Foglio's Field Notes

Leif Utne's random rants, musings and meditations

Issue Ads: New way to fund journalism, or a fool’s bargain?

with 6 comments

Last weekend at the Journalism that Matters-Pacific Northwest conference, Bart Preecs proposed an intriguing new business model for funding coverage of the Washington State legislature. He pointed out that issue advertising — those  is the only ad category that is growing right now. Last August, BusinessWeek blogger Jon Fine wrote:

For the foreseeable future, and for that matter probably forever, we are in a world where major legislative battles will be accompanied by major ad campaigns… Through mid-August, $436 million had been spent on issue-related ads this year.

That roiling font of cash is awfully enticing, especially in a down economy where the job category of “professional journalist” is beginning to look almost as anachronistic as “typesetter” or “bootblack.” According to Bart, $52 million was spent in 2009 on lobbying the Washington State government. Just one percent of that could fund a decent online journalistic operation, adding several full-time reporters to the state capitol press corps. To capture that revenue, Bart proposed creating a web-based directory listing all of the organizations that spend that money. Each directory page would include info about an organization and a summary of its legislative priorities and positions. It would also include links to other organizations opposing its positions on those issues. As in the Yellow Pages, the listed organizations could pay a premium to sponsor a large section of the page, which could include their own written statements on the issues, perhaps with links to their position papers, or banner or video ads about their positions.

I have a couple of concerns about this business model:

1. I’m not sure it’s viable. What is the incentive for a lobby group to spend money on a premium listing, especially on a directory page that includes links to their opponents, when they can already get their messages out unfiltered via existing TV, radio, print and online ad buys? Organizations like the Washington Hospital Association or the Washington Association of Realtors are generally more interested in drawing public attention to the issues as they frame them and often shy away from attention to themselves. That’s why there are so many “astroturf” (fake grassroots) front groups. This raises questions about who the intended users of this directory would be. The general public, or political insiders? For the general public, such a directory would be a great resource, bringing more transparency to the murky sausage-making that happens in Olympia. But those advertisers aren’t promoting transparency with their dollars. They’re trying to sway legislators’ votes, which too often means clouding the issues by rallying public opinion around hot buttons like “big government,” “cap-and-tax,” and “socialism!” If, however, the site is targeted at political insiders, maybe a subscription model, or a freemium service would be better.

2. Increasing reliance on issue-ad dollars to fund political journalism may be bad for political journalism (and for democracy). Lobby groups are boosting their ad spending for a reason. It gives them a platform to deliver their messages directly to the public, unfiltered by journalistic scrutiny. The vast (and growing) majority of that money is coming from well-heeled interests often pushing messages that are very harmful to the public and the planet. Consider, for example, the barrage of ads last year against Obama’s healthcare reform proposal, or the Employee Free Choice Act, or the campaigns greenwashing nuclear power, so-called “clean coal,” and companies like Exxon and BP.

Such ads make this progressive’s skin crawl. And the FCC can’t regulate them for truth the way the FDA regulates health claims or the FTC polices truth-in-advertising for consumer products. I fear that creating more real-estate for such messages will outweigh the public good from the journalism those ads help to underwrite.

I realize it may not sound like it, but I’m a staunch advocate of free speech, an actual card-carrying member of the ACLU. And I’m not naive enough to think I can just wish those ads away.

What we need is to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine for broadcast media. For online media like the lobbying directory Bart proposes, we need a code of ethics and some new practices around truth-in-advertising. I’d suggest:

  1. All advertising must be clearly marked as paid-for by the sponsor, for obvious reasons; and
  2. User comments should be enabled on all political ads. User comments would allow advertisers’ claims to be challenged in the same forum where they appear, and would engage the audience actively in the discussion/debate on the issues. Some online ad networks, including Federated Media, have tested ads that enable user comments. I would personally be impressed with advertisers who are willing to engage in a conversation with their audience in this way. But I have doubts about it’s attractiveness to most of the big money advertisers, which brings us right back to square one.

I commend Bart’s initiative. We are all desperately seeking new business models to fund the political journalism that is so vital to a functioning democracy, and drinking from the firehose of issue ad dollars is tempting. But unless we can come up with effective ways to safeguard against unethical ads and promote greater transparency, we may be making a fool’s bargain.

Written by leifutne

January 13, 2010 at 6:25 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Great post! My one concern about user comments is that inflammatory, wrong-headed and false issue ads are likely to instigate inflammatory, wrong-headed and false retaliatory comments from the “other” side. It’s not clear to me that a comment structure for such ads would really help clarify the issues, but add another opportunity to create division. That said, the structure itself, if implemented by journalists, might disincentivize the participation of advertisers as you suggest (which, imho, would be the best possible outcome – but still leaves the funding quandry.)

    Stacey Monk

    January 15, 2010 at 6:00 am

  2. Leif, let me take your points in reverse order.

    I think user comments are a critical part of the response to corporate advertising going forward. I don’t think anyone could compel corporate issue advertisers to enable a comment feature, certainly not after the Roberts Court took a chainsaw to restrictions on corporate advertising.

    My hope is that by performing the under-appreciated journalistic function of aggregating and curating information about special interest advertising that we might create some incentives for corporate advertisers to make their case in a more straightforward, interactive fashion.

    Regarding the Fairness Doctrine, my belief is that it was more effective at preventing discussion of controversial issues in the first place than it ever was at creating “fair, balanced, and equitable” treatment. But in any case, although I’m not an attorney, I have to belief yesterday’s court decision drove a stake through any hope of resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine for broadcasting or any other communication channel.

    So we come finally to whether or not any kind of forum or vehicle with a built-in response and comment mechanism would ever be made attractive enough to capture some of the money now flooding into direct mail, 30-second attack ads, push polling, fake grassroots, and other tools of corporate advocacy.

    I’m prepared to argue to corporate advertisers that in this inter-connected, overloaded information environment, even the most powerful corporate campaign can expect to be cross-linked, critiqued, parodied, or countered almost instantly and it would enhance the credibility of any corporate message for it to be presented in a setting where it could deal head on with opposing arguments.

    But that argument may not fly. It may not be possible to capture a portion of the flood of corporate advocacy to support traditional, independent journalism. But we’ll never know until we try . . . and I’ll keep you posted if any such experiment gets off the ground.

    Bart Preecs

    January 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm

  3. Thank you for the interesting post. I really like the idea of comment enabled posts. It feels inline with tools like reframe-it that enable comments anywhere. I can see how that can make things tricky. And what people can be afraid of. However, peer endorsement and evangelism seems like it has a greater influence on folks now, so for those willing to risk it and give attention to those comments, it seems useful.

    Who will pay? Well, who stands to benefit? It is us, as citizens, that benefit most from an intelligent and free press. How to make that work feels challenging to me, but in the end, it feels like the right way to go to get media that citizens can believe in.

    Jean Russell

    January 25, 2010 at 6:51 am

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