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It's time for a discussion about malvertising

Security, meet the requirement for an informed and educated populace

Sysadmin Blog I don't know that I can afford to read the news anymore. As a columnist for several tech magazines I find this somewhat ironic, but my occupation makes the truth of it no less real. Technology can solve this problem for me, but politics probably won't allow it.

News can be consumed in a few different ways. The first through traditional media: television, newspaper and radio. I haven't been able to afford anything but freeview television in over a decade and the newspapers I can obtain here in Edmonton, Alberta are either irrelevantly local or so partisan that the demanded subscription fees feel like robbery.

I can consume news through the internet. Twitter is its own form of real-time news, but suffers from horrible inaccuracy and a rushing-to-judgement that would make Fox News blush. Reddit serves a similar purpose, but acts mostly as a curation device for news written by other sources. Both Twitter and Reddit force the reader to come face to face with just how horrible human beings are to one another and can cause despair-induced suicidal ideation quicker than reading Youtube comments.

There are professional news outlets that publish online, many of which are linked to by social media such as Twitter, Reddit or Facebook. The quality of the professional news outlets varies greatly, but anyone with a little experience will know which publications are more likely to produce unbiased news.

For me, this is great! I love online news! There is a diversity of thought and opinion available. Events can be seen from multiple angles, with each publication having its own unique strengths and weaknesses in real-time news gathering, analysis and adjacent event injection. I don't know why, but I really like learning things.

Unfortunately, if I want to read online news, increasingly I am faced with one of two choices: turn off my browser's defences, or pay a subscription fee. This is a problem.

Love only me

News outlets like money. Who doesn't? Many of the news outlets that I frequent have erected paywalls, especially for those running adblockers. For some it is an outright ban on reading their articles if you don't pay. For others there is a fixed "free" article limit before the paywall kicks in. More and more I find myself hitting that "free" article limit.

The problem is that I'm not sure that I read enough of any but a handful of news outlets to justify a subscription. If The Register said "pony up" I would do so. For tech, it is easily my primary news source and the jumping-off point for learning things I need to learn for my job.

But how many other magazines do I read that much? The CBC, certainly. I pay that subscription with my tax dollars and I am more than happy with the return on investment. The National Observer is a publication I find myself hitting the paywall limit on, and that I will probably pony up the $12/mo subscription for.

There are, however, over a dozen outlets that I hit the wall on every month. I can't pay $12/month for every one of them. I just don't have that kind of money. Fortunately, the first movement towards a compromise solution has appeared.

Startup solutions

A startup called Blendle has appeared. Hailed by many of the earliest news organizations to sign up for it as the "iTunes of journalism", it is pretty much what you'd expect from a technologist's attempt to resolve journalism's money problems.

Blendle, like iTunes, takes 30% off the top, leaving only 70% for publishers. Given that Blendle is trying to "disrupt" the business model of an industry that is absolutely dying on its feet, this alone makes me skeptical of Blendle's long term viability.

Blendle lets people read an article then demand their money back. I'm not sure I'm OK with that. I fear it could lead to people demanding money back simply because they don't agree with the author's conclusions or because they don't like reality and want someone to spin them a comforting fantasy instead.

There is also the fact that Blendle is of itself a means to incentivise publishers towards clickbait. Website statistics have already done journalism irreparable harm in this regard, but money speaks even louder.

I fear homogeneity in news investigation and reporting. There are over seven billion people on Earth; surely there are enough of us that there is profit to be made in something other than listicles, "one weird trick" and bloody-minded xenophobic fearmongering!

There doesn't appear to be a means in Blendle to incentivise great reporting. I cannot, for example, tell the thing that I am unwilling under any circumstances to pay for a listicle, but that I will pay double for long form critical analysis and up to 10x the going rate of a standard article for proper investigative journalism.

Blendle also has curated "lists" of articles, which I find terrifying. Anything that herds people into reading only that which reinforces their existing biases is big time bad news. The world is already polarized enough, we don't need help hating each other.

In short: Blendle is a nice first try, but I want a tool that allows me to incentivise certain types of journalism – namely long form in-depth analysis and hard-core investigative journalism – whilst still helping to expose me to opinions and worldviews that differ from my own.

Despite my critiques, it is worth remembering that Blendle is the first. Not the last. There are a few others and soon there will be more, and they may yet address my issues.

Elephant in the room

The reason Blendle is needed is that Baby Boomers keep dying of old age and Millennials use ad blockers. Ten years ago, I was a strong advocate of disabling adblock for specific sites. Today, despite that fact that if everyone followed my advice I wouldn't be able to pay my mortgage, I simply cannot advise people to turn off their browser defences.

Personally, I'm not turning off my browser's defences. It isn't going to happen. I've been bitten one too many times by malvertising and other web nasties and those shields are staying very, very up.

Talking about this puts me in a difficult position. The view from the publishing side of the world is all too often that people who use ad blockers are "freetards" – freeloaders who don't care about the livelihoods of those who make content and can't suffer a little inconvenience to get free content.

I admit to feeling some of this. I work hard to learn what I need to learn in order to write the things you read. It takes time and consideration to write those things, and I am not exactly living in the lap of luxury for my efforts.

I am also a reader, and a sysadmin. Publishers too often blithely ignore the facts. Ad blockers aren't just for the lazy and the selfish. They are part of browser defence and are absolutely mandatory on today's web. There's no getting around it: advertising has been a vector for malware for far too long. The trust is comprehensively lost and it isn't coming back.

Publishers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Advertisers often demand that you use the ad networks they are familiar with. The ad networks see no percentage in ensuring clean ads. The publishers have little to no control. If they want to stay in business they need to advertise, and they need to use the advertising networks the advertisers demand.

What's more, publishers make more off the ads than they could ever convince us to pay via subscription. Even then, we're not talking about a lot of money. Just look at how many newspapers and magazines are folding every year, both online and off.

What is news worth?

The question comes back to what news is worth to us. The bonanza of free quality content will only last for another few years at most. After that there will simply be no news outlets left who are capable of funding wages out of a bottomless pit of debt. They'll fold, just like their predecessors did.

After that, what are we left with? Shock jocks and fear mongers? A cornucopia of listicles and digital fishwrappers, all masturbating ceaselessly to celebrity gossip and stories of superfoods?

I'm willing to pay $50 a month for good news. Maybe $100 if it helps bring back investigative journalism. But for that kind of money I want diversity of opinion, thought, geographic coverage…I want news. Like it was in the old days when journalism was a profession to be feared.

Today, I'm not going to get that from any one outlet. Nobody has the journalist armies of yore, nor the offices in every nook and cranny worldwide.

A post-Blendle startup might be able to put something similar together. If no one magazine can offer the breadth and depth of coverage I crave, perhaps several dozen, working together, can do so.

It can only happen if I am not alone. It can only happen if there are still others who value journalism over affirmation and confirmation bias to make a viable business out of it.

I don't know whether or not I'm alone on this or not. I don't know if publishers, their audience and the requisite startup(s) can all agree on a path forward. Blendle gives me hope that a solution might one day appear. And hope is something that, regarding this topic at least, I desperately need. ®

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