Ad Blockers - What Goes Around, Comes Around

With iOS 9 came the ad blockers... and Hell followed with them.

With the launch of iOS 9 yesterday, ad blockers for iOS became a new reality. Apps like Peace (by Marco Arment of Instapaper fame {EDIT: Marco pulled the app shortly after its creation, citing an issue of conscience}) Crystal and Purify Ad Blocker allow users to block advertising content from their mobile browsing experience, improving page loading times significantly.  They also protect the user by blocking tracking scripts - which anonymizes their behavior across the web to a great degree and offers far greater privacy.  Anyone who has had a page drop to a crawl while 10 ad networks load, or been concerned about a new gardening catalog showing up on their doorstep 2 days after a single search on the web for “weed whackers”, knows what I mean.

I’m not here to debate the value of ad blockers - you either like them or you don’t. I do - I like fast web pages and I value my privacy even more. What I find interesting is the hue and cry from digital publications across the web in reaction to this move.

“It is going to be a bloodbath of independent media.” - Nilay Patel, The Verge
“What is not in dispute is that if ad-blocking becomes ubiquitous (and there’s nearly every reason to think that it will be!) it will be devastating for publications who derive much or all of their revenue from advertising—which comprises most of the professional publications on the internet.” - Casey Johnston, The Awl
“News stories do not sprout up like Jack's bean stalk on the Internet. To produce news, you need professionals who understand the standards needed to research, report and write on what happened.”

Wait. That wasn’t the entire quotation on that last one.

“News stories do not sprout up like Jack's bean stalk on the Internet. To produce news, you need professionals who understand the standards needed to research, report and write on what happened. If newspapers die, reliable information dries up.”  - Debra J. Saunders, San Francisco Chronicle, 2009

We’ve heard this all before... from newspapers who were being attacked on all fronts by the disruptive forces of the internet. I lived through it as a newspaper advertising salesman in the late 2000's. Craigslist, and others were stealing their primary sources of revenue: classified ads. Subscription rates (which drives its own revenue as well as the ad revenue from print ads) were falling.  Google (and later Facebook and Twitter) became the primary path to web news, crushing their still-nascent digital efforts. 2006 onward has not been a good time to be in newspapers (trust me, I know).

The digital news industry is now complaining about the same forces that vaulted it to prominence.


It’s interesting to me that the digital news industry, largely built on the the defeated bulks of the newspapers it crushed, is now complaining about the same forces of innovation that vaulted it to prominence over the last 10 years. Even the many forward-thinking tech sites that I follow seem to think that somehow, their own worth is self-evident. That their business model can’t be wrong, that the new technology is bad, and users should be convinced to pay more to support their news platform in spite of new technologies that benefit them in every way.

The Awl even goes so far as to use the ad revenue woes of the New York Times to support its argument. This is hypocritical, and not entirely accurate - because the Times has sucked it up and ground out the difficult work of building a digital subscription base as well as other means to diversify its revenue stream: only 40% of its revenue is ad-based. By its own estimation, The Awl stands to lose 75-85% of its revenue from ad blocking. Not The Times.

Ad blockers serve the needs of the consumer. Consumers like them. They will grow in popularity. Native content platforms from Apple, Facebook and others will be the new norm. 

Good publishers will learn how to thrive on native platforms. They'll boost their subscription bases. They'll sell sponsorships that are tasteful and appeal to their readership. They'll work with ad technology companies that can help them find ways to leverage their content without damaging the consumer experience or use their data in ways that aren't transparent.

Publishers will have to adapt, or die. Many will die. Many good people in the content industry will lose their jobs: writers, photographers, designers, developers and ad salespeople. It’s a very tough cycle.

Again, I’ve heard it all before. This doesn’t end well, except for consumers and the smart publishers and advertising partners that serve their needs.