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The Star Tribune’s anti- ad-blocking maneuver: the first shot in what may be a long battle

MinnPost

The e­mails came in early and steadily late last week after the Star Tribune pressed the “go” button on attempt to stop ad­ blocking.

Readers who had installed one of the many apps designed to spare them the annoyance of seeing ads on websites found themselves staring instead at a screen informing them that, until they turned off those apps, it was a bit like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi: “No news for you!”

The Strib, Minnesota’s leading source for information, has declined to say anything on the record about the episode. (Why explain why you’ve annoyed your customers?) But via unofficial channels it is possible to shape the story. 

Apparently the short­-lived counter attack on ad blocking was an “exercise,” or a test which may very well be put up again, to determine both if the system worked and how readers would react. The Strib pulled the plug, for the time being, barely 24 hours after turning it on. 

For those of you unfamiliar with ad-­blocking apps, the name is self­-explanatory. The app is a small piece of software script, usually free, you can download that changes how your browser ­— Safari, Firefox, Chrome, Explorer ­­— works, blotting out on­line advertising. By far the most popular of these apps is ​Adblock Plus​.

To many web users and ad-­saturated Americans, the concept of obliterating advertising seems like a dream come true. The DVR has become a staple of TV watchers’ lives for its ability to skip past commercials. Such bliss! Ad blocking has much the same appeal for web users. There’s something righteous about turning off the cacophony of hype, pitches and absurdist assertions. A ​recent survey ​shows American adults being exposed to 360 advertisements a day on five media platforms — TV, radio, internet, magazines and newspapers — but notices only 150 or so and “far fewer” make enough of an impression to prompt a sale.

But these revolutions always come with collateral damage, and in the case of Adblock Plus and some other variations of the software, there’s also a cynical facet of gamesmanship going on as well. Specifically this: For a fee, Adblock Plus will allow advertisers to buy their way back into viewability on a third party web site. Got that?

So consider: One company (like the Strib) has a product (news). Another company, (Honest Abe’s Plumbing), has a service (stopping leaks) it wants to advertise. Those two companies do business for decades. But then, suddenly, a third company (Adblock Plus or whomever) steps in between them, interrupting the relationship and requiring Honest Abe to pay an additional fee in order to resume the business it has always done with the Strib. If you’re so inclined, you could get pretty whipped up about this and start using words like “payola,” “extortion” and “protection racket.”

The moment is described by one local media exec as, “A very interesting inflection point in every publishers’ business.”

As you might expect, I (and MinnPost) have some sympathy with the Strib’s predicament in this latest assault on the traditional journalism business model. The newspaper business’ epic decline over the past decade and a half is largely due to the tremendous migration of advertising revenue away from print — an on­going diminishment that has resulted in fewer reporters and reduced coverage of important community issues. To repeat what every publisher since the turn of the 21st century has wailed, “If they want it, someone has to pay for this stuff!” 

On­line advertising is expected to return only a fraction of those lost revenues for as far into the future as any expert can see. And now: ad blockers. Apps that effectively turn off the on­line revenue spigot as well, or at least until an advertiser pays the ad blocker a fee to be put on a “white list” and allowed to resume business. 

This incident involving the Strib echoes a similar “test” ​The Washington Post tried​ on ad blockers a month ago, and should be regarded as a first volley in a building war over intrusive software. Over the past month alone a significant amount of coverage​ has been directed at the ​ad­ blocking battle​, perhaps because so many copy­cat ad blocking apps are popping on the web.

Apple’s latest operating system, iOS9, comes with support for ad-­blockers in its Safari browser on its mobile devices, iPhones and iPads. The full fight over that is believed by insiders to still be a few weeks off. At the moment, sources say, only .5 percent of Strib traffic is coming via ad-blocked mobile devices, while 10 percent of ad-blocked traffic comes via desktops.

Among the moments to look for is the threat of legal action against ad­ blockers by major publishing entities like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post and/or The New York Times. The case against ad-blocking software might be full of nuance and difficult to argue, but none of the ad block software has the legal sources of a Bezos and would have a very difficult time sustaining a long fight.

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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/06/2015 - 10:06 am.

    Double dipping

    So okay – they want you to pay to use the site, but then they ALSO want you to have to view ads which the advertiser pays for.

    Seems like it should be one or the other.

    (And yes, I know that we pay for Cable TV and still have to watch ads unless we DVR our shows. That also strikes me as “double dipping”)

    • Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/06/2015 - 09:03 pm.

      You pay for a subscription ….

      for advertisers ? With the strib not much news anymore ! I am not going to pay to subsidize a basketball team. I will pay to block ads for not much news. With advertising in hard copy you get to turn the page with media advertising it seemingly is increasingly coming on top of content. To get to content I have to more then avert my eyes. Page of ads page of news partial page of info and lower page of ads was bad enough without tossing in Sunday ads. Somewhere I heard once something about “an informed public” and the workings of democracy. Boy have we come along way from that with cowardly “objective journalism,” overwhelming sports entertainment and celebrity reporting. Maybe people are resorting to ad locking to get to content and away from nonsense.

    • Submitted by Tim McNamara on 10/07/2015 - 09:43 pm.

      The more things changes…

      That’s how it was when you subscribed to the Star Tribune or other newspapers by having it delivered. You paid for a subscription and saw ads. Ditto most magazines you might subscribe to. Somehow, though, we are more bothered by advertising on Web sites than we are in print media. I don’t know if that is because of practical considerations (my computer screen is much smaller than a page of newsprint) or that the advertising itself is more annoying (moving images, for example) or perhaps it is the issue of the advertising servers being too slow and delaying rendering of the page in one’s browser, etc. I use an ad blocker for these reasons.

      Or is it a sense of entitlement: “I pay for the Internet” (and many of us pay lots for our broadband service, such as it is given that America is behind much of the rest of the developed world in terms of speed). We forget or perhaps some of us don’t know that our ISP does not actually create the content we read nor does it share revenue with the Strib and other newspapers. I am a bit uncomfortable with using an ad blocker for this reason and the reason below.

      The foundering revenues of the journalism industry is of deep concern in protecting freedom and democracy. A free and effective press is the fundamental tool for exposing what’s going on in the back rooms and in the shadows of government, the corporate world and society. A bankrupt press is not going to be a free and effective press; a press propped up by wealthy individuals with an agenda to be served might be effective but will not be free and will not serve the greater needs of freedom and democracy. Citizen journalism has some strengths but is a pale substitute for skilled, incisive, investigative journalism. Control of information results in control of the people and there are well-established efforts afoot to capitalize on this in the service of an agenda. This is a problem that must be solved for the American experiment to thrive.

  2. Submitted by jim hughes on 10/06/2015 - 10:16 am.

    back and forth

    No doubt this will be a back-and-forth contest for some time to come and who knows where it will end up. But there is a bottom line – when a site takes on too much annoying clutter, people stop looking. If surveyed they may still say they use the site, but in reality, they don’t go to it as often and don’t stay as long. My own tolerance for this stuff is decreasing.

    The problem isn’t just the number or placement of the advertising, it’s also the quality. We see the same idiotic stuff everywhere, every day, and it has no relevance to us or to our area.

  3. Submitted by Nick Magrino on 10/06/2015 - 10:18 am.

    It’s pretty clear where the Strib is coming from here, but as someone who happily pays to support multiple news sources (including the Strib and MinnPost) because quality journalism is important as hell to a properly functioning society, I think the problem here isn’t “ads,” it’s the garbage that online advertising has turned into.

    I don’t mind seeing ads (and have actually clicked on and bought a couple things from ads. True story!) but I do mind an audio-enabled video ad playing halfway down the page, or the giant full page splash screens with a wee little x in the top right corner, or the sad ad chumboxes (1 weird trick! guess what child stars are ugly now!) at the bottom of all the stories and along the sidebars of most websites that look to be very intentionally taking advantage of elderly people or other less savvy Internet users. Not to mention tracking and cookies and other issues.

    Look at the Pioneer Press website. It’s a terrible nightmare. The Strib’s site is far better, but it is incrementally moving towards something like that, and that’s a shame.

  4. Submitted by Hillary Drake on 10/06/2015 - 10:42 am.

    Load time

    My main complaint with ads isn’t the content, but the bloat and horrible load times. I use ad blockers on my browsers because pages take four or five times as long to load when it’s going to a third party server (which is usually slow) to access content that the media site doesn’t control. For the record, I have Minnpost whitelisted because I haven’t encountered any loading time difference without an ad blocker.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/technology/personaltech/ad-blockers-mobile-iphone-browsers.html?_r=0 describes a good test of mobile ad blocking and why I’m choosing to use it.

    Autoplay videos are also evil.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/07/2015 - 12:38 pm.

      This!

      I don’t bother with a handful of sites, including Strib, because of the bloat. The load time is unacceptable, especially since it’s rare that the Strib even has anything worth reading anymore. Also, for those paying subscriptions, it’s a double whammy. I quit paying for cable and satellite radio for exactly the same reasons–I’m not going to pay for poor content and ads.

  5. Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/06/2015 - 11:14 am.

    My alternative

    I’ve found that strib content isn’t worth wading through the ads. Hint: when the ads drown out the content maybe you’re over doing it. For years they’ve been splitting stories onto multiple pages in order to serve more ads. It’s irritating enough that I get my news elsewhere.

  6. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 10/06/2015 - 11:29 am.

    On-line Advertising

    Except for Google search ads (where the user is typically looking for a product or service and the ads are actually helpful), I find on-line ads completely ineffective. As a user, I don’t block them, but my eyes don’t even see the ads. It’s just background noise.

    Ultimately, on-line news is going to have to be supported by subscriptions.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/06/2015 - 11:31 am.

    These aren’t just “ads”

    They’re pop-ups, which are distracting, irrelevant, AND annoying. Look, if you want us to pay to see your content, that’s one thing. But if want to control my device and how I use it AND make me pay for your content… take a hike jack. You’re NEVER going to dictate what kinds of apps or programs I run on my device. This will only hasten the demise of “news” papers. If your ads are bugging me to the point where I’m blocking them… my next step isn’t going to be unblocking them so they can annoy me… my next step will be to walk away.

  8. Submitted by Tom Clark on 10/06/2015 - 12:37 pm.

    Number of ads too!

    I use AdBlockPlus and it tells me that the Star Tribune wanted to load 45 ads when I went to their site. That’s far more ads than most, with the NY Times trying to load 17 and the Washington Post 17 also.

  9. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 10/06/2015 - 12:39 pm.

    Gave up on Strib long time ago.

    A few years ago, I read both Strib and PP daily–online. Then they both went stupid.

    If they want people to use their sites, they need to keep those sites usable for readers. Otherwise, the readers will leave and not come back. Both companies screwed up and I didn’t go back for a year or more. If they want me to use their sites, they have to make it worth the time and effort on my part.

    I decided to give the Strib a try again–and got the “turn off ad blocking”. I left and did not go back.

  10. Submitted by Jeff Hamilton on 10/06/2015 - 01:06 pm.

    Cookies

    I, like many online readers, pay a monthly subscription for the right to the online content. If I’m not able to block the unwanted ads, I will discontinue my monthly payments and keep reading by deleting my STrib (and associated) cookies. I’ll still have ads, but I will not be paying a thing.

  11. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 10/06/2015 - 01:26 pm.

    One more reason

    Not to visit their site. Not that I needed another.

  12. Submitted by Jim Million on 10/06/2015 - 03:34 pm.

    Nicely Concisely Related

    This is a great piece. Clean and clear and correct.

  13. Submitted by Peter Pesheck on 10/07/2015 - 02:57 pm.

    ads are OK, it’s HEAVY ads that I hate

    I really don’t mind ads, I see that as part of the price for viewing content. But, when a high def, large, SLOOOOWWWW ad takes for ever to load, I simply hit whatever button will get me off of that page. I know that adds compete for attention, but slowing my machine down is not the right way to get the job done.

  14. Submitted by Logan Parker on 10/08/2015 - 03:11 pm.

    Publishers should gain insight into who is blocking their site

    Consumers are threatening to break publishers’ economic models with ad blocking. It’s fine to say that ads are annoying, but that’s what pays publisher bills.

    However, publishers ignore the social signal of ad blocking at their own peril. Instead, they should work to create more user-friendly environments or treat ad-blocking visitors differently by rewarding consumers who support free content by viewing ads. But the first step in any strategy is understanding the problem — Mezzobit has a free tool ((http://bit.ly/free_ad_block_tool) for publishers to let them quantify the problem.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/09/2015 - 10:07 am.

    Look…

    I think we all understand that ads pay some of the bills, but the Strib seems to get confused about the fact that without readers… you can’t charge much for advertising. So for instance I have a paid subscription to the New York Times for their Sunday paper. With THAT paid subscription I get an online account as well. I also subscribe to their daily news roundup and the ONLY e-mail I get from the NYT’s are news summaries and alerts about breaking stories, which I frequently click on to read the full story… which means I’m looking at the NYTs online.

    Meanwhile, over at the Strib, my Sunday Paper subscription get me no online account, and the only e-mails the Strib ever sends me are ads, which I block, I NEVER click on an ad the Strib e-mails me, so I spend much less time looking at the Strib.

    The NYTs seems to have a strategy of driving readers to it’s actual content, under the theory that readers make advertising a viable concept. The Strib seems to think they can bombard their “readers” with ads regardless of content. I think the NYTs business model is more viable. I pay more to the NYTs and I’m happy to do so.

  16. Submitted by Ronald Shulstad on 10/13/2015 - 11:48 am.

    The Strib’s Efforts at Ad-Blocking

    Another reason to get the news from Minnesota Public Radio.

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