Be wary of free offers



This column appeared in the November 2015  issue of the PANPA Bulletin

Beware of Geeks bearing gifts.

You should know that already from Geek mythology but some of you never seem to learn.

Remember how staff at Odyssey Corporation came to grief after accepting corporate hospitality from Circe, the owner of Aeaea Limited? Remember how Odyssey Corp’s CEO, Odysseus, heeded warnings about Circe’s catering and avoided being turned into a pig? And remember how it was only Odysseus’ charming personality that eventually got Odyssey Corp out of one hell of a mess?  It’s a cautionary tale and you should heed the warning because the Geeks appear to be in a generous mood again.

Seemingly overcome with largesse, they are offering places to traditional news media on just-launched galleys with names like Apple News, Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP and  Adblock Plus Whitelist. The Geeks say these are the vessels that will carry mainstream media away from the maelstrom that is tearing old business models apart.

Better than that, it looks like a freebie on a Mediterranean cruise ship. You know the deal: Eat and drink all you like, see exotic places and meet interesting people – all in exchange for a few travel pieces when you get back home.

The Apple News is one of these cruise ships and it has added Australia to its ports of call. New Zealand has yet to be put on the itinerary but that, no doubt, will happen. The Australian told us recently that it “…provides a one-stop shop for users to freely view content submitted by news providers and some of the biggest news gatherers on the planet are making a portion of content available”. According to Apple CEO, Tim Cook, it provides an opportunity to meet 40 million interesting people who like their news aggregated.

Some of the old hacks who have packed their bags to head on board are The Australian’s Life section, Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, Herald Sun, The Age, The Australian Women’s Weekly, ABC, SBS, and The Guardian. It will be a right old knees-up because The New York Times, The Economist, The Huffington Post, The Independent, The Express, and The Globe and Mail also are joining the cruise.

The  Adblock Plus Whitelist sits at the other end of the Geek fleet –  not a cruise ship but a rescue vessel. It is a means by which advertisers can avoid a new form of Geek fire: technology that blocks advertising on websites and mobile feeds. Publishers can buy a ticket on Adblock Plus Whitelist that (for a price) ensures certain advertisements can get through the Geek fire unscathed – as “acceptable advertising” – and make their way onto digital platforms.

These are but the latest in a series of Geek strategic moves that have pushed into the territory of newspaper publishers in Australia, New Zealand and just about everywhere else. The lion’s share of digital advertising revenue goes not to traditional publishers but to the likes of Facebook and Google, both of which are heavily reliant one way or another on the content that those publishers have paid to generate.

The Geeks have done a remarkable job in persuading publishers that they and their programmatic advertising cannot be beaten. So it is better to join them. That would be no bad thing as long as the benefits were mutual but the deck is stacked in the Geeks’ favour.

No longer content with simply appropriating content without payment, the Geeks are now marshalling publishers into positions where they may find themselves as client states. Is it too far a stretch to imagine a time when the generous Geeks begin to dictate the type of content produced by publishers in exchange for remaining on platforms whose users run into many millions? A time when user-generated aggregation and search algorithms on someone else’s platform dictate editors’ decision-making? A time when a white list joining fee is replaced by a generous cut of the revenue on each “acceptable advertisement” as protection money?

Arrogance is common trait among the Geeks, a digital native sense of superiority. They believe they can dictate and they will dictate. Publishers are deluding themselves if they believe they can make demands. Oh, they may be able to gain concessions now but over time their positions will weaken.

It is a little – but only a little – reassuring that the NZME, Fairfax Media, MediaWorks and Television New Zealand have created the Kiwi Premium Advertising Exchange (KPEX) to offer a programmatic option for purchasing online advertising inventory across the country’s media businesses. It is the beginning of a direct response to Google and Facebook but much more needs to be done.

The only defence against the Geeks is a grand alliance of publishers who collectively will be big enough to fight Geek fire with fire. Rivalry between titles and news media companies has to be consigned to history because there is a more dangerous enemy to be faced.

If Geek mythology doesn’t convince you, turn to Rome and Shakespeare”s Julius Caesar at the point where Cassius questions why Caesar is regarded as a Colossus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings”.


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