in the paywall idea, but at least then they might push themselves to come up with a better idea,” said Paul Moran. “I do know that if 10% of people were to pay for that news service, then they'd most likely be educated, probably people with a good income.

“They're the kind of people that our advertisers would be willing to pay a premium to access. Supermarkets sell to families. The actions taken by the Co-op group in the UK and Kellogs in the States also show that companies want to be aligned to trusted sites, with quality content.

“Perhaps the shared paywall is not the whole answer, but it can feed the debate. As a small market, there is an opportunity here for Irish news organisations to set an example for other markets and demonstrate true innovation in their medium.”


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