In his email to staff about the decision to shut down Jezebel and lay off its staff G/O Media CEO Jim Spanfeller said that “our business model and the audiences we serve across our network did not align with Jezebel’s.”
Lauren Tousignant, Jezebel’s interim editor in chief, told 404 Media that Jezebel was told “brand safety,” the fact that advertisers don’t want to be next to the type of content Jezebel was publishing, was “one of the biggest factors” that led G/O to stop publishing the site and lay off its staff. Tousignant said that a couple of weeks ago, the ads sales team asked if it could remove Jezebel’s tagline—“Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth”—from the site.
“They took it off because they're like, let's see if this makes a huge difference,” Tousignant said. “So yeah, it was very much the problem here that no one will advertise on Jezebel because we cover sex and abortion. I know taking the tagline off was to see if the algorithm advertising would change. After it was removed one of the editorial directors was like, ‘I'm seeing an ad for J Crew for the first time ever, maybe this will be good.’”
G/O Media has a long history of destroying or otherwise undermining the work of beloved media outlets that have done incredibly important work. Spanfeller blames, as is seemingly required in every CEO layoff notice, “economic headwinds” and “macroeconomic news.” Spanfeller and Great Hill Partners have, surely, mismanaged Jezebel in ways both big and small, and Spanfeller and G/O haven’t given anyone a reason to take their words at face value, but the subtext here is that Jezebel’s content was hard to sufficiently monetize.
This should not be the case considering that millions of people read it and chose, specifically, to visit Jezebel every month. But this is unfortunately how the internet works now, and has for a long time: News terrifies brands big and small, to the point where “brand safety” and “brand suitability” have become gigantic industries that have brought even giants like Facebook and Google to heel.
In theory, the “free market” should reward publications that are doing important work. The more people care about a given issue the more they’ll read news stories about it, which should give publications covering it traffic and ad dollars. In reality, the advertising industry has singled out the issues the audience cares about most, like reproductive rights, as unsuitable to sell ads against, even though a ton of people want to read about them. This helps explain the precarity of publications like Jezebel, despite it being more vital to its audience than ever.
The death of Jezebel under this set of circumstances is particularly cruel considering that voters overwhelmingly voted to enshrine abortion protections and against politicians who made the dehumanization of trans people one of their key policies.
“The closure of Jezebel also underscores fundamental flaws in the ad-supported media model where concerns about ‘brand safety’ limit monetizing content about the biggest, most important stories of the day—stories that create huge traffic because people read and share them,” Jezebel staff said in a statement from its union, the Writers Guild of America. “A well-run company would have moved away from an advertising model, but instead they are shuttering the brand entirely because of their strategic and commercial ineptitude. Jezebel was a good website.”
G/O Media provided 404 Media with the memo it sent to staff but did not answer specific questions.
“Exclude content relating to negative news or sentiment around sensitive social issues such as immigration, abortion, euthanasia, vaccines … includes educational, informative, and scientific content related to the topic.”
Brands, the marketing giants they hire, and the technology companies that enforce “brand safety” are overwhelmingly conservative about advertising against news content, in a way that has been devastating to ad-supported news sites. The “economic headwinds” for the news industry that media execs love to talk about is in reality the complete and utter collapse of the advertising market for news under the sheer cowardice of many brands and marketing firms.
“What’s happened is this perfect storm of marketers becoming increasingly wary of getting caught up in the culture wars and being punished for it, even though there’s virtually no evidence that advertising against news leads to that,” Lou Paskalis, chief strategy officer of Adfontes Media, which helps advertisers measure bias among media outlets, told 404 Media. “And so, at the very time when news has become more important to keep the electorate informed, marketers have pulled back from their responsibility.”
This means that many brands and the marketing agencies that work for them are scared not just of the important topics that Jezebel covered, but are also scared of having their ads next to news articles about the war in Gaza, coverage of “Free Palestine” protests, coverage of terrorism, extremism, and white nationalism, articles about sex and porn, and so on.
“It’s lamentable but not surprising that Jezebel shut down because they covered provocative topics, topics that the electorate needed to be informed about and topics that people care about and that attract interest,” he added. “But advertisers are abdicating their responsibility to support news out of an unfounded fear that they might harm themselves.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that the largest companies in the world are colluding to put their thumb on the scales of what types of news is monetized, and which types of news is monetized at lower rates or not not monetized at all. The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) is listed by the World Economic Forum as one of its “projects” and includes every major marketing agency, as well as brands like Nike, Merck, Nestle, Proctor and Gamble, TikTok, Disney, Walmart, Adidas, BP, Shell, Goldman Sachs, Electronic Arts, McDonalds, and more. It represents 90 percent of all advertising dollars spent in the entire world—$900 billion in spend per year.
In August WFA wrote in a blog post that “the risks are rising for big brands” because of “today’s geo-politics, marked by polarization and its accompanying 24/7 newsreel.”
“In the wake of the conservative backlash against Bud Light, Nike, Target, and others, we have witnessed unprecedented desire on the part of WFA members to share insights and concerns in private on how to manage risk and reputation,” they wrote. “After all, it only takes one marketer sending a personalized can of beer to a transgender TikToker for all hell to break loose.”
In 2019 a WFA group called the “Global Alliance for Responsible Media” (GARM) published the “Brand Safety Floor + Suitability Framework,” a document that helps guide how brands approach brand safety and suitability.
“The goal of the GARM brand safety floor is to identify and benchmark content categories that pose a risk to advertisers, ensuring they can actively take steps to limit their exposure to that content, or exclude it altogether,” Peer39, an ad-targeting tech company, explained in a blog post.
The GARM guidelines were last updated in September. WFA did not respond to a request for comment.
That framework states that content that depicts “debated sensitive social issues” in an “irresponsible” way to “incite greater conflict” is “not appropriate for any advertising support.” More importantly, it states that “discussion of debated social issues and related acts in negative or partisan context” is of “high risk” to advertisers and “breaking news or op-ed coverage” of such issues is of “Medium Risk.”
The document doesn’t explain what constitutes a “debated sensitive social issue.” According to the experts 404 Media talked to for this story, it means different things to different advertisers, agencies, and individual humans, and is ultimately adjudicated in practice by flawed third-party artificial intelligence programs that, for example, measure the “sentiment and emotional analysis” and “context” of an article or piece of content to determine if it is safe or “suitable” for a specific brand to appear next to. For publishers—that is, websites like Jezebel or any others publishing news—there is almost never any transparency into exactly why an article has been deemed unsuitable for ads.
Broad policies are fed into adtech software and to the largest advertising platforms in the world, like Google, and are then used to make sure that brands don’t have “adjacency” to content that could—in the eyes of this specific industry—damage a brand’s reputation. Last week, Google reiterated in a blog post that brands can choose to avoid advertising against things such as “News (sensitive)” and “News (recent)” and “Health (sensitive)” and “Politics.” GARM has also been working on a framework to help the industry determine exactly how far away ads need to be from different types of content.
“Third Party Safety and suitability providers contribute to the demonetization challenges faced by news publishers,” Arielle Garcia, the founder of ASG Solutions and an ad data expert, told 404 Media. “While these providers tout their contextual and semantic intelligence as enabling a more 'nuanced' approach, the reality is that there is subjectivity and opacity in how these providers classify and assign risk levels to content—and this classification methodology is not consistent between providers. Historically, this has had a greater impact on news publishers that cover topics deemed to be more sensitive or serious, where more of their content is likely to be flagged as 'unsafe.'”
“There is a lot of non-specificity in the tech itself, and brands are pretty risk averse to avoid controversy, or even the appearance of controversy,” Krzysztof Franaszek founder of the Adalytics ad quality and transparency platform told 404 Media. “This may have unintended consequences where they basically defund or demonetize certain journalism.”
How all of this works in practice is pretty complicated. It’s not the case that sites like Jezebel have no ads on them. Programmatic ads work with an auction system where advertisers “bid” for placement against certain types of content. Many brand safety tools “pre-bid,” so news content that is deemed risky by adtech systems are likely to sell ads to lower-quality advertisers for rates that are much lower than brand safe content.
Franaszek’s research has claimed that words like “abortion,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “wade,” “gay,” “transgender,” “sexual,” regularly show up on brand safety keyword blocklists, which four different industry experts told 404 Media are extensive, ever growing, and rarely updated. Integral Ad Science, one of the third-party companies that helps brands with brand safety ad suitability, said what Franaszek found was “not advertiser blocklists.” One expert who requested anonymity to talk about specifics, said that the names of towns where mass shootings occurred would sometimes be placed on advertiser blocklists then never removed.
Tousignant also explained that Jezebel was told not to put certain words like “fucking” or “suck” in a headline unless it was directly quoting someone, something 404 Media’s founders dealt with at VICE as well. She explained how Jezebel’s former EIC got in trouble for publishing an article about how to go down on a woman not because of the content of the article, but because it told readers to just learn how to “fucking” do it. “We got in a lot of trouble for that,” she said.
The same third-party companies that make software that brands use to track “violations” also make software that publishers can use to track and improve their own brand safety, which changes the incentives of publishers and can incentivize business execs to put pressure on journalists to write more brand safe articles or to simply lay off the journalists or teams that primarily do brand unsafe work altogether. Companies in this industry advertise on their websites that they have begun to move away from large keyword blocklists and have moved more toward sentiment analysis and other ways of determining brand suitability, but it’s not clear that that’s actually much better for publishers when the main goal is still to stay away from controversy.
“Exclude content relating to protests, demonstrations, brutality, and riots that elicit negative feelings such as fear, sadness, horror, and suffering as rated by the IAS semantic intelligence engine”
A company called DoubleVerify published a “Global Insights Report” that says “brand suitability violations can spike anytime, anywhere … elections, economic events, geopolitical concerns, and even celebrity meltdowns contribute to the volatility of news cycles. In fact, brand suitability violations can swing up to 27 percent from one day to the next.” What this is measuring, of course, is the “ad suitability” of the nature of reality and the total output of humankind on the internet. Another giant in the industry, Integral Ads Science, published a “Geo-Political Conflicts Guide” responding to the war in Ukraine that noted “news and quality journalism is more important than ever” but that war presents a “complex situation for advertisers and publishers.”
“Leverage our cognitive semantic intelligence engine to best decipher what content fits your unique brand needs,” the document reads, then notes that advertisers can choose to block all sorts of potential topics, especially those that may elicit negative emotions as detected by its artificial intelligence: “Exclude content relating to negative news or sentiment around sensitive social issues such as immigration, abortion, euthanasia, vaccines … includes educational, informative, and scientific content related to the topic.”
“Exclude content relating to protests, demonstrations, brutality, and riots that elicit negative feelings such as fear, sadness, horror, and suffering as rated by the IAS semantic intelligence engine,” it adds.
One ad industry executive who requested anonymity because he had not been authorized by his employer to speak to the media told 404 Media that the “advertising industry needs to get over themselves and understand that people want to read about current events and that current events are often not brand safe, according to our current definition of the word.”
John Montgomery, the Chief Marketing Officer for the gigantic brand agency GroupM, which spends billions of dollars on advertising annually, said in July 2020 that initially brands didn’t want to place ads next to stories about COVID-19, and specifically the death tolls from the pandemic.
“As it happens, it was a largely unwarranted concern,” he said. “Consumers don’t seem to worry too much about brands being next to hard news. In fact, sometimes it’s even better for them.” Montgomery went on to explain that, eventually, “85 percent of our clients were no longer blocking news, or were blocking news in a much more sophisticated way.” Stories specifically about how advertisers eventually came to understand that advertising next to news about Black Lives Matter protests and COVID-19 (after initially blocking it) because people care about it are common in the industry and are used to show that the brand safety industry cares about journalism and the news.
The irony of all of this, of course, is that ads end up in places they’re nominally not supposed to be, all the time, and ads are filtered away from high-quality sites doing high-quality journalism like Jezebel to garbage, low-quality websites all the time. For example, mere weeks ago 404 Media saw ads for Sephora, United Airlines, and Canva delivered by Google, next to Goatse, an image of a man spreading his asshole into a gaping chasm with both hands, on websites that steal internet games from other creators, which is an act of piracy, which violates the GARM brand safety guidelines. Society has not, to this point, begun a cancel culture crusade against these brands for being adjacent to this content.
Paskalis recently published a “Programmatic Transparency Study” that showed that 21 percent of impressions in his dataset went to “Made for Advertising” websites (MFAs), which are trash websites that plagiarize content, are literally spam, pay for fake traffic, or are autogenerated websites that serve no other purpose than capturing ad dollars. His study found that when advertisers were trying to run ads on an “inclusion list” of 6,000 websites, their ads ended up on more than 44,000 different sites, many of them low quality. ”So, where are these ad verification companies?” Paskalis said.
“The net effect is that MFAs are often beating out the very best news sites in the programmatic marketplace for brand safety reasons when in fact they are far more concerning from a brand suitability and user experience perspective,” Paskalis wrote in an article for Fortune.
Through this lens, it is no shock or surprise that G/O Media is moving away from Jezebel, which covers topics that are not always “brand suitable” with nuance and is moving toward letting robots shit out brand safe AI-assisted articles about generic topics.
There is a huge opportunity for brands to buy ads on websites that have a dedicated readership and cover important issues people care about in an uncompromising way. It should not be difficult for advertisers to understand the value that websites like Jezebel and VICE (which made more drastic cuts to its News division Thursday) bring to their readers. But this requires an ad sales team that can explain to ad agencies and brands that their money is better spent reaching dedicated readers rather than bots and people who accidentally end up on MFA sites. More importantly, it requires the brands buying the advertisements and the ad agencies that represent them to be brave. (VICE, to its credit, publicly railed against brand safety and blocklists for years).
“We will lose this democracy if we lose journalism,” Paskalis said. “There is a clear business opportunity of advertising in news. News audiences are more attractive if you look at it from a socioeconomic status perspective […] This means you’ll undoubtedly get a higher return on advertising spend when you advertise in the news.”
This broken business model of digital media is why, when we launched 404 Media, we decided to go with a primarily reader-funded subscription model. As we have slowly and cautiously started putting advertisements on our website for non-members in an attempt to diversify our revenue sources, we have been repeatedly demonetized or dinged by Google for publishing articles that are not brand safe (this, on top of already paltry programmatic ad rates).
We believe all of our articles have value, and that advertisers would be well-served to pay us in order to reach our audience (if this is something your brand is interested in, you can learn more here). It can, and has been the case that we have spent days or weeks on an in-depth investigation, published that investigation, been thanked by readers for shedding light on an issue they didn’t know about, been aggregated by our peers in the industry, and then have learned later that our article was deemed as unsuitable for programmatic advertising by a machine learning algorithm. This is the landscape that Jezebel and every other news outlet is playing in.
But creating a functional, sustainable business using advertising alone is incredibly difficult when the most powerful corporations in the world are banding together to put their thumbs on the scale about what is acceptable to be monetized and AI is constantly changing what the rules are, with no transparency and no possible recourse from publishers.
“Publishers that sell and make their top line revenue from online advertising can find it operates like an unfair casino, but where only the dealer knows the rules and the house can make decisions that reset everything in their favor at any time,” Joshua Lowcock, President, Media at Quad, a marketing experience company, told 404 Media. “Everyone in the industry needs to call out this unfair behavior and demand full transparency on pricing, decision making, and how auctions work to benefit both the advertisers as well as publishers. I believe there is also a role for regulators who need to step in and provide oversight of what is currently more than a billion-dollar unregulated financial market.”
Digital media businesses have been slow to move away from advertising-only models, and digital media executives deserve a huge portion of the blame for the commercial failure of their brands. But mismanagement alone isn’t the only reason the news media is failing. It’s because there’s an entire advertising industry that has fucked the internet, and fucked society.
“Being at Jezebel and being told, ‘you guys write about abortion and sex, it's really hard to sell you.’ Like, why? You can't go to a sex toy company? Obviously we had good traffic, we had good readership, people want stories that aren't super watered down," Tousignant said. "I guess apart from worker-owned media brands or someone having a Substack that people subscribed to, I'm not sure publications like this can keep going or exist.”