The thorny issue of adblocking: Free online newspapers rely on ads to survive. But people are finding ways to circumvent them – and the results could be disastrous, says Stephen Glover
One of the more annoying experiences of modern life is being assaulted by noisy advertisements online. You may be quietly reading an article on a newspaper website, and all of a sudden an aggressive male voice starts bellowing, instructing you in not very polite terms to buy his wares, and sometimes refusing to let you read on until he has had his say. Short of smashing your computer screen, you do everything you can to shut this presumptuous intruder up.
That, at any rate, is my experience. Online advertisements are becoming a pain. So when I recently read that the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, had described so-called adblocking as a ‘modern-day protection racket’ I scratched my head in wonderment. If the purveyors of adblocking are gangsters, presumably the people who use adblocking software – readily obtainable online with the flick of a mouse – are also criminals.
Is this fair? Don’t many of us practise adblocking without feeling we deserve to be locked up? Whenever I record a programme on my Sky Box, I fast-forward any advertisements when I come to watch it. I also admit that I tend to shake out the inserts to be found in many magazines into the wastepaper basket. No doubt many readers pore over them, just as some people will gladly watch the ads on programmes they have recorded. It’s a matter of choice. Advertisers realise that not every insert is read religiously, and not every television commercial imbibed.
However irritating many online advertisements may be, the practice of blocking them is growing so fast that it could threaten the livelihood of newspaper websites. According to some estimates, almost a quarter of web-users now have software that effortlessly vaporises all advertisements. The young are more likely to do so than the old, no doubt because they spend so many hours online and encounter more ads. They are also probably more adept at finding the software to deal with them. In any event, online publishers are becoming alarmed, and one can see their point.
Newspapers that don’t charge online have no source of income other than advertising. Readers who block ads are therefore getting something – the journalism they are reading, which costs money – without the producer receiving anything by way of return. If adblocking became ubiquitous, perhaps not a very likely outcome, these newspaper websites would be driven out of business, which would be bad for society and democracy and all the rest of it.
Even without adblocking, things are not looking very rosy for online publishers. Look, for example, at the Guardian. It is the second or third most widely read online newspaper in the world – a magnificent achievement. But its global online revenues of just over
£80 million a year are significantly less than the revenues of its print version, which sells only 165,000 copies a day, about a third of its circulation of thirty years ago. Mail Online, the biggest online newspaper in the world, had revenues of £73 million last year in comparison with the £499 million generated by the printed Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday. Undoubted online successes though they are, Mail Online and the Guardian are struggling to compete with the huge beasts of the internet such as Google and Facebook, which suck advertising towards themselves like giant vacuum cleaners. In 2015, Google’s global advertising revenues were £35 billion in comparison with the Guardian’s measly £80 million.
And now online publishers have adblocking to add to their list of woes. They have been pumping Mr Whittingdale up into a state of high indignation, and he has agreed to set up a round table to discuss the issue. But what could it do? The culture secretary isn’t going to make adblocking illegal. Newspapers have developed software that enables them to communicate with the people who have blocked their ads, so that they can plead with them to desist. That hardly sounds like a perfect solution to the problem.
A better approach would be to make online advertisements shorter and less intrusive – and more alluring. After all, most of us do not normally object to advertisements in newspapers or magazines. We may sometimes even rather enjoy reading them. Because the web gives advertisers the power to collar us, some of them have forgotten the adage that advertising should not be coercive. They are like bores in a pub who insist on shouting at you, and won’t let you get a word in edgeways. Publishers should try to educate advertisers into accepting that a gentler, less hectoring tone is likely to be more effective.
I fear I am increasingly pessimistic about the ability of free online newspapers to make enough money to support proper journalism. That is why I tremble a little for the Independent, whose only future is now online. If we spurn its ads, we’ll only make its life more difficult. But unless advertisements on websites become less noisy and bullying, more and more of us will resort to blocking them.