We support the aims of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and others who want to help ensure the survival of serious news reporting in the U.S., especially in newspapers. But the center's new study fails to address the key questions--and policy issues--connected to digital advertising and newspaper sites. Ironically, if they had asked their outside expert Prof. Joe Turow what questions they should ask, instead of only using him for a informational sidebar, they would have likely had to revise their methodology and analysis. Pew also failed to address the ethical and consumer protection questions intrinsic to digital advertising, further disserving the profession.
So here are several crucial points Pew needs to address.
1. Contemporary digital advertising is increasingly focused on "audience buying"--not sites. Individuals are bought and sold (and tracked and profiled) in real-time, via ad exchanges. In other words, who you are (your demographics, financial status, interests, etc) is more important than where you are online at any moment. Ad exchanges and retargeting technologies can identify you and buy a targeted ad when you, for example, leave a newspaper site and travel to DigitalDreck.com. Dreck charges far less for behavioral targeting, and its impact on a user can be just as effective (if not more) than when someone is on a news site. (To see what The New York Times and others do with behavioral and ad exchange type targeting, see: QuadrantOne, for example. QuadrantOne has worked with Admeld, now a Google property, and a leading data targeting type player.)
2. As Turow has written, digital marketing now labels individual users as either a "target" or "waste." In other words, loyal users of news sites may not be considered worth targeting at all (they skew too old, have limited financial prospects and narrow online purchasing behaviors, etc). If digital marketers see the non-top newspaper site users as "waste"--then little can be done to boost revenues.
3. Digital advertising views social connections as a very important variable when determining online ad buys. To the extent that newspaper site readers don't provide the array of connections to help influence others via social commerce, their prospects are dimmed significantly. Social media marketing has combined with behavioral targeting in the current influencer economy.
4. Financial service digital advertising is about generating leads, sales, and other direct responses (in addition to brand reputation). Newspaper sites aren't the best environment for what are many dubious (and deceptive) practices used by the online financial and lead generation industry.
5. Advertisers increasingly want to control and shape content online--influencing both the editorial and marketing message. We are back to the era of radio and early TV in terms of sponsor influence. Independent sites can be helpful, but face a tidalwave of digital ads that merge message with content.
6. Privacy of users are compromised when they are behaviorally targeted. This is a front-page policy debate around the world, and the study should have focused on the ethics and impact of such targeting (esp. when users/readers are targeted with financial, health, and political ads that use profile-based targeting).
What's required is a serious investigation of digital marketing practices, how news sites are potentially being discriminated, and what new federal safeguards and ad industry self-regulatory efforts are required. Pew and the news industry should be in the forefront of supporting consumer protection and privacy safeguards for digital targeting of users. Pew needs to revise its research and do a better job.