The phrase “knowledge is power” has a long and impressive pedigree. Its first recorded use was in the 7th Century – and it is certainly as relevant today as it was then. It is especially true in Washington where, despite rhetoric to the contrary, knowledge is a much stronger currency that money. The scary stuff happens when money is used to buy knowledge that others don’t have access to. Most people think that lobbyists bribe and threaten people. That would not only be illegal and wrong, but also ineffective. The best lobbyists are the ones who know the exactly right people to peg for questions – and who then listen very carefully to the answers. People in this town are paid huge amounts of money just for knowing things that others don’t.
So that brings me to ad-blockers. People download ad-blockers because lots of digital ads are intrusive and otherwise stink. There is also a certain anti-corporatist, libertarian “stick it to the man” quality to blocking ads: “I am getting my content free, and it feels good!”
The problem is that by blocking ads you don’t “Stick it to The Man” – you just stick it to publishers who are trying to deliver good content to you. Advertisers don’t pay for ads you don’t see.
And don’t kid yourself that by blocking ads you are somehow just incentivizing publishers to come up with “better” ad formats. Publishers have all the incentive they need to develop better digital ads, if only to drive up the current very low value of those ads. What ad-blockers really incentivize are paywalls – with very high walls.
This model has already become popular for political news. As John Heltman recently described in Washington Monthly, there has been an explosion in the reporting on Washington policy from trade publications that are very expensive to subscribe to, and that you are unlikely to ever see. This is in addition to the vast expansion of “political intelligence” firms whose sole purpose is to follow important events in Washington and analyze them for people who have the capacity to pay a lot for the information. The result? Lobbyists, politicians and other influencers have access to detailed news about our government affairs, while our American voters cannot pay for those subscriptions.
If you think blocking ads will force a “new business model” for digital publishers, please note that the model already exists – and you might not be able to afford it. Like it or not, the ad-supported model is a great way to deliver lots of high quality information to the public at a very, very lost cost. If knowledge is power, then ad-blocking is a great way to make knowledge less available to you and to the broader public. And this is at a time when there is already huge concern about the relative power of “haves” and “have-nots”.
Believe me, The Man – whoever that may be – is more supportive of ad-blocking software than you could ever imagine.
David Chavern is former President & CEO of the News/Media Alliance. Chavern has 30 years of experience in executive strategic and operational roles. Prior to the Alliance, he completed a decade-long tenure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.