The challenges facing news organizations in today’s data-saturated media environment are significant. With the rise of competition for consumer attention, increased advertising options, user migration to news aggregators and other factors, news publishers are facing declines in audience, revenue and newsroom resources. News organizations are also starting to experience a loss in public trust.
Adoption of short-term solutions is another factor affecting digital publishers’ ability to maintain consumer trust and create a path to sustainability. Many engaged in what became industry standard practices: adding a host of third party trackers, analytics tools and widgets to their digital properties to collect and mine user data primarily for advertising purposes. But these practices have done little to improve the financial outlook of news organizations and have instead disintermediated their ad revenue, incentivized click-bait, and increased public mistrust.
There is a way forward, however, in a seemingly unlikely place – privacy.
Privacy and a robust press naturally compliment each other. Both are essential to functioning democracies and both offer tools necessary for an engaged and informed citizenry; the news gives consumers the information they need to form opinions and privacy provides them with the space in which to dissent or agree. Similarly, in the digital marketplace the news media delivers the content consumers need to understand the world and their place in it, while privacy protects them from unwanted surveillance as they consume information.
Surveillance capitalism has eroded both of these ideals. Privacy and a strong press provide individuals with more ability to address unfettered influence and control by the rich and powerful, an idea that doesn’t scale very well in the hyper data-monetization landscape. Embracing privacy is an antidote for the news media precisely because it protects and promotes individual rights, incentivizes “small data” so that publishers can form trusted relationships with their communities, and creates new accountability over widespread data collection and tracking.
The market is ripe for a marriage of privacy, technology and news media. Privacy laws such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) have successfully created new individual data rights, such as the right to determine whether personal information is sold and the rights to access or delete personal information held by an entity. The GDPR and CCPA have also fundamentally turned digital advertising on its head. Many of the data practices involved in programmatic advertising, for example, are almost certainly untenable under the laws. Google’s announcement that in 2021 Chrome will no longer support third party cookies share real-time bidding requests without meaningful permission from a user, along with decisions from the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office that question the legality of rendering ads directly into a visitor’s browser without consent, reflect the pressure these laws have placed on the advertising ecosystem. These dynamics, underscored by the threat of regulatory scrutiny and enforcement, have ushered in an era of increased attention to data governance that offers publishers a unique opportunity to better compete in the digital economy by positioning themselves as trusted data stewards.
There’s no doubt that compliance is a big challenge and a big cost for news publishers, especially those in smaller markets. Some of this challenge can be met through industry collaboration. The Local Media Consortium (LMC), an association of 90 local media companies representing over 3,500 newspaper, broadcast and online-only U.S. and Canadian news outlets, last year created for its members a comprehensive roadmap for complying with the CCPA and GDPR. The roadmap offers a step-by-step guide to understanding and implementing the laws from a large and small market perspective and offers resources for building solid data governance programs on differing budgets.
Industry collaboration will also work towards improving the future of news organizations by creating an environment that incentivizes quality content, protects user privacy and allows for brand safe advertising. The LMC has been leading a multi-stakeholder group of publishers, advertisers, privacy advocates, academics and others to develop approaches for such a model: it seeks to rebuild revenue and trust in the news industry by embedding concepts like privacy, transparency and accountability into technology systems that will attract both users and advertisers. LMC’s project includes exploring solutions that allow users to access news content across participating LMC member platforms and gives them control over use of their personal information. The LMC is also working with ITEGA, the Information Trust Exchange Governing Association, a neutral third-party nonprofit, on how such an approach could be governed and audited.
When users agree to share their data (and many will feel comfortable doing so in a safe and privacy-preserving environment), advertisers will have access to a quality pool of real people in a brand safe environment. This approach rebuilds trust and returns the value of content to its creators, allowing publishers to focus on delivering quality reporting to their communities.
Michelle De Mooy is an expert in data protection and technology policy, with a focus on privacy and data ethics. She is a leader in helping organizations create, build and implement privacy-forward solutions. Most recently, De Mooy was Director of the Privacy and Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, where she led the organization’s work on baseline privacy legislation in the United States.