Thursday, April 18, 2013

How Ad Blocking Hurts Good Journalism

Just over a month ago, Destructoid founder Niero Gonzales ran a piece titled "Half of Destructoid's Readers Block Our Ads. Now What?" It was a sobering breakdown of how ad revenue supports online journalism, and an interesting look at a particular type of outlet: gaming news sites. While the basic point is broadly applicable to all online writing (i.e. ad-blockers hurt writers), that harm is felt more acutely by sites that have tech-savy readers. I'm not a Destructoid reader but I liked Gonzales' piece enough to whitelist the site from my ad-blocking Chrome extension, and started to do the same on sites I do read and appreciate.

Now Ben Kuchera at the Penny Arcade Report has added to the conversation with an insightful, well-written, and depressing examination of the ad revenue model for online journalism. Again the focus is on gaming sites, but that's only relevant insofar as those readers generally use ad-blocker software. The article's real aim is at exposing how the overal model encourages bad writing, and how readers' sophistication actually makes doing good work more difficult.

Go read Kuchera's article. Here's the link again so you can't miss it. And while you're at it, make sure you check out Gonzales' piece too.

When I first read Gonzales' piece a month ago I started whitelisting websites I really appreciate, especially the independent ones. I also considered writing a blog post about it but clearly that didn't pan out. Now, having read Kuchera's much more depressing and outward-facing deconstruction of the overal ad revenue model, I'm considering disabling my ad-blocker entirely. Admittedly that's an extreme response, but if a little annoyance is what it takes to help encourage ad-dependant websites to put out better content then so be it.

The most depressing part of Kuchera's article is how it (at least partially) justifies why sites like Kotaku can put up creepy photo collections of scantily-clad cosplay enthusiasts and then in the next breath release incredible investigative journalism pieces. There's been some buzz on Twitter about whether this point is implicitly defending the sexism behind creepshot photo-galleries, and while I agree that good journalism doesn't justify that kind of exploitation, the larger point is that the model systematically encourages douchebaggery of that ilk. As Kuchera notes at the end of his piece,
Considering research, three drafts, editing, and finding images, it will have taken around six hours and four people to create this story and the images in it. In that time, I could have written around a dozen shorter stories with content taken from other sites. It would have been a better business decision to do so.
It's not ethical for an editor to instruct their writers to put out an exploitative post for the sole purpose of attracting page views, but I can understand why it happens if that's what it takes for the editor to be able to a) continue paying their staff, b) afford the costs of good work, and c) keep the site alive. This notion of lowest-common-denominator-crap bankrolling the good work is nothing new, but the ad revenue context puts it in a new light by exposing the irony that "The better your audience is - the more mature, intelligent, and plugged in - the more likely they are to run an ad-blocking program of some kind." In other words, appreciation of intelligent work is encouraging bad journalism by not supporting the good stuff, and precisely the audience that finds creepy photo galleries of scantily-clad cosplay enthusiasts exploitative is also emphasizing the systemic problems that motivate those posts.

This obviously isn't the entirety of the issue, but it is an important aspect of the financial framework behind journalism that's worth understanding and incorporating into our conduct online. The takeaway is simple: don't block ads on sites that produce good content. At a minimum you'll be helping out the authors and supporting their good practices, and by extension that will combat the ways in which the ad revenue model encourages schlock writing and sexist exploitation. That seems like a pretty big win when the cost is just the slight annoyance of seeing some ads. Also, whenever there's actually intrusive advertising that negatively impacts your experience (i.e. autoplay audio/video or pop-ups) then don't just slap on an ad block, contact the staff and let them know! It's easy enough to do this via means like email or Twitter, and if it's actually a good site worth supporting then they'll work to ensure the advertising is within reasonable limits so that you don't have to block their advertisers in order to enjoy their content.

The nature of the online medium demands a relationship exist between content producers and consumers. It doesn't take much from either side in order to make the current model work as best as it can, and Kuchera and Gonzales have made it clear that they're prepared to work with their audiences. Now it's on us to step up and show that they value the content enough to do the same.

On Chrome it takes as little as two clicks to disable Adblock for a website


  1. Hi Max,

    Great points, as always.

    I'm still a little hesitant to disable Adblock though. I acknowledge I am a bit of a freeloader in this respect, but there have been a number of widespread malware-related problems linked directly to online advertising (see, for example, The websites of some high profile, very reputable organizations have inadvertently infected many computers.

    Even a fully patched computer with an up-to-date is still somewhat porous (see for example Not much can be done to protect against an effectively designed 0-day exploit except to avoid it altogether. Ad blockers help in this regard (as does No Script).

  2. (links didn't post properly - #1: & #2 )

  3. You make some good points about Malware, Dylan, that's definitely something of a blind spot in the argument given how much damage they can do and the fact that site owners aren't necessarily responsible for/cognizant of those kinds of malicious programs being on their sites. I'm a Mac user and I generally use Adblock so that's just not something I've considered very much but it's still a valid concern.

    However, it's not necessarily about turning off your adblocker entirely as much as disabling its functioning on specific websites. Again, the way I'm taking Kuchera's argument is to initiate something of a two-way set of responsibilities between content creators and receivers, in support of good content for its own sake, and so protecting users from malicious programs would become part of those responsibilities (i.e. site owners would have to protect users to the best of their ability, and users would have to report issues where they arose, and any/repeated failure on either end would be contrary to the purposes of the relationship).

    My point being that as much as I think the potential dangers are legitimate, I think they're part of the risk that has to be accepted by both sides in taking on mutual obligations to ensure good content under the current model. Your point is, much like the point about creepy-cosplay-galleries, more directly indicative of why the model is itself broken and unsustainable, which Kuchera states outright. I'm just more arguing that we should do what we can to make it work since it's all we've got right now.