There’s no question the advertising industry is culpable in the decline of local news.
As newspaper revenues have plummeted over the last decade, newsrooms have experienced devastating layoffs. That cycle has led 20% of all metro and local newsrooms to close, leaving 1,300 communities across the U.S. without coverage.
The situation is only getting worse, as brands employ hamfisted keyword blocklist strategies to avoid “bad” news during the tumultuous events of 2020, banning certain news sites altogether as a result.
This hard truth led Boston and Philadelphia-based indie agency Allen & Gerritsen to reevaluate the ad industry’s role in supporting the free press.
“We were shocked about the impact programmatic media buying has had on the news industry, specifically the local news industry,” said Will Phipps, SVP of media at Allen & Gerritsen. “There are thousands of communities that no longer have professional journalism to inform them about the world around them. Without that, it’s not just fake news, but unverified.”
That insight led the agency to launch Protect Our Press, an initiative urging the ad industry to spend more money directly with legitimate journalistic sources, particularly in local communities.
More specifically, the program calls on agencies and advertisers to pledge to reinvest 20% of their programmatic advertising budgets directly with local news sources; reassess and remove local publishers from keyword blocklists; include local newspapers in direct RFPs; and commit to maintaining existing investments in local journalism.
The pledge, which rolled out on Thursday with a letter urging the 4As and ANA to sign on, also calls on brands to reconsider the value of local media buys, local publishers to create more interesting media opportunities and individuals to subscribe to trusted news sources.
“This is a callout to the ad industry,” said Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerritsen. “As a nation, we need to support and protect our press. The nation needs it.”
Protect Our Press launches in partnership with The Boston Globe and Boston Museum of Science, which have created an inaugural campaign that includes a custom three-month sponsorship around The Globe’s coverage of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, aligned with a special exhibit at the museum. The campaign also includes a custom ad wrapper built by the newspaper.
The campaign serves as a model for how local news partnerships should be approached, Phipps said, adding that the agency commissioned research around the value of local news audiences to back up the pledge.
“Custom deals are more involved,” he said. “But local audiences are more valuable than national audiences, so it's about reassessing.”
The pandemic has made reinvesting in local news more urgent than ever, as publishers have served as critical resources for their communities, said Kayvan Salmanpour, chief commercial officer at Boston Globe Media.
Over the past year, The Globe has set up a Slack channel for small businesses to navigate PPP loans, ran a campaign that generated almost $75,000 worth of food donations to local frontline workers and created a vaccine tracker to help people set up appointments.
“Most of our news coverage was essential, trusted, high-quality journalism that the community needed,” said Salmanpour. “Suddenly, you realize how important local media is for the community.”
While Protect Our Press is not an indictment on programmatic media buying overall, it is an attempt to get brands and agencies to be more thoughtful about the publications they are funding.
“Programmatic should never be a black box where you put in a client's budget, tick a few audience boxes and send it off,” Phipps said. “We're trying to break a lazy habit, frankly, of media planning.”