Fake news as cover

Alex Smith, my friend, writes: “I’m currently fascinated by the idea that all the hullabaloo over Fake News is really just a strategic revenge play of major media outlets vs Google for stealing all their ad revenue:”

“Here is a story about how JPMorgan Chase & Co. used to advertise on 400,000 websites every month, and now it only advertises on 5,000, and “the company is seeing little change in the cost of impressions or the visibility of its ads on the internet.” I hope that they don’t draw any broader lessons from the experiment: I bank at Chase and work in Manhattan, and I find it very convenient that there are 400,000 Chase ATMs within a block of me at all times. I would be sad if they cut that down to 5,000.

But this is also a fascinating media-business story. JPMorgan was doing programmatic ad buying, buying ad space on thousands of websites in bulk through advertising networks. That is a standard feature of life on the internet, and has led to the rise of huge internet companies, like Alphabet Inc., that run on advertising revenue. Of course there was a pre-internet advertising ecosystem where newspapers and television were much more central. If you wanted to advertise, you’d call up the New York Times and buy an ad, because that was where the ads were. Now the ads are everywhere, so the way you advertise is by sending an order to an ad network and getting filled with a few million impressions, somewhere out there on the internet.

But there is a lot of terrible stuff out there on the internet, and one thing that has happened in the last few weeks has been that reporters at newspapers have called up advertisers and said “hey do you see the terrible stuff that your ads are appearing next to?” And the advertisers have pulled the ads, which has been bad for business at Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube). The standard internet model of putting ads next to everything is under pressure, as advertisers are realizing that “everything,” on the internet, means mostly racist videos.

So what do you do, if you’re JPMorgan, and a New York Times reporter calls you up to tell you that your programmatic ads are appearing on a fake news site? You might cut back your programmatic buying, and buy advertising only on individual sites that serve up content that you trust. (“JPMorgan has limited its display ads to about 5,000 websites it has preapproved, said Kristin Lemkau, the bank’s chief marketing officer.”) That would be great for the newspaper business! Traditional news organizations, after all, put a lot of money and effort into making sure that their websites are free of fake news and racist rants. If there’s a backlash against the just-put-it-anywhere ethos of advertising on the internet, that will benefit traditional arbiters of truth and newsworthiness. It’s a nice revenge of traditional journalism against Google.”

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