I write this watching early morning snow begin to fall in Lviv’s Ivan Franco Park, in Ukraine, a nation and people with a long and important history — but also a young democracy in the middle of a terrible and bloody war with Russia fighting for its very existence.
I am having breakfast in a few hours with my company’s newest employees and I am thinking about what I want to tell them. First, how proud I am of them and their nation and leaders and how they are bravely fighting this freedom war for all of us around the world.
I also want to talk to them about why building technology that improves advertising in the fast-growing world of streaming TV matters and is worthy of their efforts, which otherwise seem to pale in comparison with the enormous commitment and sacrifices of so many of their countrymen who are fighting at the front against the Russian invaders.
I am reminded of an event I attended earlier this week for the opening of German-based publisher Axel Springer’s Axel House in New York City, its first combined office for leadership of its now very substantial publishing presence in the U.S, which include Business Insider, Politico, eMarketer and Morning Brew.
Axel Springer’s very dynamic and editorially led CEO, Mathias Döpfner, has been outspoken for years about the critical relationship between journalism and democracy. He talks frequently about how much they need each other and how, together, they make the world better — even if they don’t get there on a neutral straight line and are not without an enormous amount of unpredictability and controversy.
I agree with Döpfner. This is something I have seen close up. Earlier in my career, I was a First Amendment lawyer for newspapers in Pennsylvania. And my wife was previously a newspaper journalist covering crime and courts in Mexico City.
True journalism not pretty or cheap
The business of true journalism is not easy. It is not pretty, nor is it cheap. But not having it is devastating. We don’t need to look further than the pandering of government controlled ‘press’ in places like China and Russia, and the mind-boggling theatre playing out these past few days in Moscow, with Tucker Carlson amplifying Putin rhetoric from a broadcast perch above the Kremlin.
Democracy depends on the pressure of its Fourth Estate to dig and report on what the government and its leaders are doing, what they are not doing, and why it matters to the people. The relationship between governments and journalists in democracies are inevitably strained from healthy tension.
Not so in autocracies. There, the governments and their leaders are the ones who pay the journalists, who control and own them.
In democracies, it is essential that journalists have financial, legal and political independence. And that is where advertising comes in.
Advertising funds journalism
Journalists’ work needs to be funded. Sometimes that comes from independently managed dedicated government funding like the BBC in England. Sometimes it is from subscription-based media, such as with surviving newspapers, magazines, subscription websites and pay TV news channels.
However, most often — and essential to the financial sustainability and independence of virtually all subscription-based news media — is financial support from advertising.
Yes, we need to thank advertising for its essential role in supporting the special partnership between journalism and democracy. Despite all the criticisms heaped on advertising, it pays the bills and emancipates journalists, publishers and broadcasters to do their jobs. Advertising frees journalists from undue influence and control from those who don’t like what they report, or who want them for propaganda rather than reporting the news.
As then U.S. President Calvin Coolidge told an assembly of the American Association of Advertising Agencies in Washington D.C. in 1926, “It seems to me probable that of all our economic life the element on which we are inclined to place too low an estimate is advertising.”
It’s not just the economic power of advertising’s support for independent journalism that is so important to free and open societies. As Coolidge further explained, “Advertising creates and changes this foundation of all popular action, public sentiment or public opinion. It is the most potent influence in adopting and changing the habits and modes of life, affecting what we eat, what we wear and the work and play of the whole Nation.”
All of us who work in advertising have important roles to play in sustaining healthy journalism and democracies. I hope that we’re up to that responsibility. I am sure my new colleagues in Ukraine are. They are truly on the front lines in the war for freedom and democracy and against oppression and tyranny. They are all too aware that it is a life-or-death fight.
Dave Morgan, a lawyer by training, is the CEO and founder of Simulmedia. He previously founded and ran both TACODA, Inc, an online advertising company that pioneered behavioural online marketing and was acquired by AOL in 2007 for $275 million, and Real Media, Inc, one of the world’s first ad serving and online ad network companies and a predecessor to 24/7 Real Media (TFSM), which was later sold to WPP for $649 million. Follow him on Twitter @davemorgannyc