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The Ad Industry Bailed On News. Can An AI Solution Offer A Way Back?
When advertisers decide how much bias they want in the news sites they support, we may get closer to a shared reality.
For the past five years, a small startup called Ad Fontes Media has been categorizing publications based on their bias and allowing advertisers to buy ads with its data. The aim is to restore a common truth in society by moving money to publications that may not agree, but at least don’t deny their opponents’ existence.
Advertisers, until recently, have had some limitations with the stories they’ve been able to buy via Ad Fontes, which has labeled each piece of content by hand, but a new AI model is changing that. The company’s using the approximately 70,000 pieces of content it’s labeled with panels of right, left, and center-leaning raters to build a model that can categorize tens of thousands of articles each day. The result might reopen news to advertisers who’ve opted out of the format completely.
“We have the largest set of labeled data for this in the world,” Ad Fontes CEO Vanessa Otero told me this week. “So we can now score articles at scale for reliability and bias and it's quite accurate compared to our own human ratings.”
Advertisers have all but abandoned news, slashing their newspaper spending by 80% since 2005 and largely avoiding news sites. The spending purge began as news moved online and started competing with every other website. But a push toward ‘brand safety,’ where any story slightly controversial lands on a blocklist, finished it off.
Brand safety began as a sensible idea, keeping advertisers away from beheading videos and other disturbing content, but it expanded into cowardice. As its scope crept, advertisers made news stories about politics, health, and social issues off limits. And when they pulled away, newsrooms collapsed, and partisans responsible to nothing but their own interests took over the discussion. Our shared sense of reality dissolved.
The evolution of news bears some responsibility for advertiser skittishness. The category has sprawled online, and the edges have turned nasty, making brands feel uncomfortable running ads on websites that use news as a cover for advocacy and attacks. By narrowing down the level of bias, Ad Fontes hopes to entice these brands back.
“High quality investigative reporting is expensive,” Otero said. “So if you have enough brands pulling away from that kind of content, you see this degradation in our media landscape where good journalism suffers, and garbage out there thrives. So that's what we're really trying to change in the ecosystem.”
This doesn’t mean that Ad Fontes supports only established publications, suffocating those who’d challenge the status quo. It also rates upstarts, including news startup The Messenger, which falls on the more centrist area of its chart. But the work still remains such a political challenge that advertisers are reticent to publicize their participation.
“I'm not going to mention any [advertiser] names without prior express permission,” Otero said. “Because when it comes to things like political bias and how ad brands make decisions about where they advertise, as you can imagine, some are a little sensitive.”
Still, Ad Fontes data is now available in the automated ad buying tools that advertisers use to buy ads across the internet. And as its AI model evolves, it’s going to offer even more scale, which should bring in more dollars. In a society where people struggle to speak to those with different political values, the company has an outside shot at funding news sites that would restore the basis upon which we disagree. It’s a shot worth taking.
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What Else I’m Reading, Etc.
Good riddance to Apple’s lightning cord [Atlantic]
Google’s antitrust case is the most significant in decades [Axios]
Arm pops on its first day of trading [CNBC]
“Barbie” was just the first in a series of movies in the Mattel universe [New Yorker]
Hyper-local weather influencers are taking over Indian social media [Rest of World]
The Copyright Office wants the public to weigh in on AI regulation [Ars Technica]
Wait, cold medication didn’t work all along? [The Atlantic]
Mitt Romney’s reflections on the Senate [The Atlantic]
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Number Of The Week
The hours each week that the United Auto Workers would like to work while demanding a 36% pay increase ahead of a strike.
Quote Of The Week
“The SEC’s regulation by enforcement-only approach is costing the US millions of jobs and pushing opportunity offshore”
Coinbase criticized the SEC for mistreating the crypto industry.
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This Week on Big Technology Podcast: A Dozen Grueling Years At Amazon — With Kristi Coulter
Kristi Coulter worked at Amazon for twelve years and is the author of the new book, Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Ambitious Career. She joins Big Technology Podcast to discuss the state of Amazon today: What is it? Who should be leading it? Where's the culture going? Then, she discusses her experience at the company, which she details in depth in the book. We talk about the paranoia within the company, the difficulty Amazon employees have switching jobs, why she stayed, and everything she wishes could've said at the exit interview that never happened.
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