Tow Center

Journalists are rightly suspicious of ad tech. They also depend on it.

December 4, 2018
Photo: Adobe Stock

Imagine a young woman named Molly, working as an events coordinator in Chicago. During the planning of a daylong workshop, she and her colleagues have a good-natured groan about the post-lunch slowdown that always plagues these types of events. To jazz up the flow of conversation Molly decides to stock the room with candy. She uses her personal laptop to go onto the retail website and buy several packets of candy. The next day, Molly sees that Amazon is suggesting more types of candy for her to browse. Soon, however, she notices that her digital life has been transformed into a candy land. Peppermint patties and lollipops parade across her screen on nearly every website she visits. That night, looking for information about a serious presidential announcement, she visits several reputable news sites and is surprised to find that even the most serious articles are wallpapered with saltwater taffy and gummy bears.

Advertising undergirds the economy of the internet. “Advertising technology,” the subject of my new report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, is an umbrella term for the system of software programs, data servers, marketing agencies, and data markets which facilitate the sale of user data and the display of advertising messages to users of the internet, including search engines and social-media sites and apps. The vast majority of websites and social media platforms are supported by ad tech.

News publishing is no exception.

Troublingly, in journalism schools little attention is paid to the political economy of advertising on news sites. The user experience across devices, the loss of control over what’s displayed on publisher sites, and how this loss may impact brand reputation have all gone understudied by professional journalism curricula. This is a worrisome trend, as ad tech may influence the production, distribution, and perception of journalism in both obvious and subtle ways.

Social media, in particular, has disrupted the control that publishers once had over information and advertising, and a multi-device environment has upended the command those publishers long enjoyed over readers’ attention. Experimentation in ad formats has blurred the once-bright dividing line between the business and editorial departments within news outlets. Ambiguity is now the rule of the day. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of The New York Times, tellingly reflected on her values in the past tense, with a sense of nostalgia: “Maybe I was too hard-line, but I believed in the wall [between the business and news sides of the newspaper].”1

This “Guide to Advertising Technology” is intended to explain how all this happened and what it means for practicing journalism today by offering a usable education in the history and political economy of digital advertising technologies. It begins with a short history of modern advertising in news and a review of the fundamentals of marketing. What follows are technical descriptions of how digital display advertising works, the contours of the ad tech space, and the material impact ad tech has on the user experience. The report then looks at the resulting patterns of news and ad consumption, how consumers and market forces reacted against digital display advertising, and how the marketing industry responded by investing heavily in social platforms and search engines.

We also cover how ad tech creates incentive structures, which may shape how reporters and editors alike think about news production, and how advertising technologies risks to the relationship between publishers and readers, including news brand and reputation. That journalistic institutions, which have decreed a commitment to informing citizens in a free democracy, willingly participate in advertising’s technical stack—which has reportedly violated reader privacy—is a serious ethical quandary. Technology and society are embedded in and construct each other, and journalists need a grip on both to do the storytelling that our democracy demands.

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Finally, it’s worth noting that this report is a library case, meaning that its primary sources, rather than interviews, are general and industry press pieces, academic literature from the fields of marketing and journalism studies, marketing industry handbooks, and business-school cases.

Advertising technology is a rapidly developing field, so we caution that material details may be subject to change. The political and philosophical lessons, however, will remain salient.

Key findings:

  • Advertising was fundamental to the development of the modern newspaper and objective reporting. Today’s advertising messages, delivered via an interconnected system of software programs, data servers, marketing agencies, and data markets, still support most news production yet are understudied in professional journalism training.
  • News publishers’ dependence on ad tech facilitates the harvesting and movement of reader data through opaque systems, which may threaten readers’ trust in news.
  • Ad tech and its metrics have been found to alter the internal production of news, which may be at odds with classic journalistic commitments to objective coverage.
  • The hyperefficient market for programmatic display ads has driven down their prices, reducing revenue for publishers.
  • Ad tech is plagued with fraud in the form of bot viewing, causing many marketers to shift their ad spending to social media and search, further reducing revenue for publisher sites.
  • Ad tech’s damaging effects on the user experience (distracting visuals, slow loading times, and expensive burden on users’ data plans) may drive readers (and the revenue derived from their attention) away from news websites and towards private apps and social-media platforms.
  • Social media’s relationship with news publishers represents an asymmetrical power dynamic and has been found to effect publishers attempting to reach audiences, especially local publishers.
  • Platforms’ control over the display of news items has pushed some publishers towards the use of influencers, which in turn may hasten the growth of service firms providing both tailored content and algorithmically produced websites to influencers. Platforms have begun to write policies against influencer distribution, but these may be tough to enforce.
  • Social media’s advertising mechanisms, specifically hyper-targeting, are prone to weaponization by malicious actors.
  • All journalists, from reporters to editors, need to keep informed about the changing markets for, and consumption of, news and information.
Elizabeth Anne Watkins is a PhD student in Communications at Columbia University and a contributing researcher at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism.