News Hacking: Journalism in the Digital Era – Contextual and Utility Advertising

News Hacking is an ongoing series relating to the trials, tribulations and possible solutions to the ongoing journalism crisis affecting all major American metropolitan papers. Its primary focus is to discuss means in which to stem and reverse the tide of readership and monetary losses.

This is ultimately an optimistic perspective, in contrast to much of the perspectives in the industry today. Its underlying philosophy is simple: crises illustrate their own solvency mechanisms, and there always will be a solvency mechanism. Often, even always, it is found in the very source of the industry’s disruption.

It just takes the right vantage point to see it.

This third entry builds upon the prior article’s focus on audience “stickiness,” discussing means in which to convert the increased audience attention of a properly executed digital news medium into capital. The primary focus on doing so is dependent on the same factor that belies the proposed content creation mechanisms – basically, a new way to do advertising, to go along with a new form of news content.


As noted by readers TW and SilverAdept, last week’s conclusion was actually a bit of a trick question. The problem of ad-blocking is not something that can be solved by conventional means – users of Firefox needs to install but a single plugin to their browser to  lock out most major forms of advertising, be it annoying flash or javascript-ridden monstrosities, or even fairly benign image ads.

Even large and well-established sites, such as Ars Technica, quite literally have to beg their readers to at least modify their adblocking software to make an exception for their sites. They literally cannot function without advertising revenue – but the same advertisements are also repugnant to their reader base. And it’s hard to blame the readers here. Since the 1990s we have hated pop-ups, pop-unders and voiced adverts, where one wrong click on a shady site can lock down a computer with an endless, self-propagating, system-crashing tumor of cascading windows. Even now, we hate ads – flash-based ads especially as there are known ways in which to exploit the technology to insidiously upload worms, Trojans and other nasty odds and ends onto our systems.

But the problem of online advertising is actually more fundamental than the fact that they can be, at times, vehicles of malice. Though a serious detriment to the modern digital lifestyle, they are actually merely a symptom of a bigger issue at hand. Let us assume that the worst of these advertisement methods were gone – no more ad-ware, no more pop-ups (or pop-unders), no more ear-meltingly loud audio ads, no more malware exploits. Would readers still use ad-blocking software if these factors were eliminated?

Well, yes.

I think I mentioned this back in article one: the way people read news online has some significant differences from how they read it on newsprint. The nature of link directories, RSS feeds and update alerts frees the user from having to browse for topics of interest. The reader has full control over his or her content exposure – in fact, the reader is not obligated to have to hunt around for articles of interest. Especially with a good internal search engine, and some ingenuity with filters and RSS technology, the reader can make it so that even his or her alerts only trigger upon articles with legitimate interest to their cone of reality.

That’s great for the reader. It’s not so great for the advertiser. Freed from having to hunt around for articles of interests, the user’s attention span is focused directly upon the content itself. Quite unlike newspapers, whose pragmatic form is that of an advertisement delivery vehicle with a wrapping of general interest, digital news networks are defined by the quality and reach of their content – without the slightest bit of hyperbole that affects newsprint, content truly is king for digital media. And the reader’s interest is its heavenly mandate.

Unfortunately, the heavenly mandate, focused as it is on its king, wants nothing to do with advertisements. Advertisements are a distraction. At best, they share a vaguely similar cognitive space as the subject, causing the reader to be distracted at times – and irritated all the time. At worse, they’re outright contradictory to the subject at hand (can’t count the number of times I’ve seen an “Impeach Pelosi!” ad on the infamously liberal Huffington Post), or are just so overtly sleazy, you wonder why anybody bothered coughing up the money to publish it in the first place (I’m looking at you, “1 rule” ads). They actually contribute negative value to the page as a whole, as every square inch taken up by an ad is one square inch the reader is deliberately not looking at.

This is inarguably a big problem. Given the medium, advertising is one of the few legitimate ways of monetization, and regardless of the ideologies floating around, monetization is, in fact, vitally important. While online journalism shouldn’t have the sheer industrial overhead of print (which can, at times, actually dwarf the money spent on human resources), it isn’t done for free. While incomparable to the millions spent on grinding up trees, a digital connection is not gratis, and neither is a computer, software, or related peripherals. Furthermore, while it might seem like a non-issue to some commentators, reporters and editors alike would rather have a platform where they can get paid – you know, for those little things like regular meals and shelter. Without a functional revenue source, there is no journalism – and all that will be left will be the echo chambers of a thousand opinion blogs, of whose audience won’t even bother searching out the underlying facts, much less a dissenting opinion from their preset and tailored worldview.

This is where I start running into problems myself. The notion of “WTHX” formatted articles is self-evident on its face – all I’m really doing there is figuring out the natural strengths of the online medium and playing to that (as opposed to finding ways to use it to patch up a prior paradigm, as online paywalls seem intended to do). Twitter can even be considered to be a major influence – though, frankly, streaming updates of a sort do preempt it by years.

But online advertising? Many forms have been tried – and while some seem to develop some short-term success, the problem of content hyperfocus leads to an inured readership far faster than anybody can properly profit from it. There are no models in which to extrapolate a successful system out of – a truly functional online advertising model therefore needs to be radically different from anything currently conducted.

Let’s start with intent: as it is, adverts are context free – or, rather, contextual only to their own purposes. While algorithmic placement programs like Google Adsense do mitigate this a bit, in that advertisements are linked to pages with content that seems to reflect the right combination of keywords, and while niche sites do allow advertisers to better fit their brand to a preconception of what that site’s audience demographic might be, the form of advertisement is uniformly the same. They adhere strictly to the impressions paradigm, where the entire focus is to say “this is me! I exist! I sell this!”

It’s a selfish format. It’s not content in of itself. And that perhaps is the key: unless it is a form of content unto itself, and unless it is of reader interest, it will be ignored.

So the real trick becomes how to make advertisement interesting to the reader in an online format. The first obvious step is, of course, to tie it to specific content – a trick espoused by Google to some great success. At least, to Google. Results for specific advertisers vary rather strongly, but so long as you, say, put a knife ad next to a knife review, you have far better odds than putting it next to a website listing about Hello Kitty.

…that is, unless Hello Kitty sells flickblades now. Do they? I know they sell alcohol now, of all things. But I’m getting off-topic.

The point is, there must be a concrete cognitive link between the subject matter on-hand and the advertisement displayed. The most certain way of doing this is, of course, also the least efficient – having a human editor assign each ad to each individual story. It’s certain, but it’s also ludicrously costly in terms of the number of marketing editors you’ll need to do this reliably. If online journalism ever reaches a point of decadence where this is actually feasible, I’d be impressed – and more than a little disturbed, as I’m sure such a thing would indicate that the industry has managed to develop a flimsy bubble for itself.

The other way to do it is to realize that there is actually an inherent structure built into the venture that can be utilized to some success.

A general interest paper like the New York Times is nonetheless subdivided into specific topics. The first section tends to deal with political and geographic events. Then there’s Business, Sports, Pop Culture, etc. You are probably far more likely to see a Yankee’s ad in the sports section than in the business section – and a similar principle can be applied online.

Take an online news article and break it down by its topics. First, you have the overall category – an article about Karl Rove’s Republican Party fundraising shell game, as featured by Rolling Stones magazine, for example, would inevitably go into a Political or Current Affairs section, rather than Science. Break it down further: it is about national politics, as opposed to regional. Further: it’s a story about Conservative politics. Further:  it’s a story concerned with political fundraising. Further yet: the individual actors and players of the shell game. When you’ve finally distilled it, you effectively get an extended metatag sequence like so:

Politics – United States (Federal) – Conservative – RNC – Election – Fundraising – American Crossroads – Karl Rove – Ed Gillespie

The above is merely a textual rough sketch of the concept, but the idea is that each story breaks down into ever-more-specific categories and subcategories, creating a database that opens two major options to an online publisher. The first is allowing massive and easy cross-referencing of related articles – an especially vital capability as the publication grows and ages, helping not only readers catch up on long-term events, but writers simplify their research. But that’s pretty basic. The second option is where monetization comes in: so long as the structure is carefully maintained and nuanced, this makes advertisement contextualization far, far easier.

Imagine guaranteeing E-Trade and related companies that whenever there is a financial scandal, or even good news for once, coming out of  Wall Street, and an article is written about it, that their ads would appear right next to it. Furthermore, it’ll only appear next to it. Assuming a charge based on numbers of impressions, this is great news for E-Trade, and indirectly good news for the publisher: E-Trade doesn’t need to pay for impressions from having their ads hosted on unrelated topics, increasing the per-impression value of their advertisement significantly as well as the probability of any impression actually converting into a new user.

Yes, theoretically, Thoughtscream would then take a hit as E-Trade’s advertisement is more efficiently arranged, cutting down on the number of total impressions it gets even as the inherent value rises. On the other hand, now Thoughtscream can sell ads on a whole different paradigm – forget about selling space on randomized banner slots or guaranteed number of impressions per X number of readers. Or not forget entirely, but put the sale of ad access via tags above any other concern. Now every story is a potential expansion of advertising scope, allowing Thoughtscream to draw in more advertisers without impacting any one advertisement’s inherent value and rate of exposure. Heck, it’s even possible to charge higher rates per ad and still entice advertisers with the guarantee that they’ll ultimately pay less per ad, profiting off of the sheer quantity of retailers, merchants and services whose ads we’ll be carrying – though, reaching a stage where that’s feasible will not only require a full-time accountant but full marketing staff too.

It’s nice to dream big.

Before we get too carried off by such delusions of grandeur, though, there’s still more to address. While the in-house distribution mechanism is many times superior to the methods espoused by standard news sites – and should only be trivially more complicated than AdSense to implement, it doesn’t actually turn advertisement into proper content, which is what they’ll need to be to truly solidify reader attention and interest.

But there are ways to do that too.

Going back to the E-Trade example, imagine if it wasn’t just an animated advertisement linked to a page about finances, but a mini-portal to the service itself, even with a login screen built in, along with a miniaturized set of services, to facilitate on-the-spot decisions. Or, if that’s too complicated, at least a streaming stock ticker.

Review article? If it’s a high-scoring item, the sidebar ought to be a comparison list of retail sponsors that carry the product, how much it costs, what discounts and specials are available, and discount codes exclusive to Thoughtscream – which, in turn, serves to give them info on just how much they’re profiting off Thoughtscream exposure.

Music review? Almost the same as E-Trade, where the sidebar ads directly link to a Ticketmaster sales portal – or to the band’s site directly, where users can toss donations in appreciation, buy merchandise and check out other samples.

This could go on and on.

The basic gist of it is that impressions aren’t enough. You want to secure reader interests? You want to do it in such a way that the reader won’t learn to ignore you a week down the line? Make it relevant to what they’re reading – and make it relevant to their lives. Make the ad a small service other than as a link to your site – and since they’ve already made a vote of interest by clicking and reading an article directly related to your service, they just might take a gander at you in turn!

Naturally, especially given the music example, there are some conflicts of interest involved. Such things are inevitable in privatized journalism – and especially public journalism, actually, given the need for government oversight by the so-called Fourth Estate. They’re nontrivial, but there are traditions that can be called upon to partially remedy it – maintaining a stiff wall between marketing and the editorial board, for example, strengthened by a webmaster that can code up a website interface that keeps advertisement and article placement functions separate. Or just being very, very clear with the disclaimers. Part of journalism is a constant feud to maintain such a balance – but if done even semi-competently, it shouldn’t affect the quality or integrity of the product significantly.

But it will be sustainable journalism. Can you imagine it? Can you imagine a site that not only serves nothing but the hottest, freshest and most accurate news around, but directly enables the reader to act upon the information? Beyond all the idealisms about the industry, beyond all the hyperbole, it would be of direct, actionable value to everybody that crosses its path.

Such a site would define modern journalism. And would be absolutely indispensable.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 18, 2010.

5 Responses to “News Hacking: Journalism in the Digital Era – Contextual and Utility Advertising”

  1. So not only hyperfocus on ad placement, but making the ads do stuff. So, taking the E-Trade example – if someone were logged into their E-Trade account and were browsing Thoughtscream Finance, the E-Trade ad, if it appeared, would let them take actions in relation to the stocks of the various corporations mentioned in a particular article? I can see where that would be useful for some people.

    Howevah, I can see some difficulties. What if advertisers want exclusivity to certain articles or ads, like the ones talking about products. If Apple, say, only wants Apple ads anytime Apple products are discussed, then people looking to make comparisons to other brands are left out, and only have a list of places where they can get Apple Stuff. That situation would make me less likely to pay any attention to the ads, and probably add a snide comment about the autoerotic nature of such advertisement.

    How do you solve that problem?

  2. That shouldn’t be too much of a problem, dependent on the individual company’s policy. I’m personally highly disinclined towards exclusivity deals – it exacerbates the conflict of interest scenario significantly and locks out alternate advertising sources as well, making them harder to approach later on.

    But the conflict of interest is the real killer. This theorized structure only works if it can consistently break stories, and being reliant on a single advertiser like that inherently locks us out of half the stories regarding that advertiser – we might be able to legitimately break the story on the iPhone 4G, for example, but at the cost of coverage of Apple-related controversies. That would severely impact the publication’s brand strength – to the point where even ten million a year for exclusivity would still be far short of what it’d take to tempt me.

  3. Fair enough. Do you expect, then, to have lots of advertising revenue come from the rival companies whenever you have a story about things going badly for one player in the market?

    And when it comes to comparison shopping and the like, will those rival companies be willing to play nice and sit so very close to each other, where someone can easily make comparisons across the board?

  4. On the first point, /yes/. A bidding war for exposure is especially welcomed. It’s a boost to revenue, sure, but it’s also a shadow incentive – not only do we make bank by helping companies sell their products, we /still/ make bank by tearing down bad products. In an economic environment without a true monopoly, that kind of setup is ideal for a publication’s integrity.

    As for the second issue… honestly? No idea. The only way to find out is to implement, then see if anybody buys it.

  5. Mmm. So you make money from competitors trying to get their products on the page of “Apple disaster!” and you also gain cred with the readers by being unafraid to say “This sucks”, regardless of who manufactured “This.” Genius plot, so long as there’s always things going wrong for everyone. Otherwise, the fanboyism accusations start.

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