Web 25: News, Speech and Advertising

Late October will mark the 25th anniversary of advertising on the Web. Having been part of the team that ushered in those first primitive digital ads in 1994, I'll be using this space in the intervening weeks to explore the fulfillment, failure and future of the web's marketing and social promise. This week: News, Speech and Advertising.

It seems that we've been talking about the web's role in the demise of the news business from day one. As the familiar narrative goes, more consumer time, attention and news-viewing migrated away from printed newspapers and news magazines while simultaneously the three advertising pillars of print journalism - auto sales, classifieds and real estate - were reinvented by digital entrepreneurs. Through the lens of gauzy nostalgia, it's easy to see this as a two-character tragedy.

It's more accurate, however, to view it as a much more complex three-character drama. While the web was taking its first tentative steps as a commercial news and information medium in the fall of 1994, OJ Simpson's white Bronco had just been brought to a stop, Fox News was just about to be invented, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was being busily drafted and lobbied. The mid-90s was when the full-time media spectacle, the idea of news as entertainment and the end of rules preventing consolidated media ownership all converged.

Kind of makes you stop thinking of the web as the wrecking ball of newspapers and more as the savior of actual news.

This week's Drift is proudly underwritten by Permutive, the data management platform built for publishers. Permutive gives you visibility of your entire audience, allowing you to increase audience match rates, win more RFPs and grow your data-driven advertising revenue. Meet us at Seller Forum on October 23rd to learn more.

Two of the promises of digital technology and web publishing were the democratization of news gathering and the preservation of transparency. To a significant degree, these promises have been kept. But it's complicated.

It's legitimate to mourn the demise of so many print newspapers and the thinning of their staffs (and closing of bureaus) as they've moved to digital distribution. And we can also lament the devolution of cable news into a bottomless pit of rancorous talking heads stoking the partisan furnace. At the same time we can see a generation of young - and not-so-young journalists building their own identities and news credentials via blogs, Twitter, self-publishing and story updates no longer dependent on print deadlines. Somewhat ironically, those same correspondents are increasingly sought out to fill open hours on cable news programming, thereby amplifying the signal on what they write and report.

But is advertising revenue - what you and I do for a living - making a positive contribution to the present and future of news and speech? That's even more complicated. While brands are often willing to sponsor big, high-profile publishing projects along with news organizations, day-to-day media buyers are blacklisting news related content. In the name of brand safety, we're saying no to the climate change adjacency and yes to another cat video.

Advertisers aren't necessarily responsible for the direct support of journalism and free speech. But blanket avoidance of content that's so persistently important and present in the lives of the customer is a moral and strategic failure. Bringing brands and advertising budgets back into natural, healthy alignment with news and journalism is an unfinished job. Here's hoping our greatest brands step up and step in.