Why Brexit is a wake-up call for news media and adtech

Britain is a nation divided by the Brexit vote. James Diamond suggests society is looking at repercussions far worse than the effects of Britain leaving the European Union if we can’t find a way to continue providing for a news media.

As the beneficiaries of advertising spend, we should all be helping find a cure to prevent its demise.

I’m not close enough to the issues, or brave enough to declare one way or the other, as to whether the British people last week made a good choice or a bad one.

james diamond - md- integral ad science

Brexit is contentious and the UK is clearly divided, but the result and subsequent discontent is symptomatic of an issue we all face – the role of the media in society. Was there enough impartial information to guide a true assessment of the issue?

The British press has covered little other than the Brexit vote over recent weeks, most taking a firm stand on one side or the other. Tabloids like The Sun and The Express campaigned to leave, whilst The Times, The Guardian and the Financial Review steered a path towards ‘Remain’. The BBC was one of the few neutral sources – because it has to be, under the Royal Charter that defines its existence.

Despite the glut of media coverage, it seems many people wished they’d read more beforehand, evidenced by the fact that, in the hours that followed the Brexit win, Google searches within the UK for the term ‘What is the EU?’ increased fivefold.

If they had their time again, would people have researched more and sought out curated content that laid out both sides of the argument, using facts and reasoning rather than soundbites and fear-mongering?

As it stands the British public has a lot of media to choose from, with about 20 national newspapers, four major national TV networks, several pay TV providers and 600 radio stations.

stacked old newspapers pile of newspapers

But like everywhere, the media there faces challenges, particularly when trying to make money out of news coverage. Just as in Australia, journalists are being laid off and editorial opinions are filling newspaper columns and webpages.

The demise of news isn’t restricted to print. The ABC’s Media Watch alerted its audience to the ‘Perfect storm facing digital news’ some weeks back.

Alan Kohler spoke about how online publishers were seeing CPMs one-tenth of when he started his Business Spectator site in 2007. Host Paul Barry explained how, in the US, Facebook and Google “now suck up 75 cents of every new dollar going to digital”.

Google imageThe question posed was, how can news publishers continue to cover the expense of journalism when so much advertising is heading over to social media. Lachlan Brahe, vice president at Comscore, had a simplistic answer: “They should stop making general news”.

Whilst it’s easy for advertisers to follow the audience to social media, we have to wonder, as a society, about the consequences.

Social media does a great job of connecting us with people who share our values and experiences. It’s less effective perhaps at broadening our understanding of issues. Take Brexit, for example. I’ll bet the social streams of Brexit supporters were packed with the views of other Brexiteers, and vice versa.

The Internet is missing a massive opportunity, and the continuance of quality journalism is at the core.

In the past, your success was greatly influenced by the community you were born into. If Stephen Hawking was born into an under-privileged family in a third world country, he probably wouldn’t have overcome his health challenges to develop his theory of cosmology. It helped that he was born in Oxford and had a father who studied medicine while his mother studied philosophy, politics and economics.

Similarly, would Michael Jordan have become the greatest basketball player of all time if he was born in Australia? Would our sporting community have guided him towards AFL or cricket?

What’s inspiring about the internet is that digital communities are replacing geographic communities. Like-minded people can engage globally on common interests and values. Within those communities everyone has global reach and the capacity to influence others.

The genius of Stephen Hawking could well have shone through, wherever in the world he was. A young Michael Jordan might have shown his true potential through Youtube and won over talent scouts for the NBA.

vote leave brexit bus - image from twitterSadly, we’re seeing evidence that this global influence is really being used to self-perpetuate group think, often unchallenged by broader thinking or alternate opinions.

Being an idealist, I had always hoped that digital communities would connect people with different ideas, different ways of thinking and new ways of solving problems, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Instead, social media is seeing people connecting with mirror images of themselves.

General news reaches beyond the specific interests of individuals, to what’s important to the broader community. Most of these stories are relevant to everyone and we cannot allow them to be squeezed out of peoples’ information feeds in favour of more cat pics!

The big question is, how can it pay for itself? It’s expensive and doesn’t get as many hits as the accumulated mass of opinions and personal updates on Facebook. I don’t have an answer, except to suggest that some web pages do attract more attention than others.

We tend to treat a few seconds glancing at a friend’s photo with the same value as a news article that engages us at a far deeper level. Perhaps a clearer model of determining the depth of involvement is part of the solution.

In the meantime, if we continue to allow the destruction of the news media we’ll find there’s less to share. Just as, in the cold light of day, many Brexiteers supposedly regret their vote to leave the EU (Bregret), the ultimate demise of the news media could leave many – including the ad industry – asking, ‘How did we allow that to happen?’

For publishers to simply quit the game and see social media as the driving force for all advertising might help profits in the short term, but in the long term the industry loses the fuel that feeds so much other content, and society loses a counterbalancing influence that breeds diversity and understanding.

The ad industry needs to work with publishers to work on a model that will keep the news media front and centre. We can’t afford an ‘exit’ vote on this one.

James Diamond is managing director of Integral Ad Science


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