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.