Big topic, but I’ve been musing this for a while.

Regular readers of my blog will know me as a big supporter of advertising. Some years I’ve spent six figure sums on advertising. Ouch. Advertising works, and I won’t bore you trying to prove that, when there are great books out here that can do this, scientifically with hard evidence. The problem with advertising is not that it doesn’t work, but that people are trying to kill it off, without (as usual) thinking about the long term consequences of their actions. This is  a general problem with society, we try to ‘fix’ X with no thought to the secondary or tertiary effects. Its human nature. I even made a game that models such effects which helps explain why politics often gets this wrong.

Ad-blocking is becoming more and more common, and this presents a problem not just fort advertisers (its a problem they can actually solve), but for consumers and society as well. I’d argue its why Donald Trump is president, and why nothing has been done about climate change. Seems a stretch? let me try to persuade you.

Firstly let me write in defence of people who block ads. Generally I do not block ads, I do not have ad block installed on my PC. I have a different plug-in called ghostery. Ghostery is there to identify and optionally block ‘tracking’ beacons and cookies that are often found on sites where you would not expect them. Visiting a site that shows me ad banners is just fine with me, but notifying dozens of different companies about every site visit I make is…not ok. I am prepared to have a Volkswagen advert in my peripheral vision while I read the news. I see that as a (more than) fair trade. II do not see the notification of facebook, google,twitter & a dozen companies I’ve never heard of that I am reading that same article to be a fair trade.

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Some sites I visit, with a simple 4 or 5 paragraph article, have 20+ trackers identified by ghostery. In the real world, you could imagine this as me reading a newspaper with 20+ anonymous businesspeople stood behind me peering over my shoulder and making notes of who I am and what I’m reading into little notebooks. Are you happy living your life like that? I sure as hell am not.

So people rebel against this (and who can blame them) and as a result they install ghostery or adblock, and continue to surf the web. The ads have magically disappeared, and all is good with the world. Somehow the online content is still there, but we never care how it works, because we just assume we can free-ride of all the dumb schmucks who have not installed ad blocker yet. The problem is…the scales are tipping so that too many of us are blocking, and not enough of us are viewing. The end point of this trajectory is that the people producing the online content are not earning anything from ads. What happens next?

The BEST outcome, and it may seem perverse but the very BEST outcome is that all of those sites go bankrupt and close down. That the very best thing for society that can happen. Sounds weird? well again, do not focus on the immediate consequences, think about the secondary and tertiary effects. Someone who runs an online news site, or games review site already has staff, maybe premises, they have web hosting, they have technical skills…are they going to give up when ad revenue dries up? Not without a fight, which means (after perhaps a period of fighting a losing battle with ad-block-blockers and then begging…) they will take money from wherever they can get it.

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This used to be an indie games review site. You probably have not heard of it, it didn’t do well. Getting attention is hard. The thing is, if you read any of the articles on there, you probably do not notice any major difference between it and any other games website. There are no ads…but then you assume they are just getting blocked right? In fact no. There were never any ads on the site. I own it. I set it up to promote indie games, and hired a journalist to write for the site for a while. I did it because I saw a very long term business case for ME to do this. The more people who played indie games, and heard about indie games, the better the prospects for the industry I was in. It also meant more indie game devs knew who I was, just as I was going into publishing. It als meant more ‘independent’ coverage of indie games that prevented the whole industry becoming steam plus rock paper shotgun. This was a strategic business move by me. BTW I am a game developer. Are you happy with me owning a games news site?

Luckily I’m a nice guy, I’m not out to screw people over, and even if I was, the journalist who worked for me is a very honest nice guy and has a lot of integrity. However… it would have been easy to hire someone a LOT less scrupulous for the same money on the understanding that every fourth article would be about MY games and incidentally how awesome and underrated they are. Believe me…its not difficult to find wannabe journalists looking for actual paid work.

The frightening thing is…as a reader, you have no idea. You read something online and you just assume its free. is it unbiased? Is it actually paid content? Did the journalist get flown to Barbados to review the game? When journalists cannot earn any money from ads, a 3 night stay in a five star hotel in Barbados to review Grand theft Auto sounds irresistable. The real killer is that its probably CHEAPER than conventional advertising, and it comes across as more ‘honest’. Oh the irony.

So circling back to Trump, Climate change and fake news… If you haven’t seen my point yet, here it is in four words.

Someone is always paying.

In the past, you knew who. it was Volkswagen running a banner ad. it annoyed you, but you knew who it was. Very WORST case, if you were reading a  review of the new VW Golf and you saw the ad, you probably thought ‘hmmmmm’ and maybe engaged some cynicism about the articles impartiality. Thats good, that’s how it should work. The problem now is that the ad has disappeared, but that SAME money will be spent, and it will make its way to the guy writing the article somehow, you just cant see it, and you probably don’t even think about it.

We suffer a lot from ‘fake news’ lately, which has been blamed/credited with Donald Trumps election win. I recognize the phenomena from climate change, where there has been a history of ‘fake news’ claiming that wind turbines don’t work, that solar panels never pay back their costs, that climate change is a Chinese hoax…and other such bullshit. The problem is the same: ‘News; being written not because it is actual news, or even true, but because the person paying for the news has an agenda, normally one that furthers their business interests (in this case big oil).

Note the phrase: “The person paying for the news”

That used to be you. It used to be me. We used to pay through ads, and that got annoying and now we just block them and don’t think about it. These days we pay in other ways, maybe through surrendering our personal information to Facebook (who doubtless then sell it), or maybe we pay with our votes. Yup, we pay with our opinions and our freedom of thought. We stopped paying journalists years ago, and never gave a damn about them, which means that we can now hire journalists for dirt cheap. You got a marketing budget of $50k? that will write a LOT of articles, believe me. You have a marketing budget for your oil company of $1billion? How much for the US election campaign?

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Journalism is cheap, and we made it so.

So how the hell do we fix this? Well its actually quite simple, in the way that all solutions people do not want to hear (use less fuel, fly less, eat less beef to help with climate change) are simple. The problem is they require you to think long term and behave in a way that seems irrational in the very short term.

PAY for journalism.

You can subscribe to a lot of news sites. this gets rid of the ads. If you are a gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun has a supporter program. Online versions of UK print newspapers like the Guardian and Times have subscriptions you can pay to. The economist is a great weekly news magazine you can subscribe to online. I honestly believe that paywalls will become MORE common, not less. Everyone jeered at the ‘evil’ times paywall. Its still there. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you are a ‘mug’ or ‘gullible’ to pay for something like this. I hope I have established in this article that you are ALREADY paying for it, you just don’t see the connection.

And to round off, here I am, a highly skilled and very experienced software developer and business owner typing this article on a VERY cold Wednesday morning instead of coding my next game. How am I doing this? Why do I have this blog? What is my motivation? Well clearly its a bit of personal PR and branding. If you read all this stuff, now and then i have a post thats about my latest game and its trailer. Thats how I am getting paid for this. I don’t *deny* it, but then I don’t bang on about the link either.

Was this article really *free* for you? Have a think about it, and if it concerns you that this was motivated by me wanting to sell you stuff, you can formalize the arrangement by paying what you want for the Humble Tycoon Bundle, which is on sale now and includes Big Pharma and Democracy 3.

hey, at least I haven’t stuck any ad-tracking cookies on here right?

 

 

 

10 Responses to “Free/Fake News, Games Journalism & the future of online.”

  1. Cygon says:

    I think blocking ads not to hide the problem but to actually damage the ad industry and the concept of ads itself is a viable point of view, too.

    While I agree that businesses need a way to make themselves known to potential customers, I’d say the entire ad concept is running way out of control.

    Just look at what this has lead to:

    – Text generators fill the internet with garbage information just to catch people searching for actual information so a few ads get loaded
    – Amateur writers are hired in large numbers to write poor articles about things they neither understand nor care about just to generate text that will catch even more people who were looking for actual information
    – Professional writers are hired to created “sponsored posts” (which are ads themselves) that try their very best to look like genuine information but are actually designed just to make people buy product X
    – Dishonest writers publish completely made up stuff in the hope that it spreads and generates them large numbers of ad impressions
    – Mainstream journalism’s main concern now is getting readers by any means – catchy headlines, maximizing emotional triggers, “bad news” — old newspapers had their “page 1” but were also sold by their reputation. Now readers are consuming individual articles, so fact-checking or covering non-inflammatory topics is a direct loss of time that could be used to publish more money-making articles.

    – Companies try to give you products “for free”, but they’re actually being paid through higher prices on the products that are being advertised. The thought alone: consumers pay for the ads shown to them.
    – When you buy an advertised article, a part of the price you pay is invested in ads. Some ads reach actual consumers (and may event result in a conversion), but a good portion of that money goes to support the fake information sites clogging the internet. Again: consumers paying to have the internet filled with crap and misleading information.

    I think without ads in their current form, the internet would be a better place. There would be no incentive to publish garbage and misinformation and inflammatory news.

    On the downside, of course, an entire business model would die, many sites would perish. Businesses would have to rely on portals to be discoverable and said portals would have to take money from said businesses, leading to bias again (though now portals have to depend on their good name more than on catching visitors).

    • Ben Sizer says:

      I agree with much of this. I’m not against all advertising as a concept – products need to reach their audiences somehow – but adverts being the sole or primary source of income for sites or media not only presents various conflicts of interest but also hides the true costs from the consumer. New entrants to the market can’t easily compete when users are conditioned to think everything should be ‘free’ (i.e. ad-subsidised), which is why everyone else is taking investor money in the early stages, knowing it’ll come back to bite them later (but that’s a problem for tomorrow).

      It’s interesting that while ad-blockers are certainly harming revenue among reputable sites, the fake-news sites still apparently made enough money from ads to bring in tens of thousands of dollars a month. It seems like it wasn’t so much Trump fans trying to swing the election, just people who spotted a business opportunity by telling his voters what they wanted to hear and being paid by Google and Facebook to do so.

      Under the current system we get the worst of both worlds – enough advertising revenue to sustain disreputable sites and to make it hard to compete with popular ad-driven services, but not enough to free even reputable journalists from the pressure to chase clicks.

  2. cyan says:

    I rather agree with the content of the article.
    But the irony is that the final advise (pay for “more honest” journalism) isn’t incompatible with using ad-blockers.

    In fact, I would be perfectly fine paying “honest” journalism, as I used to do when I paid for paper subscription.
    My problem is, there is zero guarantee that it will be enough.
    Some journals have already demonstrated that even you pay for subscription, you will _still_ be tracked. Heck, one could argue that the payment itself makes it even easier to target the subscriber as a more detailed profile.
    This comes on top of continuing to receive ads in spite of paying subscription, some of them being “nice”, some of them being highly intrusive, and some of them being just channel to deliver ransomware and other viruses.

    There is no way to blindtrust any actor. Even those who deserve our trust for a moment get grabbed for money and the policy gets sneakily changed in the back of customers.

    Against all those abuses, ad-blockers and track-hunters are a first line of defence. Incomplete, but reasonably effective.

    It doesn’t prevent from paying for good journalism.

    In fact, I would argue that a content I directly pay for should not even be concerned by these defences, as it should not trigger them.

    Still waiting for website where the blocker counts stay to zero…

  3. Nickelby says:

    Ads are fine. It’s the presentation that’s driving the war. I like ads. They convey information, pique your interest and get you to buy. Banners and sidebars are fine. But suddenly a pop-up appeared on the horizon, followed soon by other invasive ad-monsters and the web viewing experience slowed to a crawl. Then came the ad blockers and the www was fun to use again. It was useful to use again.

    I do use an ad blocker. They’re winning the anti-ad war so far as I can tell. I see pleas for mercy (white list us) from various sites. Maybe they should get a clue about why ad blockers are so popular and and not use the type of ads that caused the invention of ad-blockers.

  4. Captain Awesome says:

    The worst fake news are those lists of pictures. You have to click through 30 pages of pictures before you get to the one they used as click-bait. And that’s assuming the click-bait was even real.

    But yes, the current state of the news media is pretty bad. They never fact check, they always quote people on twitter, and a majority of news is now smears and character assassination attempts. Because that’s what it takes to pay the bills.

  5. Brendan Long says:

    Isn’t the fake news thing exactly backwards? Those fake news sites create fake news stories and make money by running ads (and advertisers don’t care that the readers are getting scammed). I run an ad blocked because I want news sites to make money through subscriptions, which can’t be games by clickbait.

  6. Les says:

    I see your point of online journalism being screwed by AdBlock. Yes, you are mostly right.

    Problem is that trying to convince masses of people to unblock adds (and maybe block trackers) is like screaming from a small stand in a middle of an empty desert.

    You simply can’t do much about it – journalism is cheap and very unprofessional till they find a way to get paid by it again. Public wants it free, free and free. They don’t see other costs.

    As so far Paywalls don’t work – it’s too much material freely available elsewhere. Sites have either offer something truly unique or a really very high quality. Some science journals do it, but there is a drive to publish in Open Access journals.

  7. I’m personally use and I like adblock but I also understand that adblock is stopping the payment that websites receive with the ads. But some of the ads are really annoying for the user. Maybe adblock need to permit good ads and stop the bad annoying ones (the pop-ups and the adult ads). Great article, thank you.

  8. ac says:

    Maybe I’m just getting a bit senile, old, seen it all … probably. Anyway here’s some of the things that bother me.

    Having thought about this I think a review site is essentially offering a filtering service to the readers but youtube and the suggestions pretty much mean that the target audience is probably going to click some youtube videos and suggestions to find something similar they might like or following some streamer that has similar taste (bit like other peoples favorite music playlists or dj’s).

    Some of the well known “stores” or “bundles” have turned more away from curation/filtering presumably because in capitalist/mba view it’s preferable to have a high volume store, or chain of them, than couple high end customer focused stores with highly ‘curated’ inventory (in theory a low risk proposition – but can fail if those who pick your inventory either don’t have the taste or the market conditions have priced high quality items out of the market – eg. personally I’d straight out “ban” all imports from China, including used materials and components – there might be initial problems for ~5 years but I think this would be better long term for western economies – the “ban” could be implemented alternatively through “drug sniffing dogs” – I’d bet million dollars that chinese low quality components can be sniffed out from the cargo containers by trained dogs as those things smell to my nose as well – all the smelly products are packed in air tight plastic so the brick/mortar stores and warehouses would not have the staff incapacitated by the fumes – but trace amounts of these fumes migrate through the plastic wraps – notice the variying smells in different departmens of large stores – cleaning chemicals being the most obvious – they smell through the plastic containers – same applies for all chemicals – plastic is very porous to gas migration).

    I used to read some reviews but after you can find so much gameplay video from youtube, it pretty much takes 15 seconds of viewing in youtube to determine if a game is a clone* of some old game I’ve already played. * (often poor – as more profits go across more games, the more risky it’s to spend 4+ years on single game, so we only get like one Witness/Samorost etc a year that I find to offer something USP-wise)

    If a game is “radical” (goat simulator) then it can be success based on that alone but if these new concept games are made with low budget then that sets the bar so low that everyone can make “radical” games at home rapidly and this floods the shelves with low (production value) quality stuff. The gameplay maybe innovative but this flood will squeeze high production (quality to me) value products to cost more. Same can be seen in some brick & mortar. More and more quickly designed mass produced cheap things that have poor design (often imitation of old high end brand that got squeezed out by lower cost products with hidden ‘defects’ like lower reliability, material safety such as offgassing or electronic standards compliance). The real quality stuff will reprice from medium price to “unaffordable” for most unless they save a long time for it (which brings in warranty problem – if you buy something you can only afford to buy once in 10 years then 2 year warranty is not good enough).