Publishers of every size, from the smallest local newspaper to the most robust media conglomerate, have spent recent years tinkering with paywalls, adjusting programmatic approaches, and even diversifying revenue streams with events and e-commerce. And yet—despite surging reader interest in the news—a stable approach to monetization has yet to materialize.
Recently, at Admonsters’ 2023 PubForum in New Orleans, EX.CO hosted a panel designed to get to the bottom of this state of affairs and help publishers figure out how to navigate it. The event—moderated by EX.CO's General Manager, The Americas Johanna Bergqvist, and featuring leaders from The Daily Mail's MailOnline and News Corp, in addition to EX.CO CEO Tom Pachys—had much to say on a number of urgent publisher concerns, including the problem of brand-safe blocklists and the different standards applied to publishers compared to social media companies.
Read on for four key takeaways about the state of publisher monetization and how publishers can best position themselves to get ahead.
The last month has seen a spike in engagement—but it's not translating into ad dollars
The ongoing Israel/Hamas war has generated a surge in news readership not seen since 2020, when COVID, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the 2020 election kept millions of readers glued to news homepages. According to Jeremy Gan, SVP of Revenue Operations & Strategy at MailOnline, metrics have been up across the board for the media outlet: since the start of the war, readers have spent 20% more time on-site and have read 10% more pages per session. And this is happening not just on the Daily Mail's app—where above-average engagement is expected—but on the regular website, too.
And yet—dismayingly—publishers are struggling to capitalize on this influx of attention. As David Rowley, VP of Revenue Technology at News Corp, pointed out, this isn't necessarily a new trend: he cited a PEW Research study which showed an 80% decline in news monetization from 2006 to 2020. Many reasons can be cited for this decline, but among the most significant—and, per the panelists, potentially reversible—is the increasingly overcautious approach many brands are taking to brand safety. "Key blue chip brands are pulling back," Rowley said. "They don't want to run against this content."
Troublingly, this does not seem to have been a particularly considered process—from almost the moment the war began, brands and ad platforms began rerouting ad spend away from news. "We immediately saw the drop-off," said Gan.
Different standards apply to social media companies
According to Pachys, this overcautious approach on the part of brands has gone hand in hand with an increased desire for transparency—brands and advertising platforms want to know everything about where and how an ad might be deployed on the page.
Ironically, these demands are coming at a time when the vast majority of digital advertising budgets are being lavished on social media platforms—platforms which 1) offer significantly less in the way of transparency than the average publisher while 2) offering much, much less in the way of brand safety guarantees (as anyone who's spent five minutes on X lately can attest to).
These different standards have real effects on newsrooms—if publishers can’t afford to send reporters into the field, there won’t be any news in the first place.
Want to get off a blocklist? Don't be afraid to push.
Keyword and domain blocklists can feel capricious, even punitive. But the response of publishers should not simply be to cross their fingers and hope for a given term’s removal. As the panelists made clear, the only way publishers are going to get anywhere is by proactively lobbying for their interests.
"Being an agitator is probably the best thing we can do," said Rowley. "Being loud, being vocal. Pushing your tech partners. Making sure your voices are heard in order to change their roadmap around how they interact with brands." Stasis is a fact of life in many of these organizations; without active intervention, a keyword or domain may end up locked away on a blocklist for months or even years.
This doesn't need to be—in fact, almost certainly shouldn't be—an antagonistic process. According to Gan, "bless them with kindness" is the most sensible approach here. Open dialogue, a willingness to engage in push-and-pull—approaches like these are likely to yield the best results.
The halo effect is real—and publishers need to drive that fact home to brands
For many on the brand side, the worst-case-scenario is, as one audience questioner put it during the Q&A session, the "screenshot from hell"—a brand's content running alongside a particularly upsetting or disturbing bit of news. Unquestionably, this does sometimes happen. But most of the time, blocklists are simply designed to avoid brand content running alongside anything even marginally upsetting—which in theory would eliminate roughly 99.9% of global news content from advertising consideration.
What's particularly bothersome about this, as multiple panelists pointed out, is that, fundamentally, audiences don't care about this stuff. As studies have shown, trusted news services operate with a "halo effect"—any negative associations dredged up by this or that bit of news are effectively neutralized by the consumer's overall positive impression of the news organization.
Ultimately, then—as Pachys pointed out—these brand safety decisions are being made not on behalf of consumers but on behalf of advertisers, who live in perpetual fear of being chastised for inadvertently causing a "screenshot from hell" situation. It’s an approach that serves neither consumers nor publishers.