The Publisher’s Paradox: Clicks Are Up, but Not Ad Revenue

News sites can't monetize huge interest in coronavirus stories

a phone showing a coronavirus alert
One industry group is asking for ad-tech firms to exempt premium publishers from keyword filters.
Getty Images

Let’s call it the Publisher’s Paradox.

Over the last two weeks, all kinds of sites (from news sites to platforms) have seen traffic numbers jump. It makes sense, as people are looking for information around the coronavirus, as well as spending more time online because we’re working from home.

But the challenge is that news organizations cannot monetize this bump.

Advertisers not wanting their brand alongside news of sickness and death and the various other unpleasantries of our current reality are pulling spend, if not blocking terms like “coronavirus” and “pandemic” across programmatic channels. This means publishers can’t make money off the massive number of eyeballs coming to their sites.

On top of this, publishers can’t charge higher CPMs for this traffic to recoup any losses they’re seeing from canceled events or outright ad spend pulls.

One way to help news publishers—especially those reliant on programmatic buys, like local outlets that are currently being chopped off at the knees—is for advertisers and verification companies to change their default settings to exempt news sites when blocking COVID-19 news.

For readers, this will also eliminate those weird clouds you see on what should be an ad. Those are served by DoubleVerify, which helps advertisers not run on stories that are deemed “brand unsafe.”

Publisher trade body Digital Content Next just sent a letter to the industry requesting such a maneuver. Will it work? Who knows. But in times of crisis, we all need accurate information. And for the news sites that are providing that for their communities, any and all ad revenue can be the difference between getting vital information to the public or shuttering the business.

Here’s the letter from DCN’s CEO, Jason Kint:

March 25, 2020

An Open letter to the 3rd Party Ad Verification Industry,

We are in a unique moment in human history. Now, more than ever we need to ensure the hard work, sacrifice, and messages from healthcare professionals are shared, that the sacrifices of others on the frontline like grocery, logistics, service, and sanitation workers are honored, that leaders are held to account, and that the facts outweigh misinformation. People need free access to ad-supported news at this moment more than ever. Put simply as I wrote last week, “We need the news. And the news needs us.”

But right now, as the news industry is called upon to deliver critical and lifesaving information on a 24/7 basis — at times risking the health and safety of their own journalists — this media coverage is being flagged automatically on open exchanges as not brand safe.

Coronavirus and COVID-19 coverage will be part of the fabric of our conversation and life for the foreseeable future. The virus is having a deep impact on every citizen, country, and aspect of daily life. This coverage will continue to be needed as our nation and world moves towards recovery. It’s a topic that will not go away soon and cannot and should not be avoided.

As a result, we ask the following:

1. That leading members of the ad tech and verification industry – Google, Oracle, Double Verify, IAS — immediately exempt premium, trusted media properties by default from their brand safety filters around Coronavirus, COVID-19, and related keywords and topics. Advertisers will continue to have full control over their campaigns. We’re merely asking you to eliminate the friction that comes with choices of defaults, an area you know very well. Lists of trusted properties exist with professional trade groups or independent nonprofits such as The Trust Project, NewsGuard, TRUSTX.

2. That leaders in the advertising and marketing industry have a conversation with clients now that factual news coverage of this Coronavirus and COVID-19 needs to be supported. That responsible brands should be in and around news and to immediately review any advertiser-specific keyword list so that advertising in news is not blocked.

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