Advertising is king, but content holds its crown

By: Rob Corbidge, 22 February 2024

Jewelled royal crown placed on a luxurious satin cushion, clipart style

Editorial and advertising are loose friends, or should be. Not too close, but not too distant. Right now, they're close in situation but distant in cohesion.

"Rob... those private health insurers we turned over, was [prominent UK private health company) one of the ones we skewered?"

My news editor, with a sense of slightly demented urgency only a news editor can have when mere hours from press on a weekly, had bowled down the office towards me, and without pleasantries demanded to know whether a particular company was going to be named in our story for giving their customers quite a lot less of a good deal than they promised. A company which, only the day previously, had bought a substantial and expensive advert in our newspaper.

The details of the firm's precise misconduct escapes me, however this incident doesn't, because that is when I learned the nature of the relationship between editorial and advertising in publishing. Many journalists can spend their entire career without coming up hard against the commercial realities of publishing, but there it was.

Fortunately in this case, they weren't one of the businesses named in our story. Equally fortunate and fortunate for the very soul of journalism itself, my publication then was very successful and I'm confident would have spiked the advert and not the 4,000-odd word investigation into health companies.

"Turning over" was, incidentally, the phrase we used for a thorough investigation, like flipping a stone and watching the bugs scramble.

Obviously such a situation as described above now feels rather like a tale from a lost civilisation, aged by the fact it refers to publishers having money and being able to put editorial above advertising. 

Yet it remains a fact that that was only the case because the advertising and marketing department where so good at selling other adverts.

There can be no hard and fast rule about such situations of course, a business must do what it needs to do to survive without fundamentally compromising what it is. 

At this moment in time, any sense of the yin-yang between editorial and advertising is gone. It's all just yin. Or possibly all yang. We're all in the same uncertain boat. 

The cookiepocalypse looms, Google's Privacy Sandbox looks like a howling mess  from a company that has lost its focus (I surmise Mr Pichai will be out by the summer) and we have got ourselves into a situation, sped by the transition to digital, of certain kinds of content being very difficult to place advertising against as negative keywords make their presence known.

Tangent alert: Why it's supposed to be that if I'm reading about the conflict in Darfur, then my brain can't separate that from a proximate advert for a hiking jacket or ice cream maker or whatever my consumer cohort is interested in, remains somewhat of a mystery to me. "I won't buy a new jacket because of how terrible this conflict is" doesn't seem like a thought most minds would form.

An interesting exercise in the value of content set against advertising has been raised by unCharles on Substack this week. Essentially, he points out that if the internet is to be driven in directions only as advertising allows, then the logical step is to make an app that only shows adverts: "Let's say a brand will pay a media company 1¢ to show me an ad. It would take me about 2 minutes to scroll through 100 ads. That's a dollar for the media company. In an hour they'd make $30. Minimum wage is $7.25. If they pay me that, they'll clear $22.75."

It's always darkest before the dawn, as they say, and the publishing industry's true asset - content - remains the single strongest card it has. 

Advertising will successfully hook up with content again, and break through the commercial distortion that lets Big Search and Big Social print money, even if they need to be a little more furtive about it right now. 

We might not enjoy all the riches of the past, but we will have more than Facebook bread and Instagram water to survive on.