Victor Pickard on native ads and the new journalism economy

A Q&A with the scholar

Victor Pickard celebrated the Federal Communication Commission’s vote Thursday to regulate the internet as a public utility at an internet victory party in Washington, DC. For Pickard, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School of Communications, and an expert on global media activism, the decision is a win for the public good, and maybe even the future of journalism—two concerns that are very much on his mind as he sits down to write his next book.

Even though it’s still in its earliest stages, the book will stand on the shoulders of Pickard’s most recent work, America’s Battle For Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform, which he is currently on tour promoting. A slim, fast-paced account, it digs into a series of media policy battles that played out in the 1940s, when government and media activists fought to rein in powerful broadcasters and to articulate a role for radio and newspapers that served the public good, as opposed to commercial interests.

Their vision might have succeeded, were it not for Cold War paranoia, and an interpretation of freedom of speech that favored the rights of corporations over the rights of individuals. By the time the smoke had cleared, antitrust action had split NBC into two, but the efforts to make the news more local and less commercial were largely defeated. To Pickard, this failure to “unhook” the news from commercial pressures, and the subsequent triumph of “corporate libertarianism,” was a critical juncture in journalism that shaped the course of its future.

Now, while the impact of the FCC’s ruling remains uncertain, and native advertising colonizes the Web, journalism has arrived at another critical juncture. As policy makers seek to define the public interest in a digital age, Pickard’s body of scholarship may provide a useful, if controversial, road map to our current media environment. As he sees it, technology has changed, but the concerns of the 1940s—access, sustainable business models for the news, and the role of regulation—will be central to maximizing the democratic potential of the web, and nurturing the future of public service journalism.

I spoke with Pickard by phone. Our conversation has been lightly edited and abridged.

Your previous book argues that the commercial internet faces a norm-defining moment similar to that of commercial radio in the 1940s. How so? What is at stake?

In the 1940s, as a society, we were asking big, normative questions about what the role of media should be in a democratic society. Questions that sought to define a kind of social contract between media institutions, the public, and the government. That asked whether it was healthy to have a news media system so dependent on the market, or whether we should be creating structural alternatives. I think we’re facing a similar crossroads for determining whether our new media—or newish media—will become captured by commercial interests, or whether they are able to serve a higher democratic purpose.

So those earlier battles to keep the airwaves free of corporate monopolies, and the moral concerns about ads invading the news, are being repeated today?

Yes, and net neutrality is kind of exhibit A. If we preserve net neutrality protections, our internet will develop one way. If we lose those protections our internet will develop in a very different way. So we’re certainly in a pivotal moment.

How do native ads fit in? What’s your take on them?

I think they are an unsurprising outcome of a system that has been driven by commercial values. And I would say that the lack of transparency, and the lack of public conversation around their use, are grounds for concern. As a society, we should be reckoning with the relentless commercial pressures on news organizations, which have been made even more dramatic with the collapse of the traditional print advertising model. I’m troubled by what’s happening, not just with native advertising, but with the trajectory of journalism in general. I think our heavily commercialized model is problematic for a democratic society.

But ads have been subsidizing the news for at least a century. Are native ads really any different than the “singing jingles” you describe in your book?

It’s true that advertisers are always trying to colonize new social platforms, and the public has always reacted negatively to them at first. You had companies in the 1940s sponsor radio programming and, of course, that’s where we get the term soap operas. Advertorials have been around for a long time. But qualitatively, we are seeing a difference. This reliance on subterfuge, on creating confusion between editorial and advertising content, is taking it to a new level.

Our ability to evaluate where information is coming from, what values it might be representing, whose interests it might be serving, is essential to our democracy. But it’s very difficult to makes those evaluations when information is camouflaged. This speaks to whether a native ad is actually an ad or not. More broadly, if a particular news organization has this cozy relationship with a pharmaceutical company, and over time they lose their ability to do hard-hitting investigative pieces about the wrongs that the pharmaceutical industry perpetuates, that also shifts and distorts information.

One argument you hear a lot is that readers don’t care where content comes from, as long as that content is good, informative, or funny. Does that argument square with the role of the press?

No, I think it’s self-serving. There should never be confusion as to the source of news content. I think it’s dangerous for a democratic society.

How does “corporate libertarianism” fit in here? What does that phrase actually mean?

It’s a term that came about in the course of my research for this book. It’s an ideology that emphasizes individual liberties over collective liberties, over the rights of the public. You saw this around net neutrality debates when Verizon argued that net neutrality would be a violation of its first amendment rights. But it also speaks to this broader ideological context where we assume that commercial values will guide us, guide our media system, with very little role for government intervention.

You see that laissez faire mentality in the fact that advertisers are being expected to regulate themselves when it comes to native ads.

The Federal Trade Commission has been scrutinizing their use to some degree, but there’s been little concrete action. So we’re essentially deferring to self-regulation and market forces. It amounts to “drift” in that we’re just sort of letting the ship steer itself. This is part of the overall lack of transparency with native ads. The public is not being invited to talk about their implications for a democratic society. Should we be alarmed? Should we be intervening? That’s the kind of discussion we should be having right now.

How do we get that discussion going?

If we believe that a free and healthy press system is necessary for self-governance, then the commercialization of journalism is something that should concern us. News media are not just widgets. They aren’t things that are being bought and sold on the market. They have a special role in a democratic society, and since they’re not being sufficiently supported by the market, nor by individuals, it therefore requires policy intervention to support and sustain it. That context needs to be brought into focus when we talk about this growing use of native ads, which is really just symptomatic of commercial pressures, this desperate hunt for a new commercial model that will support journalism.

Is the new journalism economy—the BuzzFeeds of the world—incompatible with public service journalism?

I think first of all we should embrace good journalism regardless of its source. I do think commercial models can produce public service journalism as a kind of a positive externality even though their first aim might be to maintain a profitable enterprise. But I think that it’s important for us to have a mixed media system with structural diversity—a system that has commercial models but also has healthy and varied non-commercial models. One way to get around native advertising is to have news agencies that aren’t dependent on it for revenue.

There are certain tax structures that could be tweaked to make this more of a viable option. We should be looking at ways to expand our already existing public media system. One of the things that I argue for in my book is to leverage already existing public infrastructure, even post offices and public libraries, and transform them into community media centers. I think municipal broadband is another great example of a public alternative to commercial model. Unhooking the news from these profit imperatives, and also introducing a level of competition in markets that are often dominated by monopolies and duopolies. If we assume that the future of journalism is digital, then we also have to be concerned about these structural questions. Really, journalism itself should be thought of as a kind of infrastructure, necessary for democracy.

Okay, so regulations could make our media more democratic. But would Americans ever go for it?

When the public is aware of the stakes involved—and again, I’m speaking of the public as this monolithic thing, which I know of course it is not—I think generally people are more open to these public-interest interventions. The fact that nearly 4 million people wrote to the FCC, 99 percent of which were in support of Net Neutrality, shows you that there isn’t always this knee-jerk reaction against regulation when it’s done on the public’s behalf.

This tension between commercial interests and the public interest is at the heart of much of your work. What do you hope to explore in your next book?

I want to look internationally at what other democratic societies are doing with regards to protecting journalism in the digital age. And with native ads becoming such an important part of the new business model, I’m going to be critically assessing their role in our digital media ecosystem. I also hope to look at whether these experiments with digital natives are financially sustainable, and whether they’re producing the kind of journalism that a democracy requires. Of course, that means my book will also have to get into how we measure that. How do we decide what levels of journalism our democracy requires? I’ll be looking at what the founders of our republic had to say about these questions, and also whether we need to update those assumptions.

What would you say to someone who thinks that journalism is broken, or that native ads are a necessary evil?

The idea that our media system was natural, or inevitable, is a fallacy. I mean, it’s the direct result of earlier political battles, power struggles over public policy that determine many of our assumptions about what a media system should look like in a democratic society, and also set the trajectory of how our media system developed and evolved. So often in our discourses about journalism’s future we treat it as this business thing. And yet we know that journalism is much more precious than that. That democracy depends on it. So I think that’s what we need to bring back into focus as we try and chart its future.

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Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.