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At Cannes, advertising leaders sound the alarm on the state of news

Lion laying on a stack of newspapers with a pixelated cursor hand lifting up the pages.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / Getty / Shutterstock / The Current

CANNES, France — “Journalism is under assault. Your support is essential.”

That was The Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour’s pitch to advertisers at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity this week in a discussion that charted the modern history of advertisers fleeing credible news outlets in the name of brand safety.

That trend has played out, they argued, at a time when news outlets need ad dollars more than ever.

So-called news blocking is just one existential threat facing journalism. Since 2005, 2,900 local newspapers have closed shop, and the pace accelerated in 2023, with 2.5 shuttering per week in the United States alone, according to a Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism report. Additionally, thousands of journalists have been laid off after years of economic turbulence, changing audience preferences and shifty social algorithms.

“We’ve watched so may journalistic outlets around the world, including the United States, just go away at a pace unprecedented over the last year in particular,” Jeff Green, CEO and founder of The Trade Desk, said at the event. “And that’s in part because Facebook has learned it’s not advantageous for them to monetize, and they make more in shorts. […] Real journalism and truth costs money.”

The fact that the news media is all but on life support is not lost on the Croisette crowd. Publishers are increasingly visible at the festival, from Condé Nast to Reuters. And the health of news outlets has become a conversation starter, up there with AI and retail media.

Acknowledging “the burden that sits inside of journalism,” Green called on publishers to climb down from their ivory towers, invest in technology alongside content and “really focus on monetizing for themselves.”

“Brands do not need to accept the myth that news is unsafe.”

Vanessa Otero, CEO, Ad Fontes Media

News media has an opportunity to embrace the same tech that powered connected TV’s (CTV’s) surge, including authentication (or logged-in users); identity solutions that outperform cookies in every way but especially in monetization; metadata that proves value; and audience-friendly measures like curbing ad load and clickbait, he added.

Vanessa Otero, CEO of Ad Fontes Media, which rates the trustworthiness of news outlets, pointed to new research that shows that ads appearing alongside hard news don’t lose their potency. A Stagwell study released last month tested ads alongside stories about war, subway shootings, and polarizing political candidates — as well as sports, entertainment and business.

“Brand favorability and purchase intent measured no difference across the whole thing,” she said. “Brands do not need to accept the myth that news is unsafe.”

Brand bias against news is relatively new

Otero points to 2016 as the grim year when the brand-safety industry was born. When the terrorist group ISIS filmed a beheading and broadcast it on YouTube, some brands were horrified to find their ads alongside it. It became a cautionary tale, and tech companies popped up with tools to protect advertisers.

That election season, fueled by fake news on social media, also sent brands running from news coverage, credible or not.

Why should advertisers care about the state of journalism? There’s a business and a moral case, Otero contended. The challenge is convincing everyone along the marketing chain — from the CEO to the trader. Not to mention that in an ecosystem, the fates of tech, brands and publishers are intertwined.

Green predicted journalism’s woes will get worse before they get better due to the internet’s persistent signal-to-noise ratio problem. That insight motivated The Trade Desk to release its Sellers and Publishers Report highlighting 100 quality publishers in CTV, audio and news.

“Long term, I’m an optimist. I believe we’re all going to put a higher premium on truth than we have before,” he said. “I think it’s going to be easier and easier to destroy one’s own credibility, and so preserving that becomes more and more important. When you do that, people will pay attention because I do believe people are hungry for truth and objective journalism.”

The Current is owned and operated by The Trade Desk, Inc.