Why brands must invest in journalism before it’s too late

We’re heading into one of the most contentious elections in American history, which will drive unprecedented demand for news. From what I’m seeing, however, most advertisers are sitting on the sidelines for fear of getting swept up in the culture wars waging all around us—and not without reason.

Just this year, we’ve seen Target bullied into taking LGBTQ-friendly products off shelves, Anheuser Busch pulling a micro-marketing campaign with a trans influencer and Disney drawn into open warfare with a candidate for president of the United States.

If history is a guide, brands will attempt to weather the next two years like tortoises retreating into their shells—doubling down on policies that have starved the news business of advertising dollars. This has left Americans less informed, more easily made paranoid about government institutions intended to help them and more vulnerable to partisan misinformation than ever. 

We’re living in a world waging war on truth. And the press—charged with uncovering and disseminating facts vital to democracy—is having its legs cut out from under it by a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided concept called “brand safety.”

It’s a mistake—one we need to correct before it’s too late. I feel partly responsible for the unintended consequences of this because I helped create the discipline of “brand safety” when I ran the go-to-market strategy at a major bank starting nearly a decade ago.

The intent was to protect our media investments, our brands and ultimately our customers. But over time I’ve watched these noble intentions grow into a monster of near limitless scope that has accelerated the demise of the Fourth Estate—just when the American public needs it most.

Let me explain: Back in 2015, marketers, including me, had real concerns about placing large advertising budgets online at the risk of being associated with unsavory content, such as extremism, misinformation, abuse or—God forbid—ISIS beheading videos (yes, this happened). So, while our concerns were largely valid, the ideals of brand safety and suitability were ultimately taken in too many cases to extremes.

Probably the biggest victim of our good intent was quality news journalism. Rather than advertise to the valuable audience news content routinely delivers, we used increasingly ridiculous keyword blocking—in some cases thousands of words—or wholesale blocking of the entire news category. 

Ad buyers took the Nancy Reagan approach—just saying no to advertising in news with a spectacular lack of vision for the consequences.

As a result, many in the news business spent the next decade desperately chasing impressions by resorting to ever more provocative headlines, churning out increasingly partisan content and loading it as rhetorical ammunition into social networks. It confirmed existing beliefs, informed no one and left us all angrier or less informed than before.

Many local news institutions, some nearly a century old, disappeared altogether as funds dried up, leaving some communities without local resources to expose corruption and challenge gerrymandering. 

Failure of the Fourth Estate cannot be an option and yet advertisers’ reluctance to do their part is taking journalism in America to the brink—and democracy is suffering. In just the last few months, we’ve seen newsrooms such as Buzzfeed News shutter, others lay off workers and Vice Media seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Eighty percent of advertising dollars have left news in the 15-year period leading up to the pandemic, according to the Pew Research Center, resulting in half of all newsroom jobs vanishing. Today, an estimated 70 million Americans live in an area without a local news source, according to Northwestern University’s State of Local News 2022 report.

The pendulum has swung too far. The technology used to power “brand safety” was imprecise at best, resulting in a significant injury to the only profession called out in our Constitution for its vital and unique role in our democracy. Let’s hope it’s not irrevocable.

I am compelled to do what I can to right this wrong. Working as chief strategy officer of Ad Fontes Media, I now also have a bully pulpit to advocate for more enlightened thinking around advertising that reaches the best audiences in whatever channel they happen to be—and not cut out the news category because it’s too nuanced or complicated. And the technology exists today to do precisely that while still protecting brands from unsavory associations and cringeworthy adjacencies.

We must rise to the challenge of advertising in quality news, confident that it’s the right thing to do for our employees, our shareholders, our customers and our board members. We must do this in a way that minimizes the risks to our brand reputation, and with the confidence that we can grow our businesses and prove, once again, that doing good can be very good for business.

Marketers who understand their unique role in underwriting quality news journalism should relish this challenge and embrace this hard but essential work. By restoring investments in news, we can help an informed electorate make the best choices they can in our upcoming election and not be left vulnerable to agenda-laden misinformation peddlers that are tearing at the very fabric of our nation.

This is indeed a larger issue than marketing alone cannot solve. Like DE&I and sustainability before it, why shouldn’t supporting quality journalism be the next leaf in marketers’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) portfolios? The need is obvious; the benefits perhaps more so. ESG brings a different calculus, one that has a societal remit, not incremental profitability.