Saving Journalism and Public Discourse

(I wrote this essay originally for but my LinkedIn contacts suggested that I post it here. Photo credit:

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A conference attendee approached me after my panel and scolded, “If Donald Trump becomes President, it will be your fault.”

It wasn’t a political statement at all; it was an indictment of the ad blocking industry.

I’ve played a highly visible role in the ad blocking debate as a spokesperson for Adblock Plus, and being the #1 tool out there (with more than a Billion downloads) we are deeply concerned with not breaking the economic engine that drives the free Web. To that end, today I’m proud to be part of a project that could save journalism and public discourse from scarcity, and possibly from commercial influence as well.

Backing up a bit… I was speaking on a panel at an ad-tech conference, explaining why ad blockers are not so evil — and possibly the savior of free content and quality journalism on the Web. This is not an easy message to deliver to an ad-tech audience. For hundreds of millions of people who use the Web, ad blockers are Zeus-sent heroes that spare us from the annoyance of obnoxious intrusions and relentless trackers, speed our page loads, and save our precious mobile bandwidth and battery time. But at an ad-tech conference, well… ad blocking is just pure evil.

Nonetheless, the scolding admonishment about Trump actually haunted me for a bit. The accuser’s thought process was: if you block ads → the NY Times can no-longer afford to pay Thomas L. Friedman (or similar) → content gets dumbed down → salacious headlines and click-bait rise to the top of the leaderboard → Trump becomes President without so much as a discussion.

Those are some pretty huge leaps in logic, but the basic argument that I took away was: society needs public debate and media needs the funding to facilitate that discourse. Could ad blockers shoulder some of the blame for inhibiting much-needed public discussion? By blocking the ads for “20 Celebrity Surgeries Gone Wrong” are we inadvertently robbing the editorial, also?

We are incorrectly conflating the purpose of advertising and the role of advertising in journalism

Then, while debating the finer points of privacy tracking at Doc Searls’ VRM day last week, I sketched on the whiteboard my mini-revelation: we are incorrectly conflating the purpose of advertising and the role of advertising in journalism. Brands don’t advertise to fund publishers and websites and public debate, they advertise to get in front of consumers to sell them stuff. Journalism and public discourse were never ordained to be advertiser-supported in a digital world — in fact, it’s a bit dangerous for news and debate to be entirely reliant upon commercial interests. That’s why radio has NPR and television has PBS. Remember, Internet protocols and the World Wide Web were developed as government and public infrastructure; it belongs to the people, not to publishers or advertisers. It just so happened that ad-generated subsidies (a model borrowed from the offline world) were easy to implement on the Web, and everyone was happy.

That is, everyone was happy until ad-tech came onto the scene and took things too far: ever-more intrusive ad formats were developed to combat banner-blindness; programmatic bidding efficiently drove CPM prices into the toilet; publishers responded by opening up even more inventory on the page to slot in remnant ads of ever-diminishing quality and revenue; hundreds of millions of consumers revolted by installing ad blockers; the whole ecosystem spiraled into a vicious decline. Joshua Topolsky co-founder of The Verge, describes the scenario all too well here on Medium.

Fortunately, we can fix some of that.

Today the world gets to see Flattr Plus. It’s a joint project between Adblock Plus and Flattr (remember the guys from The Pirate Bay?), and it represents a new model for funding journalism and creators directly — putting consumers/readers in control of where their money goes and how they experience the Web in their browsers. You set a budget for how much you want to contribute to the Web ecosystem, and the Flattr Plus algorithm automatically apportions your budget according to your browsing habits and takes care of getting the money into the pockets of creators. It will succeed by making the process completely frictionless.

Flattr Plus aims to fund $500,000,000 directly to journalists and creators within the next 12 months. It won’t solve everything, but it’s a pretty amazing start and it will only grow from there. Most importantly, it’s doingsomething.

The Web belongs to the people. Consumers — not advertisers or commercial publishers — should and can be in control of it. If we can fix the online funding model, then journalism and public discourse online can thrive.