The internet can’t seem to get tired of complaining about how bad modern journalism is. There are lots of reasons for this perceived loss of quality, but there is one that I find specially worrisome that I don’t think is mentioned often enough: Modern journalism is being censored by marketing departments.

How things were before

Journalism has always been at least partially funded by advertising. But advertisers didn’t have as much power at least until digital advertising became a thing.

Back when people actually read newspapers, there were usually one to three relevant newspapers with national circulation, plus some other smaller ones on the city level. There were also some magazines if you wanted to target a more specific group. The introduction of television didn’t change the math much. You get a few relevant national news channels, plus a few local ones, and cable for more niche content.

One important thing to note here is that both in print media and television, advertisers negotiated ads with the entire newspaper or TV channel, not with individual writers or shows. Advertisers had the ability to chose at which time slot/page their ads would show up, but they didn’t have the possibility of denying funding to some specific show/writer they didn’t like without tarnishing their relationship with the whole channel/newspaper.

How this dynamic changed with the web

In contrast, digital advertising allows for much more more granular choices, and thus more power over individual publications. Now advertisers frequently negotiate contracts with an individual podcast or Youtube channel. Even when using Facebook or Google for ad placements, they still get the ability to just blacklist certain outlets or keywords.

Look no further than sleeping giants. They were able to cause real change by pressuring advertisers to cancel funding for certain content. I am not saying the content they helped de-funding was good for society. But deciding which kinds of journalism should get funded is not something that marketing departments should be doing.

A marketing department has one main incentive: to bring in sales. Everything else is secondary. Standing up for what is right is hardly ever part of the equation, no matter what they think is right. If your company sells toothpaste, you just want to stay away from polemic topics and sell toothpaste.

Many ideas we take for granted today were fringe ideas not long ago: women voting, forbidding cigarette use in closed public spaces, ending slavery, etc. All it would take to de-fund publications proposing these kinds of fringe ideas today is a couple hours of twitter rage. Killing ideas can be as simple as de-monetizing a Youtube channel.

Is de-monetising something really censorship?

I also frequently see people saying that denying funding is not the same as censorship because the content can stay online. That’s ridiculous. We can argue about semantics all day, but if people are trying to de-fund certain content with the explicit goal of having less people see it, then it clearly is being done as a form of censorship.

I’m not arguing here that advertisers shouldn’t get to chose which publications they associate their brand with. That would also cause some pretty bad side effects too. I’m arguing that this model that all journalism has to be free and ad-supported is not sustainable on the long term.

If not ads, then what?

The obvious answer here is to just pay for journalism. As long as there are people who want to consume certain content, the content producer will have the money he needs to keep producing it. But of course, people are just not willing to pay for journalism anymore.

There are other interesting ideas in this space. Some of them even make sensible use of crypto/blockchain. But I haven’t seen any of them achieve any meaningful degree of success yet. We’re still mostly split between paywalled content for a few publications with very high brand awareness, and free ad supported content for everything else.

I think journalism will still get worse before it gets better. History shows us that from time to time, the majority is wrong, and advertisers will almost inevitably cater to the majority.