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IAB UK: In defence of a free internet

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Last week, Zenith Media’s Tom Goodwin wrote a piece for us on why making content on the internet free was our biggest mistake. Here, Jon Mew, CEO of the IAB UK argues why we should think again.

For many people reading this, the concept of paying for online news will be as alien as cashing a cheque or using a travel agent. Since its creation 30 years ago, access to news on the internet has largely been free of charge. Of course, there are exceptions – some very successful – but on the whole, an ad-funded, free-to-access model dominates.

It’s this that Zenith’s Tom Goodwin takes issue with in last week’s piece. Calling for the introduction of a “frictionless” paid-for online news model, Tom’s view is that free-to-access news breeds poor quality content and detracts from the value of established news publishers. As he puts it: “For years, education was for the privileged, and knowledge was valuable and scarce… The invention of the internet, of user-generated content, of blogging platforms and fast-free data has changed all that.”

And he’s right. The internet has changed that. The knowledge and information that people have at their fingertips today wouldn’t be believed by our pre-internet selves. While the premise of advertising funding news content is by no means new – as TV, radio and free newspapers know well – it’s fair to say that the internet has definitely given rise to an age of information democracy.

In this new age, news brands haven’t had an easy ride and I agree that adequately funding quality journalism is hugely important for society. But what Tom’s piece is missing is awareness of the social impact of limiting access to quality news purely via economic means. In that scenario we create an information elite. Those that can afford it can access professionally produced, quality journalism. And those that don’t? Well, they can’t.

According to IAB UK’s research, conducted with Sparkler, 89% of people prefer having an ad-funded internet to having to pay for online services and 84% would be “furious” is they had to fork out to go online. As an industry, we talk so much about bursting the London bubble and looking beyond the world of media – yet what reinforces that more than a blanket online charge on quality content that will arguably limit the ability of the poorest in society to access reliable news?

What’s more, we should also consider the fact that while paying for online content works for some publishers (The Times and the FT are prime examples), it doesn’t for others (remember The Sun’s short-lived paywall?). Tom’s suggestion of a one-size-fits-all payment system levied by the social platforms doesn’t take into consideration the full range of news brand content available, their readers and their online behaviours. While it may work for those catching up with broadsheet business analysis, it’s less likely to work for those after the latest showbiz news that many established news brand titles also trade in.

What do I suggest instead? Unsurprisingly, I’m for an ad-funded model, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t see issues with the current system. It’s true that the rise of digital advertising has resulted in a gulf between content and context. It’s our job – at the IAB, but also across the industry – to be researching, educating and learning how being in a quality online environment impacts ad performance. We often hear that ‘context is king’, so let’s prove it.

Our recent ‘Rules of Attention’ study with Lumen and IPSOS MORI shows this: ads in a premium content environment (i.e. news brands) generate nearly three times more attention than ads on task sites, such as Rightmove or National Rail, and 25% more than a content site such as With Newsworks’ previous work proving the link between attention and sales, this is evidence that advertisers need to act on.

Through research like this, as well as cross-industry initiatives such as our recent drive to change content verification practices, we’re working to make digital advertising a better value exchange for quality news publishers. We’re not alone in this and, while it’s an ongoing and complex task, it’s one we can’t afford to ignore. Abandoning an ad-funded model in favour for a one-size-fits-all payment approach shouldn’t be taken without full consideration of the impact, both for readers and publishers.

Finally, it’s worth noting that while the digital ecosystem is undoubtedly the villain of Tom’s piece – having “catastrophically altered” society via the destruction of quality news – there is no acknowledgement of the benefits that the internet has bought for professional journalism.

Innovation in this area is huge. Stories can now be reported on faster than ever before and bought to life in ways that extend far beyond the printed word. Take The Guardian’s library of VR films or The Telegraph’s WhatsApp audio briefing. Digital’s evolution has opened up a whole new raft of storytelling opportunities. As to the charge that the internet has destroyed news brands’ ability to keep “business leaders and politicians honest”, I don’t agree. Quality publishers continue to do this successfully in the digital age. From Windrush to Oxfam to Phillip Green to plastic waste, investigative journalism and news brands’ campaigning abilities are more than intact.

So, to sum up? While I agree with Tom’s view that we need to make the internet a better place for quality news publishers and we will continue to work with the industry to achieve this, it’s not as simple as vilifying digital or scrapping ad-funded news content. If there is a silver bullet, it’s ensuring that advertisers are acting on the evidence in favour of quality context. That’s not an easy task, but those that do will reap the rewards.

Jon Mew, CEO, IAB UK

About: The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) UK is the industry body for digital advertising, committed to building a sustainable future for digital advertising. We do this by bringing the industry together through our 1,200 members including media owners, agencies and brands. We are not-for-profit and exist to promote industry collaboration between our members to develop standards, best practices, critical research and provide the educational resources businesses need to grow their brands both successfully and sustainably.