On Monday, the New York Times became the latest in a string of media companies to launch efforts to deter people who visit their sites from using ad-blockers using a more direct means — an online ad.
A spokesperson for the newspaper told the Monitor that the Times began testing “various approaches” to combat the rise of ad-blockers, which are now used by as many as 45 million people in the US, leading to a loss of as much as $22 billion in advertising revenue this year.
That’s a loss the news organizations say they can’t afford.
"Ad blockers do not serve the long term interest of consumers. The creation of quality news content is expensive and digital advertising is one way that The New York Times and other high quality news providers fund news gathering operations," the spokesperson said in an email to the Monitor.
While the approaches can vary in tone, the Times’ appeal is more direct, requesting users who are using an ad-blocker either exempt the site from the service – a process known as “whitelisting” – or sign up for a digital subscription.
“The best things in life aren't free," reads one message that users will see. “You currently have an ad blocker installed. Advertising helps us fund our journalism. To continue to enjoy the Times, please support us in one of the following ways.”
The Times declined to say whether it would block readers who did not select one of the options.
But at an industry conference last month, Mark Thompson, the paper’s chief executive, was more blunt, saying the paper was considering banning non-subscribers who use ad-blockers. “Trying to use and get benefit of the Times' journalism without making any contribution to how it's paid is not good,” he said, adding, “This stuff is not made for free.”
The venerable “gray lady” joins a variety of other organizations that have experimented with approaches to stop the use of ad-blockers, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Slate, GQ, and Britain’s The Guardian.
But only 4 percent of large online publishers were taking any visible action against ad blockers, according to a survey by MediaRadar — which makes software for ad sales departments.
The company tested several popular ad-blockers on 100 large websites including CBS, the Guardian, and Forbes. But some magazines that say they are testing campaigns to stop ad blocking, such as GQ, did not show up in the firm’s survey, Bloomberg reports.
The debate about online ads, which many users say are intrusive, comes at a particularly troubling time for newspapers.
Revenue from print ads has declined dramatically, in the last decade, making up only $16.3 billion in 2014, according to data from the Newspaper Association of America. That compares with a high of $47.4 billion in 2005, when online ads made up just over $2 billion. By 2014, web-based ads made up $3.5 billion.
Those losses have also forced cuts across many newsrooms. “Who’s making money off the web? No one is going to pay $100 a week to get the newspaper—or whatever it costs, whatever advertising doesn’t pay,” one 57-year-old longtime journalist who had worked for a daily paper in the Midwest for over 30 years told the Nation, reflecting on the paper’s spate of buyouts.
“But if it goes away, America is going to go, ‘What the hell happened? We need that,’ ” he added.
In his comments last month Mr. Thompson, the Times executive – who was previously director-general at the BBC — also expressed dismay at ad-blocking companies that allow publishers to be whitelisted by charging a fee, likening the practice to extortion.
His remarks echoed scathing comments from Randall Rothenberg, the head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, who blasted the companies in a speech in January as obstructing information for advertisers and users alike.
“They offer to lift their toll gates for those wealthy enough to pay them off, or who submit to their demands that they constrict their freedom of speech to fit the shackles of their revenue schemes,” Mr. Rothenberg said.
While the link between advertising and the future of independent journalism might seem like an unusual one, its history goes back to the 19th century origins of many papers, one researcher found.
In the years after the Civil War, “in the areas with faster-growing advertising markets, newspapers were more likely to be independent,” wrote Maria Petrova, a professor at the Barcelona Institute for Political Economy and Governance, in a 2011 paper in the American Political Science Review.
Particularly, she suggests, advertising revenue helped move papers away from overtly supporting individual parties.
But across the pond, the tone of objections from both lawmakers and news organizations that have launched campaigns to counter ad-blocking appears to be less urgent.
“We need to educate consumers more on how most online content is funded. And we need the whole advertising sector to be smarter. If we can avoid the intrusive ads that consumers dislike, then I believe there should be a decrease in the use of ad-blockers,” said John Whittingdale, Britain’s Culture Secretary, in a speech at the Oxford Media Convention last week.
“I am not suggesting that we should ban ad-blockers but I do share the concern about their impact,” Mr. Whittingdale added.
That measured response is even reflected in the campaigns themselves.
The Guardian has experimented with the tone of its messages, an approach the paper says has led to more success, though it notes only 10 percent of its readers use ad-blockers. Readers who ignore the messages can also continue to use the paper’s site, according to Bloomberg.
“We notice you’re using an ad blocker,” reads one message the site has used. “Perhaps you’ll support us another way?”