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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

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February 29, 2024updated 08 Mar 2024 11:31am

Just say ‘yes’ to cookies: Five ways to save quality journalism on the open web

Journalism on the open web matters. Here are some ways we can save it.

By Dominic Ponsford

At a recent gathering of investigative journalists I heard plenty about the challenges they face in today’s industry.

A creeping culture of Government secrecy, which pervades everything from adherence to the Freedom of Information Act to the attitude of press officers, was one common refrain.

The other major challenge they reported was the fact their resources were not equal to the task in hand meaning that good stories are going untold.

Ten years ago online advertising funded a boom in investigative journalism from the likes of Buzzfeed News, Vice News and Exaro. All are no more.

Heavy cuts at a local level, with perhaps 9,000 out of 13,000 local newspaper journalism jobs cut since the mid-2000s, mean local news reporters must feel like the boy with his finger in the proverbial dyke.

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Shortly before Christmas I tipped off my local paper about a serious stabbing involving a child at a public event in a nearby village which was the talk of the school gates. In my corner of Sussex a quick Google reveals that this is a once-in-a-decade level of news story but, even after a second tip from me once the perpetrator had been sentenced, there has been no coverage whatsoever from the publisher that serves our part of the country, National World.

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Journalism matters because it is the thing that highlights and addresses all the other things which are broken in Britain – from non-existent children’s mental health services to public roads that resemble the surface of the moon.

It is in all our interests that public interest journalism is cherished and given the best possible conditions to survive. So what can be done to promote it? Here is my shopping list.

1) Just say yes to cookies

The technical infrastructure that enables website publishers to serve effective and targeted advertising needs to be codified so that minimum standards are enforced and privacy respected.

These files should give away no personal information but simply allow publishers to show readers more relevant advertising. If the price of a free press is me being followed around the internet by the same adverts for a garden shed, then perhaps it is a price worth paying.

Google’s decision to stop supporting publisher cookies on Chrome could cost publishers huge amounts of advertising revenue. To allow a free advertising market, and so a free press, the Government should step in to ensure content creators have as much chance to benefit from advertising as the content aggregators such as Google and Facebook.

And the ICO needs to allow cookie consent procedures for publishers which promote journalism. Their recent ruling about giving prominence to a “reject all” button could cost Mail Online alone £41m a year, the publisher told Parliament this week. Publishers should be giving readers a cookie-consent button that says “support journalism” or “support a few dominant US tech platforms”.

2) Allow publishers to lobby collectively

Competition rules currently forbid news brands from negotiating en-masse with tech giants. This is despite the fact that collectively they make less than 10% of the £15bn+ a year that Google and Meta make out of UK advertising.

Publishers should be allowed to collectively negotiate with the tech platforms and then do so robustly. An auction could then ensue whereby one tech platform was given preferential access to professionally-produced content and other platforms were locked out. We would then find out the true value of having high-quality human-produced journalism on your platform versus user-generated bile and AI-written drivel.

The UK Government is currently highly distracted by the sale of one right-wing news brand to a foreign-owned investment vehicle, and looks likely to block the deal altogether. Yet it sits on its hands while a few US tech companies quietly annexe our entire news industry by stealing their complete published archives.

ChatGPT and others have already taken everything that has ever been written by journalists and published online. And they will soon be helping themselves to current affairs coverage to answer real-time queries about what is going on in the world.

Ownership of the things we journalists make needs to be re-established in law, and soon, so licensing deals can be struck to reflect the true value of what we do.

4) Spend government advertising on things that help government work

The UK Governent has a vested interest in journalism functioning because without it democracy can’t function either. Elections depend on an electorate being informed by something other than social media echo chambers which are highly susceptible to being hijacked by, for want of a better term, dark forces.

So the UK Government, one of the country’s biggest advertisers, should target the vast majority of its £100m+ budget towards places which support journalism.

5) The platforms which benefit from professional content should be forced to pay for it

This will hopefully addressed in the Digital Markets Bill which should force Google, Meta and probably Tiktok to the bargaining table.

The modern-day newsstand is increasingly the Google Discover, or Apple News, content feed which sits in everyone’s pocket. Access to this golden gateway to readers is secret as are the rules which govern who is shown what. Apple has currently shut up shop as regards allowing new publishers on to its app, which is by far the most popular news app in the UK (thanks to the preferential status Apple gives it on its own devices).

Obscenely, Apple not only takes a share of the advertising revenue against publisher content – it charges publishers to be on its app. With 14 million users in the UK it has so much power in terms of controlling access to readers that if it asked publishers to pop over to its offices every morning and do ten press-ups in the lobby whilst dressed as clowns, they would probably comply.

Google pays billions for its Discover feed to have pride of place on Android devices so that it can pocket all the money from every fifth story shown (which is an advert).

Fair terms of trade need to be established so that access to these monopolistic walled gardens is fair and publishers are rewarded for the content they provide. The same goes for search more widely and news on Tiktok.


To a certain extent publishers have to suck up the fact that tech platforms provide a better advertising solution than they do and that certain types of advertising have become disaggregated from content.

But that still leaves a huge amount to be done in terms of promoting a level playing field between publishers and platforms which enables independent quality journalism on the open web to have a chance of surviving.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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