The digital ad model is the anchor around news neck

In the news business, speed, not content, is the king. Each additional second your site needs to load can cost you up to 20% of the visitors. Yes, it includes bots and other non-real-audience processes, but loading fast is a game-winner (or loser if you have some old, proprietary, hell-expensive content management system). However, even if this is a life-or-death issue for a publication, zero significant developments came from the news industry. Now there are technical solutions available for that, all developed by technology companies(React, Angular) or communities (Vue), but the evolution paralysis remains even if old, ignored problems like the ad models are still very alive.

By the mid-1990s, media companies were flying high. Revenues were growing madly, new technologies were already slashing costs and making staff redundant, and the media corporations could determine the political winners and losers. However, thanks to a lack of vision, nearly none tried hard to prepare for the digitalisation. They forgot that you stock on spring to survive through the winter, even if anyone could tell that the winter was coming. So it arrived and with it, the dismantling of the functional democratic societies informational systems gave space for the rising populism that is historically cyclical. News execs kept getting their growth bonus slices yearly and very, very few chose to sacrifice enticing quarterly revenues to preserve the business in the long term.

The news industry is already living a second digital nightmare. Predominant digital ad systems were not conceived for the business models of newspapers and magazines, but massive-scale use and data-gathering platforms. User experience is poor even among top news brands like BBC or Italian RCS media group. And in some cases, “poor” is an understatement. Average users click on content pieces enough daily to see around 10,000 advertisements, and there are many more that are only triggered, but no human being sees them. In 2020, there are still publishers that, absolutely lost and desperate, soak more and more ads on each page, believing that it would bring them more money. A typical case of denial. People think that the hungry wolf will leave the room if everyone acts like it was not there.

Almost a decade ago, a ComScore executive published a paper showing that that less is more and that creating an economy of scarcity (i.e. place less adds, only relevant ones and charge only by ads visualised by human eyeballs). The reasoning was that it would significantly improve UX, increase revenues and create a fairer system. His alert went unheard because such a system would only work if adopted by everyone.

The last five years saw a dramatic improvement in digital content platforms. They became easier to use, immensely faster and de facto cross-platforms. The news industry had very little to do with that. The Single-Page-Application frameworks that load content absurdly fast were created by tech giants like Google (Angular) and React (Facebook). VueJS, an unsung independent hero, is even kept by a community. But again, they’re not framed for news companies business models, whose revenues are still in jeopardy.  The directness and simplicity of SPA’s is fantastic in terms of performance, but they are not a good match to the way how media companies make money. 

Resetting the advertisement model is critical for the industry, and pretty much for everyone else. Advertisers want to pay for the real stuff, not non-sensical powerpoints created to show upward curves that look like under-spell serpents. Users also deserve to consume content properly, even if not paying for it, as well as media professionals have to be paid their share too.

Combine these needs is not sci-fi. There are changes needed, though. Publishers need to have tools to sell user data for advertisers better. Users that prefer not to become subscribers need to agree on what’s going to be done with the data they produce. De facto monopolists like Google and Facebook need to (and will) be forced to share part of their insane revenues with the users that made them possible anyway. And no, seeing fake pictures of an alien co-worker pretending he is always happy is not enough. The state will need to frame these companies as it has done with oil, tobacco and even technology.

Modern frameworks can create fantastic news apps, but the architecture of these systems need to be in sync. Advertisers, users, ad platforms, publishers, state and society, won’t go anywhere alone. Tech giants shareholders aside, everyone else needs to work a way to re-shape the industry. Beautiful digital gimmicks that do not pay themselves and are created only to project the image of a successful digital company are useless. The society we live in is cracking; none needs to remember that. Keeping stratospheric quarterly revenue announcements in news companies is no longer priorities, because this time is long gone. Working closely to technology and the developers community could be a way back into the game (and a good way to better serve the society too). So, given that the 90’s won’t come back, why not doing it?

About the author

My name is Cassiano and I am a Full-Stack Developer. Stories rule our life, even - or especially - when we don't realize it. When I am working, I tell them with code. Here, I tell them in text.