Me­dia Mat­ters Stephen Glover

Free on­line news­pa­pers rely on ads to sur­vive. But peo­ple are find­ing ways to cir­cum­vent them – and the re­sults could be dis­as­trous

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - stephen glover

One of the more an­noy­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of mod­ern life is be­ing as­saulted by noisy ad­ver­tise­ments on­line. You may be qui­etly read­ing an ar­ti­cle on a news­pa­per web­site, and all of a sud­den an ag­gres­sive male voice starts bel­low­ing, in­struct­ing you in not very po­lite terms to buy his wares, and some­times re­fus­ing to let you read on un­til he has had his say. Short of smash­ing your com­puter screen, you do ev­ery­thing you can to shut this pre­sump­tu­ous in­truder up.

That, at any rate, is my ex­pe­ri­ence. On­line ad­ver­tise­ments are be­com­ing a pain. So when I re­cently read that the cul­ture sec­re­tary, John Whit­ting­dale, had de­scribed so-called ad­block­ing as a ‘mod­ern-day pro­tec­tion racket’ I scratched my head in won­der­ment. If the pur­vey­ors of ad­block­ing are gang­sters, pre­sum­ably the peo­ple who use ad­block­ing soft­ware – read­ily ob­tain­able on­line with the flick of a mouse – are also crim­i­nals.

Is this fair? Don’t many of us prac­tise ad­block­ing with­out feel­ing we de­serve to be locked up? When­ever I record a pro­gramme on my Sky Box, I fast-for­ward any ad­ver­tise­ments when I come to watch it. I also ad­mit that I tend to shake out the in­serts to be found in many mag­a­zines into the wastepa­per bas­ket. No doubt many read­ers pore over them, just as some peo­ple will gladly watch the ads on pro­grammes they have recorded. It’s a mat­ter of choice. Ad­ver­tis­ers re­alise that not ev­ery insert is read re­li­giously, and not ev­ery tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial im­bibed.

How­ever ir­ri­tat­ing many on­line ad­ver­tise­ments may be, the prac­tice of block­ing them is grow­ing so fast that it could threaten the liveli­hood of news­pa­per web­sites. Ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates, al­most a quar­ter of web-users now have soft­ware that ef­fort­lessly va­por­ises all ad­ver­tise­ments. The young are more likely to do so than the old, no doubt be­cause they spend so many hours on­line and en­counter more ads. They are also prob­a­bly more adept at find­ing the soft­ware to deal with them. In any event, on­line pub­lish­ers are be­com­ing alarmed, and one can see their point.

News­pa­pers that don’t charge on­line have no source of in­come other than ad­ver­tis­ing. Read­ers who block ads are there­fore get­ting some­thing – the jour­nal­ism they are read­ing, which costs money – with­out the pro­ducer re­ceiv­ing any­thing by way of re­turn. If ad­block­ing be­came ubiq­ui­tous, per­haps not a very likely out­come, these news­pa­per web­sites would be driven out of busi­ness, which would be bad for so­ci­ety and democ­racy and all the rest of it.

Even with­out ad­block­ing, things are not look­ing very rosy for on­line pub­lish­ers. Look, for ex­am­ple, at the

Guardian. It is the sec­ond or third most widely read on­line news­pa­per in the world – a magnificent achieve­ment. But its global on­line rev­enues of just over £80 mil­lion a year are sig­nif­i­cantly less than the rev­enues of its print ver­sion, which sells only 165,000 copies a day, about a third of its cir­cu­la­tion of thirty years ago. Mail On­line, the big­gest on­line news­pa­per in the world, had rev­enues of £73 mil­lion last year in com­par­i­son with the £499 mil­lion gen­er­ated by the printed

Daily Mail and Mail on Sun­day. Un­doubted on­line suc­cesses though they are, Mail On­line and the Guardian are strug­gling to com­pete with the huge beasts of the in­ter­net such as Google and Face­book, which suck ad­ver­tis­ing to­wards them­selves like gi­ant vac­uum clean­ers. In 2015, Google’s global ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enues were £35 bil­lion in com­par­i­son with the

Guardian’s measly £80 mil­lion. And now on­line pub­lish­ers have ad­block­ing to add to their list of woes. They have been pump­ing Mr Whit­ting­dale up into a state of high in­dig­na­tion, and he has agreed to set up a round ta­ble to dis­cuss the is­sue. But what could it do? The cul­ture sec­re­tary isn’t go­ing to make ad­block­ing il­le­gal. News­pa­pers have de­vel­oped soft­ware that en­ables them to com­mu­ni­cate with the peo­ple who have blocked their ads, so that they can plead with them to de­sist. That hardly sounds like a per­fect so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.

A bet­ter ap­proach would be to make on­line ad­ver­tise­ments shorter and less in­tru­sive – and more al­lur­ing. Af­ter all, most of us do not nor­mally ob­ject to ad­ver­tise­ments in news­pa­pers or mag­a­zines. We may some­times even rather en­joy read­ing them. Be­cause the web gives ad­ver­tis­ers the power to col­lar us, some of them have for­got­ten the adage that ad­ver­tis­ing should not be co­er­cive. They are like bores in a pub who in­sist on shout­ing at you, and won’t let you get a word in edge­ways. Pub­lish­ers should try to ed­u­cate ad­ver­tis­ers into ac­cept­ing that a gen­tler, less hec­tor­ing tone is likely to be more ef­fec­tive.

I fear I am in­creas­ingly pes­simistic about the abil­ity of free on­line news­pa­pers to make enough money to sup­port proper jour­nal­ism. That is why I trem­ble a lit­tle for the In­de­pen­dent, whose only fu­ture is now on­line. If we spurn its ads, we’ll only make its life more dif­fi­cult. But un­less ad­ver­tise­ments on web­sites be­come less noisy and bul­ly­ing, more and more of us will re­sort to block­ing them.

‘Twit­ter Twit­ter, like a mouse, who is twit­ter­ing out­side my house?’

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