Industry Insight

Trust and Transparency Could Bring Ad Dollars Back to Local News


“The question for media at the moment is can we pivot to local engagement in time to take advantage of the collapse of scale?”

University of Missouri journalism professor Damon Kiesow, a former news executive with McClatchy and the Boston Globe, posed that question in January and it’s an opportunity that every local news publisher should explore.

After suffering from steep declines in local print advertising, and what ad tech and the big platforms have done to competition for digital advertising, local news publishers are in a position to benefit from the big guys’ overreach.

From Europe’s GDPR law to Facebook’s data-mining scandals, we are starting to see cracks in the system that has enabled a few big players to vacuum up almost all of the growth in digital advertising.

And what’s still barely talked about, but would be of high interest to local advertisers, is the pervasiveness of ad fraud and viewability issues. That CPM rate might be low, but if no actual human beings are seeing your message, it can be a costly mistake.

Knowing how manipulative bad actors were in utilizing Facebook data, consumers should be more distrustful than ever about advertisers’ messages.

And it’s amazing that advertisers have not rebelled en masse in the wake of report after report about ad fraud and viewability.

Local publishers’ message in the midst of this turmoil could start with “your advertising message will actually be seen by people who are potential customers.”

But to really make that promise, we need a significant rethinking of advertising delivery, format and engagement.

A Wall Street Journal obituary for ad agency legend Lester Wunderman, who died Jan. 9 at age 98, praised his work on the simple concept that advertising is more effective if it’s customized to and welcomed by the target due its relevance and quality: “Junk mail, he demonstrated, wasn’t junk if written and targeted well enough to nurture long-term customers.”

How much of our advertising is welcomed?

Banner ads aren’t effective enough, so we’ve designed flashing banners, floating banners, autoplay video, and popups that try to hide the little x that allows you to remove them. Desperate for cash, we accept advertising from sources that make wild claims about products that don’t deliver.

What if we sold on a scarcity model that was geared to a ratio that offered a better user experience for readers? Not only would it serve publishers’ goals to diversify from advertising by building digital subscription revenue from readers, it would increase potential engagement and effectiveness for advertisers.

And what if we enforced quality standards on the advertising we accept? Only accepting advertising designs and formats that fit the look and desired user experience and standards of your publication. Only accepting advertisements from companies and for products that we know and trust and can on some level vouch for.

One of the most effective emerging formats is podcast advertising in which the host of the podcast talks about their own personal use of the product. At a minimum, publishers could stop accepting ads that are clearly shady. But there’s potential in experimenting with advertising that’s actually formally vetted and vouched for by the publisher.

What if we started from scratch, with no year-over-year numbers to hit, no format tradition to cling to, and Lester Wunderman’s credo in mind? We might have local news websites where sponsored articles replace banner ads completely, where we stand by what’s being sold, and where readers tell us the information they most need or want to see from advertising partners.

There’s some opportunity alone for local publishers in what Kiesow describes as “the collapse of scale” with the simple direct sale of traditional banner ads on owned and operated sites. But transformational potential in innovating around the trust and transparency issues at the heart of that collapse.

Matt DeRienzo is vice president of news and digital content for Hearst's newspapers and websites in Connecticut. He has worked in journalism as a reporter, editor, publisher, corporate director of news for 25 years, including serving as the first full-time executive director of LION Publishers, a national nonprofit that supports the publishers of local independent online news organizations.


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