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Summit Snapshot 19:DC: How Vital Ad Financing is to a Robust Fourth Estate – Brand Safety and a Future for News Gathering & Reporting

July 25, 2019
Big Idea: Brand aversion to controversy in the digital realm has had the effect of steering ads away from hard news content – even as consumer attention is drawn to such content. The ramifications – on journalism and beyond – is alarming.

Jennifer Cobb, Director of United for News, a coalition founded by Internews in collaboration with the World Economic Forum, spoke at the 2019 Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) Summit.

A New Initiative to Restore News Funding – Especially at the Local Level

“We are now in the 10th year of decline in freedom of press around the world, and while that’d deeply concerning in its own right, it’s also deeply concerning in that it’s tied up with a 10-year decline in democracy around the world,” said Jennifer Cobb, executive director, United for News, which is a new non-profit initiative to build an online programmatic platform for funding of trustworthy global, national, regional and local news organizations. “The space for free expression and the space for free democracy is closing tightly.”

“There are three reasons for that. The first has to do with the disinformation space… the rise of disinformation around the world and fake news,” she said. “The second is the incredible drop in trust in media around the world – the latest Edelman Trust Barometer says the media is the least trusted institution around the world. And the third reason is because of the disintegration of the business model. The business model for investigative journalism, for quality and reputable news, has really just fallen away. It’s a global issue. If you start to really pick at them, each of these is all related to each other.”

“Where it’s really been devastating, and is truly an existential crisis, is at the level of local and community media around the world,” she reported. “This is absolutely just being decimated.”

How ‘News Deserts’ Undermine Democracies

“In the U.S., which is the largest healthiest media market in the world, one in three people now live in what’s called a news desert – which is a place that has no local news anymore… And this is devastating for democracy and social cohesion,” Cobb said.

Cobb identified five impacts of news deserts:

  1. As soon as you lose local news, you lose oversight… Corruption rises very quickly.
  2. Civic engagement starts to drop... When you lose local news, voting rights drop. People join civic organizations is smaller numbers. People run for office less frequently. So you’re really seeing this dissolution and fragmentation at the bedrock level of democracy.
  3. Disaffection rises. So when people don’t feel that their voices are heard, that they’re included in the conversation, that they’re recognized for their own local and community issues, they get angry. They start to feel alienated. We are seeing this around the world – in populist and nationalist movements.
  4. Polarization. When you lose your local news – local news tends to be more balanced and has to serve the needs of the whole community – so when you lose that, and you turn to only national sources as your primary sources of news, even the very best journalism tends to have on its opinion pages voices that have a political point of view, and people tend to sort themselves into groups. This is bad for social cohesion – there’s not this shared set of facts at the community level.
  5. And finally, trust. “At Internews where I work – there’s long been a saying, ‘People don’t trust the media, they trust their media.’ If you trust your local media, there’s externalities that emerge that people start to trust their institutions, they start to trust each other, and they trust national news organizations more broadly,” Cobb said. “Trust really starts at the grassroots and builds up from there.”

“When we first formed [with World Economic Forum] 18 months ago,” Cobb said, “we decided to gather all points of view so we could come together and do something practical and pragmatic on this issue. So we went out and invited brands, ad tech companies, advertising agencies, global and local media, NGOs and policymakers, into our coalition, which is what United for News is. And over the last year, we’ve been looking to design such a solution.

Coming Soon to the U.S. Marketplace – A New Programmatic Platform for Trusted News?

“What we’ve come up with is leveraging the programmatic infrastructure – and kind of nudge it into a new place,” Cobb said, noting that the first test marketplaces will be in South Africa, the Philippines and Canada – and possibly somewhere in Europe. “Our intention is to build a series of trusted marketplaces, in markets around the world, which contain inventory that have been vetted and validated by United for News as coming from reputable media. And that inventory will be drawn from national organizations, regional organizations, but very particularly, our mission is to go down into that long tail, and harvest that reputable inventory from local and community media, and bring it up into a trusted marketplace and make it really easy for global brands – and regional and national brands – and just spend against that inventory.”

“So the question you have to answer is how do we define reputable news?” Cobb said. “That’s a big question. The most important work we’ve done with our stakeholder community is to develop a set of criteria that we can use in this marketplace. And it’s really unique in this space, and because it’s a blend of advertising best practices, and journalism best practices. So, we are absolutely committed to brand safety and fraud prevention on the advertising side, and we are also committed to making sure that we have media inventory that comes from places that are producing original content, that are using good sourcing practices, that have good corrections policies, etc. …We are an independent, nonprofit, mission-driven organization, and I think that’s unique as an intermediary in the ad tech world at the moment.”

Blog readers may learn more of United for News on the Digital Advertising Alliance YouTube channel. Watch her here.