No More Mr Nice Guy -- Papers Fight Back As The Cookie Crumbles

I can still remember the day in the mid '90s when a group of us journalists at The Sunday Timeswere called to a large meeting room to see the paper's first website.

I seem to remember that an animated dog was due to bring its owner a copy of the paper. I don't think that idea lasted long, but what was clearly the achilles heel of the operation did. Access would be free and advertising would pay for the service.

I remember pressing a presenter on the point -- but the room was assured that advertisers would flock to line, at the time, News International's pockets with gold.

Fast forward twenty-plus years and The Telegraph is celebrating its site's 25th birthday today by taking down the paywall it realised it had to erect to make ends meet. The Times and The Sunday Timesis similarly protected by a subscription model. Advertising was not enough to keep the lights on. 

We also have the head of Newsworks, Tracy de Groose, lamenting this shift to relying on advertising -- rather than selling quality journalism -- which she has labelled a billion-pound mistake

As de Groose puts it, the newspapers have been reduced to selling their quality content in an open market that treats all articles as "an amorphous mass" where it is confused with "bullshitters" and "fakers." This, she says, has the effect of the word "content" being used far too widely, leaving advertisers unsure where their messages are being placed and whether they are truly being seen by a human being. 

While people in digital marketing may not agree with the entire argument she makes, there is little getting away from the fact that newspapers have done themselves a disservice, like many other publishers, relying far too much on third-party networks that require valuable data about their readers leak out.

If there has been one common rallying cry I have seen consistently throughout the past year, however, it is for publishers to take back first-party data control and sell more directly to advertisers. Thus, we're seeing national newspapers coming together to make their inventory under one roof, such as The Ozone Project, or 1XL for local papers. 

Underpinning this is a renewed belief among publishers that they do not have to allow data to leak. They can instead craft audience segments that advertisers are looking for and even share data direct with advertisers to create propensity models that can identify the site's best fit for the type of people a brand knows have the highest likelihood to convert. 

GDPR plays a huge role here. From conversations I'm having, it appears that newspapers are turning round and saying GDPR means they have to guard user information far more closely, forming the type of walled garden Facebook has made its many billions from. At the same time we have third=party cookies crumbling as blocking tracking moves to browser level on desktop and mobile traffic shifts to device IDs.

As de Groose pointed out, there is also the very real issue of fake news which means, according to its research, more than two in three people say they trust their favoured news brand over other titles and, in general, trust in known newspapers has increased to the point where they are now twice as trusted much as social media, according to Edelman research. 

This is all playing into the hands of publishers and backing up the renewed belief they are stronger when they sell quality content in a more direct way using first party data which isn't leaked out in the digital marketing ecosystem quite as freely as before.

So, de Groose probably found a lot of people agreeing with her words as the Society of Editors conference this week. This year, though, it's safe to say the publishers are doing something about it.

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